Review of HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu
Pantheon, September 2010
Charles Yu repairs time machines, helps their users recover their senses (and ideally stop from spawning off a new universe) and lives outside of time. He hopes to find his father, who disappeared years before after a lifetime of disappointment. Meanwhile, his mother lives in a one hour loop (Yu couldn't afford the upgrade to 90 minutes), repeatedly having dinner with a fictional family. Yu's life takes a turn for the worse, though, when he spots himself leaving his time machine and shoots himself. Unfortunately for Yu, there's no way out. He's going to have to retrace the steps of the him who just died, ending up back in the same spot, and getting shot in exactly the same way.
Author Charles Yu does a great job exploring the feelings of the character Yu, and especially his relationship with his father. His father was very nearly a great inventor, but doomed by fate, his earnest and plodding manner, and sometimes Charles's carelessness to become a footnote to invention rather than the man who changed the world. His disappointment, however, goes far beyond his failure as an inventor. His work is unfulfilling, his marriage doesn't quite click for reasons neither he nor his wife can determine, and his son, Charles, seems compelled to strike cruely at him without really wanting to.
As he sets out on the loop that leads from his shooting to his being shot, Yu discovers a book he simultaneously reads and writes, creating a history of hismelf that may prove valuable...to the extent that anything is of value to a dead man.
Author Charles Yu does a wonderful job describing a young man's relationship with his father, and the way his perspective of that relationship has changed from his childhood to his current position of looking back on the history the two men shared. He throws in a number of comments that provide either insight or comic relief (for example, about the woman he never married, the boss who doesn't know he's a computer program, and his dog who isn't really there, either). My problem with this story is that it didn't have much story. The really interesting stuff happened in the past, with Yu working with his father on the time machine while, simultaneously destroying his father's soul. We get to see some of these key moments (that is one advantage of a time machine, after all) but only at a remove (the time traveler can observe but he can't intervene).
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to email@example.com. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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