Friday, July 8, 2011

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Charles Yu)

by Thom Dunn
I've been looking forward to reading this book since I first heard about it prior to its release last year. I was already familiar with Yu's short story collection, Third Class Superhero, and I enjoyed his dry humor, his simplistic approach to complicated scientific situations, and his complicated scientific approach to simple situations. Unfortunately, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe proved to be quite the popular book, and I had difficulty getting my hands on a copy until recently. I rarely approach a modern novel with a full year's worth of hype behind it, so I was increasingly worried about how disappointed I might feel after finally reading it.

Lucky for me, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe quite lived up to all of my expectations.

The premise of the book is absolutely delectable: Charles Yu (the character, not the author) is a time machine mechanic with a Masters degree in Applied Science Fiction. He spends most of his life in his time machine along with his non-existent dog, Ed, who was retroactively removed from continuity but, like all good dogs, still provides his master with unconditional love despite this paradox of causality. He will readily tell the long, possibly detailed story of not meeting The Woman I (he) Never Married. And so on. Charles Yu embarks on a quest to reconnect with his father, during which he accidentally shoots his own Future Self, who gives him a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is (or, more accurately, will be) written by Charles Yu (the character — wait, no, the author — oh, whatever).

That should pretty much tell me exactly what to expect from this book — ridiculous, self-referential, incredibly clever nerd humor disguised as ridiculously convoluted techno-babble. Charles Yu uses time travel as a means of exploring language, grammar, and the construction of our own memories. Don't be scared off by all the talk of Closed Timelike Curves and wormholes — even when he rambles on about technical terms you don't understand, he does so in an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek manner:

The base model TM-31 time machine runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

Or, as Mom used to say: it's a box. You get into it. You push some buttons.

In many ways, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe can be seen as a successor to Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Both tell psuedo-autobiographical stories (at least, stories initially inspired by personal histories) through the veil of time travel and other silly tropes of science fiction (fully acknowledging their own absurdities). This gives the author a chance to look at his own (fictionalized) life from the perspective of an outsider. Some of my absolute favorite parts of the story are when Charles Yu uses complex quantum physics (including some made-up psuedo-physical story terms) to discuss his relationship with his father, and the emotions that surround that relationship, as they offer a unique but undeniably sympathetic angle on the situation, something you don't often find when using technical science to explain how you're feeling.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Story: 8.0
While the basic story doesn't stray so far from the established tropes of time travel science fiction (paradoxes, timeloops of cause-and-effect, etc.), Charles Yu still manages to create a unique and distinctive fictional world, one that is fully conscious of its own fictional nature but never loses its heart. The characters and situations are as absurd as they are endearing, and almost make you wish that you could live in a science fictional universe with them. But it's the meticulous plotting of such a(n intentionally) convoluted mess that is particularly impressive; Yu manages to spin his readers into a cloud of wacky metaphysical concepts and weird science, but never gets lost himself.

Style: 9.6
Cosines, physics equations, and chronodiegetical substrates have never been so hilarious or easy to understand. Charles Yu writes with an incredibly unique voice, exploring otherwise bizarre and emotionless situations with the raw heart and wonder of a child. The humor is subtle and dry and wildly clever, but the reading feels quick and easy.

General: 9.4
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is one of the most touching and entertaining books I've read in a long time. If you like humor, read it; if you like stories about father-son relationships, read it; if you like science, read it; if you like science fiction, read it; if you like memoirs, read it. It even manages to use all of those incredibly-clever-but-not-really-anymore-because-duh tropes of metafiction (like writing the story you're reading while you are reading the story that's being written) and makes them feel fresh and enjoyable, and actually have a greater resonance in the story as a whole. While some people might be put off by its seemingly esoteric (or just plain weird) nature, give this book a chance; I don't think you'll regret it.

Overall: 9.00

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