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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

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A story of a son searching for his father . . . through quantum space–time.
Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots beckon failed protagonists, and time travel is serious business. Every day, people get into time machines and try to do the one thing they should never do: change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician—part counselor, part gadget repair man—steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls or consoling his boss, Phil, who could really use an upgrade, Yu visits his mother (stuck in a one-hour cycle of time, she makes dinner over and over and over) and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory. He learns that the key may be found in a book he got from his future self. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and he’s the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could help him—in fact it may even save his life.

233 pages, Hardcover

First published July 23, 2010

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About the author

Charles Yu

55 books1,562 followers
CHARLES YU is the author of four books, including his latest, Interior Chinatown, which won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for Le Prix Médicis étranger. He has received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, been nominated for two Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the HBO series Westworld, and has also written for shows on FX, AMC, Facebook Watch, and Adult Swim. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Wired, Time and Ploughshares. You can find him on Twitter @charles_yu.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,838 reviews
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11.2k followers
March 27, 2012
How to Live in SF Universe review
Another example of high concept literary fiction costuming itself in the tropes, set designs and jargon of genre fiction, while striving to create something unique, penetrating and memorable.

And, in this case, succeeding brilliantly.  Bravo, Mr. Yu.
While not an untrammeled success and a bit murky, at times, with its message delivery, I thought this was, overall, an exceptional achievement. I certainly thought it was a terrific contrast to what I found to be the glossy, soulless disingenuousness of Zone One. Unlike what I saw as mere hip surface shine in Zone One, Charles Yu’s story, while slickly written, is imbued with real, tangible emotion that spoke to me.
Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.
There is genuine depth here...and passion.

There is ache and humor, introspection and insight and a large doses of “please help me” floating around in the space surrounding his words. And the words themselves are elegant.
You want to tell a story? Grow a heart. Grow two. Now, with the second heart, smash the first one into bits. Gross, right? A bloody pulpy liquid mess. Look at it, try to make sense of it. Realize you can't. Because there is no sense. Ask your computer to print out a list of every lie you have ever told. Ask yourself how much of the universe you have ever really seen. Look in the mirror. Are you sure you're you? Are you sure you didn't slip out of yourself in the middle of the night, and someone else slipped into you, without you or you or any of you even noticing.
As beautiful as some of the writing is, even more impressive is the meaning, the force, the import saturating the prose.
Failure is easy to measure. Failure is an event. Harder to measure is insignificance. A nonevent. Insignificance creeps, it dawns, it gives you hope, then delusion, then one day, when you’re not looking, it’s there, at your front door, on your desk, in the mirror, or not, not any of that, it’s the lack of all that. One day, when you are looking, it’s not looking, no one is. You lie in your bed and realize that if you don’t get out of bed and into the world today, it is very likely no one will even notice.
Eye-hugging, ear-pleasing prose, heartfelt, enjoyable story-telling, and content that made me, more than once, stop to ponder its relevance in my own life.

What more could you ask for in a novel?

...oh, how about the "jealous of dad's success" son of Luke Skywalker?


When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself. 
Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.

Thus begins this quirky, clever and poignant interstellar voyage of self-discovery, self-evaluation and the building of a road map for living, not just in a science fictional universe, but in any dimensional space.

Time travel is a reality, its even become commonplace. Our main character, Charles Yu, is searching for his father, who discovered the science behind the process and has now disappeared. Charles works as a time machine repairman for a huge conglomerate, Time Warner Time. His main beat is MU-31, a discarded, uncompleted universe owned by the corporation and used for science fiction plot development and experimentation. The science fictional portions of MU-31 surround a small nucleus of what we would call “reality.” It is within this ambiguity that Charles troubleshoots for people that run into space-time continuum issues (e.g., paradoxes, time-distortions, dimensional incursions, etc..) during their time-traveling escapades.
This is what I say: I've got good news and bad news. The good news is, you don't have to worry, you can't change the past. The bad news is, you don't have to worry, no matter how hard you try, you can't change the past...The universe just doesn't put up with that. We aren't important enough. No one is. Even in our own lives. We're not strong enough, willful enough, skilled enough in chronodiegetic manipulation to be able to just accidentally change the entire course of anything, even ourselves.
Following the opening scene of temporal murder/suicide, the book unfolds mostly as a series of memories from Charles’s childhood, tied together with his present search for his father. These life vignettes seque into philosophical expositions that have, as their foundational spring board, both scientific and science fiction mainstays. The execution by Yu is this regard is, for the most art, nothing short of genius and my brain gaped at the way Yu tied laser beams, quantum physics and Han Solo into philosophical discussions of what it means to be human.

The main function of these clever, funny, science fictional strolls down memory lane and psychoanalysis is to provide a unique vehicle for exploring the shattered illusions of childhood, the failed ambitions of life, and the ruts and feedback loops people become trapped within. Further, it's designed to show how each person, in order to find their way in this universe, must come to grips with who they really are, except their baggage, and find a way break out of the boundary of their own expectations or lack thereof. “Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.” Yu’s prose is really something special and his ability to make the reader see beyond the sentence into the deeper something is a real gift.
Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, unprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.
It’s a quest for self knowledge, self awareness and self propulsion using the twisted, and very cleverly employed, clichés of science fiction.
I enjoyed this....a whole heckuva lot. I was even more impressed by it. With a few minor exceptions, each scene in the book held my interest, and Yu’s use of highly detailed science fiction and theoretical physics added a complexity that lent a real feeling of weight to the story. Yu doesn’t just throw out “time travel” and move on with it as a given. He grounds each element he employs in a description that, while obviously fictional and fabricated, soothes the suspension of disbelief enough for the reader to engage in the deeper meaning of Yu’s narrative.
He treats his source material with great respect and I admire that.
Now, couldn’t quite bring myself to give this one 5 stars, though it was right on the bubble for me. There were a few times I found myself a bit distracted with how Yu was piloting his tale, just enough that I was kept from being 100% enraptured with the narrative.

Still, that is an infinitesimal gripe in the wider picture and this is a quality effort. There are moments of severe emotion and insight into the human condition that I found Yu to handle remarkably well.

A fresh, original story that uses the modus operandi of science fiction to outstanding effect, and does so with a respectful warmth that distinguishes it from the feeling of “slumming” that often seeps through when a “literary fiction” author writes genre. Rest assured, there is no pompous windbaggery here.  

I’m going to end with the following quote about the nature of time that I found wonderfully crafted.
Time isn't an orderly stream. Time isn't a placid lake recording each of our ripples. Time is viscous. Time is a massive flow. It is a self-healing substance, which is to say, almost everything will be lost. We're too slight, to inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about. Time is an ocean of inertia, drowning out the small vibrations, absorbing the slosh and churn, the foam and wash, and we're up here, flapping and slapping and just generally spazzing out, and sure, there's a little splashing on the surface, but that doesn't even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us.
4.0 to 4.5 stars. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,974 followers
December 22, 2010
If anyone is ever crazy enough to make a movie version of this, they better hire Charlie Kaufman to do the adapted screenplay. Even he would probably be left scratching his head and saying, “What the hell??”

Trying to summarize this is going to be like trying to explain Inception to someone who has never had a dream or seen a movie. Essentially, it’s a science fictional universe where time travel is possible. Fiction and reality have blended together so that you may run into Luke Skywalker’s son or know someone who works on the Death Star, yet the Star Wars movies are still somehow movies. Confused yet?

Charles Yu is a time travel technician who has spent ten years living in his own time machine set in a stasis mode. (Notice that the author’s name is also Charles Yu.) He has aged and still gets and answers service calls, but he has existed outside of the normal time flow. His only companions are TAMMY, a computer operating system that suffers from low self-esteem, and Ed, a dog he saved from being retconned out of a western. He’s like a more anti-social version of Doctor Who.

Charles spends his work time assisting people who have screwed up their time machines by trying to change their own pasts. He uses his free time to brood about his lost father, an engineer who had invented his own form of time travel. When Charles makes an error, he finds himself stuck in a time loop where his only clue is a book that he is both reading and writing at the same time.

The whole concept of time travel is presented as a weird form of narrative that’s based on English grammar rules. Or something like that. Hell, I think I had a mild stroke trying to figure this out.

It’s original and funny at times. The stuff with Charles’ memories of his father and his preference to spend years in a time machine rather than move forward with his life are sad and touching. However, this ended up being a book that I wanted to like more than I actually liked it.

My main issue is that Charles Yu arranged a big Homecoming Metafiction Parade down Metafiction Avenue, and he’s the Metafiction Parade Marshal waving to us from his big Metafiction Float just in front of the Metafiction Show Horses who will take a big steaming Metafiction Dump right in the street in front of us.

I get it, Charles. You wrote a book with a bonkers sci-fi concept so you could tell us about your daddy issues in the guise of a time traveler who is creating a sci-fi book as he’s living it.

I would have liked it more if he would have spent a bit more time telling us about the science fictional universe, and a little less time showing us how clever he was being. Not a bad book, but a little more story and a little less showing off would have suited me better.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,978 reviews1,989 followers
August 22, 2017
Rating: 0.125* of five

The Publisher Says: National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award winner Charles Yu delivers his debut novel, a razor-sharp, ridiculously funny, and utterly touching story of a son searching for his father . . . through quantum space–time.

Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots beckon failed protagonists, and time travel is serious business. Every day, people get into time machines and try to do the one thing they should never do: change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician—part counselor, part gadget repair man—steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls or consoling his boss, Phil, who could really use an upgrade, Yu visits his mother (stuck in a one-hour cycle of time, she makes dinner over and over and over) and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory. He learns that the key may be found in a book he got from his future self. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and he’s the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could help him—in fact it may even save his life.

Wildly new and adventurous, Yu’s debut is certain to send shock waves of wonder through literary space–time.

My Review: I have no bloody idea what this, this hideous waste of a perfectly good tree is about. If anything. Turgid, awkward sentences meander about in a time traveling machine, doing nothing to illuminate a plot that I could discern through the fog of irritated disdain that began to enshroud me on p2.

DO NOT READ IT. No one on Planet Earth could conceivably be geeky enough to want to read this. It is ungainly in its lineaments and sounds like what would happen if you gave Stephen Hawking a big dose of ketamine and stood back to watch.

Profile Image for Amy.
686 reviews145 followers
August 31, 2010
There went 237 pages of my life that I'll never get back. Luckily, I don't live in a science fictional universe. I was really expecting something great with all the hype. And the premise of the book surely had promise.

Unfortunately, this is mainly a book where nothing much happens... *SPOILERS (to the THREE things that happen in the book) to follow!* Even the girl he never marries and his time-traveling dog companion aren't real. In fact, the only thing that happens to the time machine repairman who is the first-person narrator of the story is that he shoots his time-traveling self in the stomach, finds the book his time-traveling self wrote, and brings his dad home from being lost in time. Oh no! I've just now given away the only things that actually HAPPEN in the book. Please forgive my insensitivity to your need for something to happen in a book beyond the musings in a character's mind.

I have no problem with reading books that mainly take place in a character's mind, but this one is ridiculous in its ability to say nothing for 50 pages at a time. The author manages to explain the time machine and time travel without actually ever saying anything other than equating it with the time tenses of grammar and explaining that it's all in your head. Wait. What? Was that the point? Is this guy really just time traveling in his head this whole time inside a box that really goes nowhere? If you really want to know you're welcome to waste 237 pages of your life to find out. Some people apparently liked this book. Unfortunately, I have a suspicion that they like the book because it's the trendy book to like this month in certain geek circles.

Note: While I critique both purchased and free books in the same way, I'm legally obligated to tell you I received this book free through the Amazon Vine program in return for my review. Blah blah blah.
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews664 followers
May 19, 2014
I wanted to like this book a great deal more than I did. I wanted to be moved. But in the end, it left me a little cold.

I enjoyed the premise, the set up, the notion of living already in a science fictional universe where, at certain points, the reality ratio went up, but at others, significantly down. I liked the idea of born Protagonists, and what happens to all the poor Joes in a science fictional universe who live in the background of the stories, and keep things running. Except these things were alluded to, once or twice, but never developed.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
552 reviews167 followers
May 31, 2019
This book is a five-star idea with a three-star execution, so I've decided to average it out to 4 stars overall. Despite the plot's faults (it rushes a bit here, it drags a bit there, it's sometimes metaphorical and sometimes technical and can't seem to decide if it wants to be hyper-detailed or gloss over the science of time travel and ends up doing both unsatisfactorily) this one really made me FEEL more than other contemporary sci-fi. The mood is achingly heartbreaking, the tone is celebratory and nostalgic, and the sum of this one is much, much greater than its parts.
Profile Image for Frankh.
845 reviews164 followers
October 8, 2017
Enter the following data:

META (search for definition)
SCIENCE FICTION (search for definition)
TIME TRAVEL (search for definition)

Trajectory locked.

To find the only way to exit a time loop, please refer to Appendix A of this manual (How To Live Safely Inside a Science Fictional Universe)


When it happens, this is what happens: By reading Charles Yu's incomparably original work of fiction, I'm realizing, have realized and will have realized that I've lived and I am still living inside a box that travels backwards in time when I'm supposed to propel myself forward into the unknown future of my own makings.

We are all time machines, he claims, but most people's machines are broken that they get stuck or get looped or get trapped. Our greatest anxiety is the box we live inside of--everyone's personal TARDIS, if you may--and it's something we use to evade the present, re-create the past, and deal with the future. We are required to move ahead and yet more often than not we stay in a standstill, reliving memories and regret as if their tune is all we are and what we can only afford to look forward to.

In this inexhaustibly consistent yet still beguilingly self-referential novel is where we meet Charles Yu--a character you may or may not interchange with the author--who is a thirty-something time machine repairman working in Minor Universe 31 whose inhabitants tend to get a little loose with time traveling and get themselves in a pickle all the time. Yu only has two sustainable personal relationships with: TAMMY (his vehicle to travel in time), and Ed (a fictional space-dog of a sidekick).

One day he encounters a future version of himself and shoots it dead. Literally running in a loop where all points in his timeline converse and diverse before his eyes, Charles also has to find his father, a failed time-travel theorist who might as well fell in a black hole after he just disappeared with no rhyme or reason, and only a book which Yu himself has written in the future entitled How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the key to unravel it all.

With both unyielding clarity and stupendous lack of linear direction, this book serves more as a commentary of the science fiction genre and its conventions, particularly the literary approach to the time paradox, as well as the rudimentary themes of existential crisis, quest for autonomy, and both the illusion and victory of choice. Most critics have even compared it to Douglas Thomas' Hitchhiker series fused with Philip K. Dick's emphatic literary sensibilities, and yet Charles Yu's scintillating book stands apart and all on its own.

"Most people I know live their lives in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward."

I will attempt to explain why this book can possibly change your life if you're willing to see past through the heavy-laden self-referential flow of the narrative because underneath that seemingly impenetrable exterior is a story so rife with meaningful insights on human connections and the pursuit of happiness all the while paying respects to what the science fiction genre as a whole contributes to our goals of self-fulfillment and progression. I would caution, though, that this is never going to be for everyone; its writing is eloquently paradoxical, and unmistakably a taste only a few might acquire; and those that would will delight in its essence.

I've recommended this book to a close friend of mine who shares my affinity with the NBC-now-Yahoo-sponsored show, Community. Created by Dan Harmon, a showrunner as equally kooky as his own creation, Community is a tremendously meta and experimental basketcase of a situational comedy series that continues to push even its own envelope and has just wrapped up its sixth season earlier this week. Its unique approach to comedy and storytelling is what made it endearing to its fans that the show acquired a cult following whose passion an outsider can never truly understand unless he joins the circle for himself. Much like said show, Charles Yu's novel operates in the same level of manic disregard for what is conventional and safe in telling a story. This two-hundred and thirty-nine paged paperback is INSANE.

Even though it's fairly written in an understandable contemporary language and style, the conceptual narrative framework can still be alienating to a certain extent since it's mostly an open discussion on the theorems and mechanics through philosophical ramblings of the character as the author, and the author as the character. This novel essentially reads like the kind of conversation you will have with yourself if you're someone who is too self-aware for your own good. It breaks itself apart. It questions even the act of asking a question. It carves itself a special place in the universe where only it can make sense both its own state of being and non-existence. It's quite difficult to get across just how incredibly complex and frustratingly clever this book is. Whatever I type in the review will forever pale in comparison of what the novel itself actually offers the readers, and that is a chance to interrogate oneself in a manner that I can only akin to not only breaking the fourth wall of the plane of reality but hammering it into a shape both familiar and unrecognizable.

"Time isn't a placid lake, recording our ripples...we are too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about..sure, there's a little bit of splashing up the surface but that doesn't even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us."

As a self-referential ode to science fiction conventions, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a self-sustaining metaphor of the genre and formula of writing science fiction itself while also making snide or glib commentary upon itself while it's busy outlining the time paradox via a bittersweet personal experience of the lead character he succinctly and quite pitifully termed as the 'father-son-axis'. In a shallow surface, this is an autobiographical search for family and identity; on another level it's a pastiche of humanity's fascination for the concept of time travel; and resting on another layer of that is a symphonic composition that poignantly captures how human beings are their own time machines after all.

We are highly intelligent species with an acute sense of time and therefore we are always able to create and define what is past and future while also simultaneously, laughably and heart-breakingly unable to LIVE IN THE PRESENT which is more elastic than we ever realize. We mourn the past; we are eager to discover the future. But we never really enjoy what we are and who we are in the present.

As Charles Yu's insightful manual claims: "Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine."

What is about time travel that a lot of us are so smitten by and curious of? Isn't it the uncanny ability to be able to pass through our lives as observers, to re-live our moments of defeat and regret, hoping we can somehow change what happened so it can dictate what will happen next? Being able to time-travel means we might be able to rewrite what has already been read and discarded; worn-out stories that we've desperately clung to because we believe they're the only truths we must preserve in order to live another day. Yu's novel forces us to examine these beliefs, to really dissect why we remain stuck in our time machines, going over events as oppose to creating new ones.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of us--like me--would rather SKIP AHEAD .

Right after finishing the book, I realized that I've been caught in a time loop myself. We all have been everytime we get caught somewhere between mourning of what was behind us and daydreaming about what lies ahead. And I for one have this tendency to wish I can fast-forward to my life--ten or twenty years to the future. That's why I like reading science fiction. It appeals to my wish fulfillment of envisioning a made-up future without having to do the work in the present.

Hell, while midway through a good book, I would cheat and LOOK AT THE LAST PAGE. And I did the same thing with Yu's novel and you know what I got in the end?

An empty page with this note:

[This page is intentionally left blank]

I didn't get its significance until I finished the entire novel itself. That's when it hit me--this self-annihilating habit of mine to try and hurry up the steady pace of my life just so I can get over both the small and the big stuff--it's how I keep getting trapped. Upon having that very epiphany now that I'm staring at that said last page of this book for the second time, I actually teared up a little bit. It seemed inconsequential at the moment but contextualizing it with the overall pattern in how I live my life, I realized what a damaged fool I have been.

So this is what Charles Yu, ultimately, wants to say to himself and to us with his book:

"Find the book you wrote, and read it until the end, but don't turn the last page yet, keep stalling, see how long you can keep expanding the infinitely expandable moment. Enjoy the elastic present, which can accommodate as little as much as you want to put in there. Stretch it out, LIVE INSIDE IT."



Profile Image for nostalgebraist.
Author 4 books456 followers
September 4, 2012
Nope. Sorry, Charles Yu. But just -- nope. This doesn't work.

The world in which this novel takes place differs from ours in two key respects:

1) Humanity has discovered (though it is not made clear when this discovery was made, or by whom) that the fundamental laws of physics are actually the laws of narrative -- specifically, of science fictional narrative. The book's reality is a vast multiverse in which individual universes, and parts of universes, behave like stories from different sub-genres of science fiction. This can all be described quantitatively. It is possible to quantify the extent to which an given person is a "protagonist" or a "hero," for instance. The worlds described in existing science fiction stories, such as Star Wars, actually exist and can be travelled to.

2) Time travel is possible.

At first glance, it would seem that 1 is far more interesting than 2. (2 is, after all, just a simple consequence -- one consequence among many -- of 1, since time travel stories are a certain type of science fiction.) But Yu's book focuses almost exclusively on 2, using the setting provided by 1 mostly for one-off jokes and quips. As we will see, this fact exemplifies the book's fundamental flaw.

Yu's narrator, also named Charles Yu, is a melancholy time machine repairman. He misses his father, with whom he had a close but strained relationship. His father, a pioneer in the science of time travel, got lost somewhere in the wilds of space-time, possibly on purpose. Yu-the-narrator lives in his time machine, drifting in some null space waiting for service calls, playing with his dog Ed (who was "retconned" from a space serial) and nursing a crush on his operating system's AI persona, TAMMY. The plot is set into motion (in a sense) when Yu encounters his future self emerging from his (the future self's) time machine and, acting on impulse, shoots him (his future self). This, of course, sets up a time loop, and Yu is left wondering how he will end up emerging from that time machine (given that he knows he's facing death by doing so), and whether the shooting -- which has already occurred -- can somehow nonetheless be averted.

It sounds like a cute, clever story, doesn't it? And in some ways it is. But it's crippled by a vast miscalculation of tone that made it, at least for me, very irritating to read. The basic problem is that, although the protagonist lives in a mind-bendingly different world, Yu is intent on telling a conventional story of hipster melancholy, father-son emotional dynamics, and self-discovery. Indeed, Yu actively flaunts the sharp division between his "human" story and his science-fictional conceits. The protagonist's memories of his father, and his attitudes toward life in general, are resolutely early-21st-century real-world American in flavor. Bizarrely, there is no sense that the discovery that the world is a bunch of interlocking stories obeying "the laws of science fiction" has made any impact on the way humans relate to each other. Yu's narrator lives in a world in which statements like the following ones are simple statements of fact:

Reality represents 13 percent of the total surface area and 17 percent of the total volume of Minor Universe 31. The remainder consists of a standard composite base SF substrate.

Inhabitants of Universe 31 are separated into two categories, protagonists and back office.

Protagonists may choose from any available genre. Currently there are openings in steampunk.

In order to qualify as a protagonist, a human must be able to demonstrate an attachment coefficient of at least 0.75. A coefficient of 1.00 or above is required in order to be a hero.

If the world could actually be described in these terms, wouldn't everything be different -- including father-son relationships? If it were to actually occur, the discovery of the narrative nature of reality would revolutionize both physics and psychology -- it would in fact be the greatest paradigm shift ever to have happened in each of those fields. It would fundamentally change the way we see ourselves, our role in the cosmos, our relationships to one another.

"Now wait a moment, Rob," you may want to say. "Yu's book sounds like a comedy, if a comedy with an emotional core. Isn't all that stuff about science fiction just a bunch of jokes? You can't blame Yu if he doesn't want to seriously work out the implications of his punchlines. There's such a thing as being lighthearted."

Now you, hypothetical reader, are absolutely right that Yu uses his setting mostly as a source of punchlines. Most of the time we get any explicit details about the science fictional multiverse, they're things like this:

My cousin is in accounts receivable on the Death Star, and whenever we talk he always says how nice it'd be if I joined him. He says they have a good cafeteria. So that's an option.

Ha ha! See, if cheesy space operas were really real, people would, like, have boring jobs, and say bland grown-up phrases like "so that's an option," and stuff. Oh Charles, how wryly you wreathe together the fantastical and the mundane! Of course it should come as no surprise that the cousin, and the Death Star, never come up again. This isn't worldbuilding -- it's stand-up comedy.

Which would all be fine if this were a more raucous, more committed comedy. But Yu wants to tell a human story and portray a person's actual consciousness in a convincing way. And his jokeyness just absolutely screws up his chances there. Because the reader is faced with a horrible problem: it is impossible to imagine what it would actually be like to live in the book's world. Of course Yu tells us what it's like, but it's not convincing, because his narrator seems exactly like a likable loser from the U.S. in 2010 AD. And we feel that being a likable loser -- being anything, in fact -- would be very different in a world in which "my cousin is in accounts receivable on the Death Star" could be a bald statement of fact.

What would it be like to find out that science fiction was real, and that reality was science fiction? What would it really be like? It would be terrifying, for one thing. Terrifying, and awe-inspiring, and filled with new opportunities barely possible to imagine, and also with the potential for crushing irony and triviality. (Imagine, for instance, the humiliation of not just living an unhappy life, but living an unhappy life knowing that you live in a bad work of fiction.) Among many other things, such an existence would be frequently hilarious. This is one reason why it's not, in the end, right to complain that I want to take Yu's premise "too seriously." Comedy is all about taking things seriously, because absurd things are funnier when you feel like they're really happening. Did you notice something else about that "Death Star" line? Did you notice that it wasn't all that funny? Cute, maybe. The kind of line that makes you nod your head and say, "okay, good one." But not the kind of line that makes you laugh so hard you feel like you're having some kind of potentially fatal chest spasm. For me, anyway, humor of the latter type usually comes not from mere absurdity but from absurdity as experienced by a real, reflective, self-aware human consciousness. What's funny isn't the phrase "my cousin is in accounts receivable on the Death Star," but the experience of a real person having to live in a world in which that is actually true -- a person who knows, as you or I would, just how stupid a concept that is, and who still has to live with it anyway. So the light touch with which Yu treats his setting is not excused by his comedic goals, because this is the kind of material that's funnier if you take it seriously.

But anyway. Yu wants you to really care about his protagonist and about that guy's relationship with his father. The problem is that it is impossible to believe in that relationship because it does not seem to be affected by its surroundings. It hovers in some blank imagined America, the supposed Platonic story of father and son, separated from culture and technology and all of that extraneous stuff. (Yu practically screams at you that he's making this distinction, by treating the father-son stuff seriously while turning the setting into a bunch of jokes.) Whose worldview is this, in which "human feeling" is this free-floating, timeless thing that exists unchanged even in the wildest corners of "science fictional universes"? I'll tell you: it's the worldview of someone who doesn't understand science fiction.

Science fiction says: you can't separate your human story from your culture-and-science-and-technology story, because those things affect humans, and the effects they have are interesting. Science fiction says: there is no such thing as the Platonic father-and-son story; there are many different father-and-son stories, some very different from others, all results of the interaction between the biological makeup of humans and the many different cultural, economic, and technological situations in which we can find ourselves. (To take a relatively mild example, the book's Charles Yu lives through a conventional American adolescence, still living at home and viewing himself as essentially a non-adult at age 16. In some cultures, he would have been considered an adult, on par with his father, at a much earlier age. The stories of those cultures are less familiar, but no less human.) Science fiction says: if we search for "human feeling" and ignore the details and particulars of our material existence, we're never going to find what we're looking for. If you can't imagine what it's like for someone to look for a job ("my cousin is in accounts receivable on the Death Star"), then it becomes harder to understand his deepest relationships. Details matter, setting matters, culture and technology matter. You, who may never have met me and may live across the globe from me, are using your glowing box to read this thing I wrote on my glowing box -- an interaction that would have seemed like a fantastical dream 100 years ago. That is not nothing.

Why am I so damn serious about this silly, knowingly silly book? I don't know. It wasn't terrible, and I can't say I didn't enjoy parts of it. But something about Yu's implicit attitudes toward his creation irks me. I think this may be the most anti-science-fictional science fiction novel I've ever read. Maybe that's the point. But maybe it's not, and that's unnerving.

And Yu's writing absolutely drips with the sense that he's trying to combine cold reason and human emotion, something that grows more and more grating in light of his continual failure to realize that the two are not opposed in the way he thinks. The book abounds with sentences like:

The volumetric integral of the function defined by the loop represents the maximum amount of life that CY-1 can have, including joy and pain.

What is the purpose of adding "including joy and pain"? He's talking about someone's lifespan, and of course that includes everything they can experience, joy and pain being two essentially arbitrary examples of the general principle. The only point of including those four words is so that Yu can have written a sentence that includes both the phrases "volumetric integral" and "joy and pain." Look at him, juxtaposing reason and emotion! There is supposed to be something here about the ways in which science and life interact through technology. But there isn't anything there because none of this feels like it's coming out of an authentic human consciousness. There are no people in this book.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 9 books50 followers
September 14, 2010
This book, which I misunderstood as something I might enjoy as light bedtime reading, is perhaps the most original work I've read in the last year. It has the same new-ground-is-broken-here feel that Abigail Thomas's "Safekeeping" or Dinty Moore's "Between Panic and Desire" have; not only is the story good, but the prose is new and changes the way it's possible for us to think about narrative itself.

It's experimental, but it's also a very accessible book. And, at it's heart, it's a very human, very poignant story of fathers, sons, and what it means to be male in a time and place very much like--but not quite--our own. If you let it, this book can break your heart.
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
412 reviews2,221 followers
March 27, 2022
What’s frustrating is that the setup is so clever, so thoroughly unique, and promised so much, and then the narrative completely loses its way halfway through, and never regains its composure. What’s frustrating is that this was a good book, even a terrific book, and then suddenly it wasn’t. What’s frustrating is that it had so much potential that it squandered so completely. What’s frustrating is that the majority of the second half of the book keeps saying the same things over and over and over again, in ever so slightly different ways, with lots, of, unnecessary, commas, just sort of drawing it out as long as it can, kind of like this review.

What’s frustrating is that there was a story that was setup very well, it would’ve been amazing, and then it disappeared halfway through, replaced by a lesser story, and the mother of all Deus Ex Machina endings. What’s frustrating is the concept — using a lexicon so full of interesting, fun science fictional words combining, quite literally, ’scientific’ and ‘fiction writing’ terms relating to time and narrative, chronology and character, examining the ideas of creating worlds and traveling via the process of creating, writing, crafting a narrative, grammatical choices etc — is such a good concept, and then it’s ironically wasted precisely through the misuse of those same tools on a practical level: narrative, chronology, character, etc.

What’s frustrating is that I get what the author was trying to do, but in my opinion, it didn’t happen. The book he was trying to write is not this book. It’s absolutely clever, and post-modern/self-aware as hell, and I love all of that. The character is aware they’re in a fictional world, aware of other fictional worlds, this universe the author created had so much potential for amazing things, and then none of them happen. Lots of setup, no payoff.

All that being said, the strengths of the first quarter of this novel, make me think that I might really enjoy Charles Yu’s short fiction, so I’ve picked up his first collection (on my own conflicted recommendation).

This book could’ve been amazing, instead it's just really good.
Profile Image for Kevin.
69 reviews8 followers
March 20, 2012
The NYTimes blurb compares Yu to Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick, which is like telling me the book is made of chocolate that cures cancer. So far I think Yu hovers closer to the Dick pole than the Adams (yes, I just wrote "Dick pole"), and his use of himself as a fictional character attempting to sort his human identity from his fictive one reminds me of Martin Amis or Paul Auster. Yet I think the pomo fiction conceit works better here than with those more "realistic" authors; science fiction narrative acts as language, as setting, as a commodity, as a kind of physics. The author creates himself in the process of creating. This creates a few paradoxes that the author-character has to sort out. I'm smack in the middle of the thing, so I'm eager to see how it all turns out.
Profile Image for Skye Kilaen.
Author 14 books319 followers
October 16, 2020
Goodreads is telling me I read this reality-bending time-travel sci-fi novel at the beginning of 2019 but it does *not* seem that long ago. It doesn't seem to be everyone's cup of tea judging from the reviews, but I found the mix of emotion, humor, quantum physics, and insistence on the importance of story so compelling. Really touching, and a kind of quirky that totally worked for me.

(Someday I'm gonna get to the bottom of my "need to review on Goodreads" queue. Someday.)
Profile Image for Philip.
1,441 reviews75 followers
October 9, 2021
The problem here may be more me than Yu (sorry - couldn't help it), but this was just way too literary for my plebeian SF tastes. This book was WRITING! the way Jon Lovitz's "The Thespian" character on SNL was all about ACTING!; and so yeah, bit of a slog, especially the second half where our narrator (also named Charles Yu) is stuck in a time loop looking for his dad. In fact, I started feeling like I was stuck in a loop myself, as vast swatches of run-on sentences started feeling like I'd already read them before.

And so while there were occasional witty snippets like:

My cousin is in accounts receivable on the Death Star, and whenever we talk he always says how nice it'd be if I joined him. He says they have a nice cafeteria. So that's an option.

...there was way more of this:

If instead of looking forward or back, we could do the opposite, we could see from the outside looking in, from all sides, if we could only look inward, into the black box of Right Now, if I could get him to do that, he would understand, he would know what I know, which is that it's not necessarily going to be okay, in fact, it probably won't.

And that's just a random, relatively short sample. The blurbs on the back say this is a "hilarious...tremendously clever...very funny...marvelously entertaining..." story about a time machine repairman flying around the universe in a Tardis-like closet. But that mainly confirms my long-held belief that such blurbers never read the whole book, because all (i.e., both) the "hilarious" bits about the Death Star and Luke Skywalker's son Linus are in the first 30 pages - after which it's a whole lotta

What saves this from 2 stars is the fact that the long stretch where Charles is looking for his dad and revisiting his childhood are indeed touching, (even though they make this a totally different story than what I was lead to expect). Plus, I really like this one stand-alone comment, which takes up the whole of page 211:

At some point in your life, this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever.

I picked this up after reading some very positive reviews for Yu's new book, Interior Chinatown, which our library didn't have yet. Chinatown got a much higher score than Universe, so may still give it a try - but not until I've got a number of other, better books under my belt.
Profile Image for Sandi.
510 reviews279 followers
January 6, 2011
You will notice that I do not have this book on my sci-fi shelf. It's quite clear from the beginning that How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is not science fiction. Rather, it's a book about literature, life and the blurring between them. It kind of reminds me of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series without the wacky humor.

To be honest, this book made my head hurt. It uses big invented words. Your first clue that Yu's time machine is literature because it uses grammatical something-or-another and you live in present-tense and visit past-tense. It seems that one is not supposed to step out of a time machine in past tense, but view the past through a window. I got no indication that one could travel to the future.

I still haven't decided how I feel about this book. It's good, but if you're looking for a science fiction time-travel novel, skip this one.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
977 reviews1,221 followers
August 22, 2017
I've no longer any idea what I expected of this book when I added it to 'to-read' back in January 2012, a few months after joining GR. But I can say that it's way out of place on the lists of SF comedy novels where I saw it recently. And perhaps that's why the book has comparatively low ratings: it's been marketed all wrong and quite a lot of readers are disappointed.

It does have a few funny/silly moments, but overall this is a melancholic book, and one that has most context among films, rather than other novels I know. There is a kind of stealthy subgenre of indie(ish) SF films and series about depressive, lonely / solitary geeks and nerds, often with an atmosphere that evokes the numbness and/or claustrophobia of the lead character's existence - Pi, Moon and Mr Robot are among those I've seen all or part of quite recently - and How To Live Safely... feels like another from the same stable. Its book-about-a-book metaness, combined with the character's lack of success, also added a dash of Adaptation to the mix. And the central time travel plot concept is a whole lot like Looper (a movie released the same year as this novel).

It also has a social / class dimension: in this present world where geeks have supposedly inherited the earth, there are still those who have not: the guys who didn't become rockstar programmers; who had the wrong combination of life chances and because they weren't gifted with the bootstraps personality everyone's expected to have now, landed worse jobs than The IT Crowd. They are commonly mocked in popular culture, and now stereotyped as easy meat puppets for alt right recruitment. Charles Yu's apparently eponymous protagonist - the not especially talented son of a more talented, but still depressive, unlucky and self-effacing cubicle engineer and amateur inventor - who works as a time machine repair technician (but who surely would have done better had his parents been better off) humanises and gives a reflective sophistication to a type of person whom the media likes to imply lacks these qualities, although most people have probably met tech nerds who are basically sweet, decent, somewhat socially awkward people. During the SJW outcry that all we ever heard from online were male geeks with chips on their shoulders, somewhere along the line, a big category of people got dehumanised as the scales tipped. Although, of course, this book is, crucially for that axis, not white: it's quite subtly about being a second generation immigrant and what it's like when your parents - the narrator's relationship with his father is a big part of the novel - don't have the right cultural capital and nous (which can be cultural and/ or personality) to get you 'in', that mysterious 'in' which it feels like others have, and the sense of apartness provoked by having a different history from those around you. The protagonist's loneliness is pervasive enough that readers who feel worse surrounded by realist characters who have more of 'a life' than they do will find almost nothing to bother them here.

I'd be interested to see what maths & physics types have made of the 'fictional science' in here. It has a density normally associated with hard SF and, according to the acknowledgements, owes quite a bit to the work of David Deutsch.

Yet the high ratio of emotional-reflective content to sci-fi action - and the sophisticated vocab in which this reflection is expressed, just about preventing it being cheesy, as the same sentiments in simpler language would certainly have been at times (Richard Powers is acknowledged at the end too, and this blend of science, sentiment and literature does feel like the work of an aspiring apprentice to his style) - make this an unusual hybrid of litfic and SF (not really the usual 'literary science fiction'), neither fish nor fowl, about the inner life of one whom the lit world is generally uninterested in, and I'm not surprised that this is one of those books which has confounded a fair number of readers.
Profile Image for Aldrin.
56 reviews252 followers
August 6, 2015
With his nonexistent canine sidekick, his clinically depressed personal digital assistant, and his daddy issues constantly in tow, time machine repairman Charles Yu attempts to navigate the future meta-science-fictional Minor Universe 31 in this dizzingly crafty novel written by present-day, happily-married-with-two-kids Charles Yu. Naturally, along the way the fictional Charles Yu stumbles upon a guide book titled “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.” Don't panic: “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” the novel, is genuinely respectful of the legacy of the great Douglas Adams, even as its protagonist seems intent on seeking an answer, other than 42, to life, the universe, and everything.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,954 reviews1,292 followers
February 19, 2018
Time travel: tricky stuff. Meta-fiction: tricky stuff. Combining time travel and meta-fiction? Extremely tricky stuff. Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe aims high by doing just this. I read it at a time when I was precisely in the mood for this kind of timey-wimey, universe-bending confusion of a narrative, so that was a point in its favour. And by and large I think Yu manages to pull it off, though it’s lacking a certain something that might have pushed it to the next level—likeable (or simply less cardboard) protagonist, more clearly defined conflict/antagonist, or more tense worldbuilding—pick one.

Charles Yu is a time travel technician in Minor Universe 31. He lives, sleeps, etc., in a TM-31 (coincidence?) pod thing that lets him travel through time. His job is to rescue people whose time machines have broken down or, more often, intercede when they try to do something stupid like alter their own timeline. All the while, Yu narrates for us his own feelings about his relatively mediocre existence, laments the loss of his father (who kind of invented time travel but then disappeared, like fathers do), and shoots his future self.

That’s when the shit gets weird. See, his future self has a book on him, called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe … and it’s this very book. So there’s a page or three where the book talks about Yu reading that the book talks about Yu reading that the … well, you get it. It’s kind of like that moment in Spaceballs where they check the tape.

I love self-referential stories, provided they do it right. This is a tight rope: too self-referential and the story becomes confusing, circular, and boring; not self-referential enough and it becomes a meaningless, minor gag. Yu walks the tight rope by including the book within the universe of the story, making it a kind of guidebook and part of the mystery that he has to solve before his “time” runs out and his worldline loops back on itself. I read this following on from Sophie’s World , which also does meta-fiction well, but in a very different way.

Similarly, I like how Yu deploys time travel here. Actually, there isn’t that much time travel. It’s just kind of part of the setting. Obviously the main plot wouldn’t exist without it. Beyond that, however, this is a fairly linear story about a guy who shoots his future self, and his quest to find his father.

I think that’s where How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe starts to lose me. The whole conflict of Yu missing his father, wanting to find him again, and reliving memories of the past for our benefit … it’s just a little clichéd at this point. How many more stories about sons feeling like they never measured up to their fathers, wanting to reconcile, needing to find where they’ve hidden/lost themselves within a temporal universe, do we really need?

The same can be said for Yu himself, as a narrator and protagonist. It’s not that he’s a bad guy, but he isn’t exactly likeable either. He’s just your average sort of everydude protagonist of any nerdish comedy: can’t get a “real” woman so falls in love with his feminine computer instead, resigned to a life of mediocrity because he can’t be bothered to do anything else, etc. As with the father–son plot, it’s not that his is poorly done, just an example of a larger trope that is overdone.

So I’m left with a book that I enjoyed reading but whose contents are not, in my opinion, all that stellar. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe has its fun moments; it’s just that unlike Charles Yu’s own narrative, the story itself never escapes the boundaries of its own tropes to blossom into its own, intriguing universe. This was a nice enough pit stop in between a very dry, academic book and an Animorphs read, but it’s not something I’m going to be remembering for a long time.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Space.
224 reviews20 followers
April 10, 2013
What did I think? You know, I don't really know. I mean it's hard to know what to think. I know it wasn't great. Well, in fact, it wasn't even good. It was a very laborious read. Mr. Yu would go on long-winded multi-page introspective narratives, telling us the same thing in four hundred different ways. "This was it. This was the end. It was no longer the beginning. It was not the middle, and not after the end, but it was that point that comes at the finale of any event. Sometimes people call it the finish line. But it was most definitely the end." And so on.

I got so tired of all those expositions I finally started skimming to get to the real meat of the story. And the problem with this book is that the real meat of the story doesn't really make any sense. Okay, so he's calling this reality we live in a science-fiction universe. :what: Why? I never quite made that connection. I guess he's saying we can look into the past but cannot change it, and since we can really only change the present, it's science fiction. Or something. And yeah, that whole bit where he says he worked on the Death Star. And worked for Darth Vader. And took a job for L. Skywalker. L being Linus, Luke's son...

Listen. You just don't do that shit, okay? Unless this is labeled a Star Wars book, like another one of the three hundred-some ridiculous episodes of some story that should have died decades ago. Seriously? How is Star Wars, its characters or its universe even relevant still? It's like these people who are so attached to it they live their lives pretending it's real. And that it means something to know what Luke's son's name is. And what planet he was born on. Seriously. Who gives a shit, okay? And throwing it into your book doesn't make you cool, or funny, or - well, nothing. It really just made me feel embarrassed and sad for you. Because you were going for comedy - I guess - and what you ended up with was a Star Wars reference that was out of place and uncomfortable. Like the wrong hole in the back of a Volkswagen.

Moving on, the story really never went anywhere. It wasn't good. It didn't make hardly any sense. There were no grand revelations or resolutions. There was no fancy twist-ending. There were no moral lessons to be learned. He didn't finally solve the not-so-grand problem he'd been fighting with for a third of his life. It really, all said and done, just ended up being sort of a waste of time. Like the way you feel when someone tells you that your nose is bloody. You wipe it on the back of your hand, say, "eh," and go on about your day.
Profile Image for seak.
434 reviews473 followers
February 1, 2011
When I first heard of this book and even after the first couple pages, I thought, don't we already have The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Not so, not so.

I'm really glad my first impressions were wrong because How to Live Safely Blah Blah Blah is a book that's much different and entirely it's own awesome experience. Hilarious at times, nerdy at others, fun, entertaining, with some clever ideas, How to Live Safely is a book of introspection and introduces the serious theme of making something of yourself rather than waiting for that day to come.

The protagonist is Charles Yu himself as he deals with the very real theories of time travel. Charles has a dysfunctional family, as many of us do, and much of the narrative focuses and their relationship, which I'm guessing isn't too far off from the truth.

EDIT: I forgot to mention this when I first posted this. Maybe it was the time travel aspect alone, but I this book really reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, especially Slaughterhouse Five. Humor mixed with heavy emotions...and then there's time travel mixed in.

This book probably deserves about a 4.5 in my book. It's different from anything else you'll read this year and I"m sure you won't regret it.
Profile Image for Novel Currents.
97 reviews15 followers
December 12, 2010
Too clever for its own good, I found Yu's book [title too long to type] very self-indulgent, written by a writer too aware of his own cleverness. Wait I sort of already said that.

I'm sure this book will find an audience. It's the kind of thing I might have liked in my early 20s, when I'd read a book and force myself to enjoy it, if only because to do so would increase my own sense of satisfaction. I was just a boy then, insecure, who liked to accomplish things, like reading literary fiction, that most other people couldn't be bothered to do. I was convinced it was because I was smarter than them. Wrongo.

These days, I don't have the time to read books that don't engage me. When the characters aren't compelling, or deserving of my empathy. And it's odd, because I'm a guy who grew up with daddy issues, never having a real one himself. Just a piss poor psychopath, instead. So usually books about fathers and sons turn the weeps on, I cry over my shortchanged childhood. I find solace in the words and images of a different father and a different son and know that my own psychic scars are not all that unusual, and that in fact it is quite usual that they are un-healable. Somehow, in a roundabout way, that makes me feel better.

Ah well. I think I gave this book 50 pages. That was more than enough.
Profile Image for Tobin.
278 reviews4 followers
January 21, 2012
An interesting premise begins the tale of Charles Yu (yes, the author) doing a bit of meta-writing about a Charles who time travels. Yu uses time traveling as scaffolding to discuss a sadness, reality, and perception. It's only 240ish pages but I stopped cold on p. 183 when CY (the author) lost the period key on his keyboard and wrote a sentence longer than 1.5 pages.

I read a lot of books (no duh, I'm on Goodreads) and I think I'm pretty permissible when authors pull tricks because I'm typically concerned with the character or events. The one thing I can't stand (CANNOT STAND) is not stopping when I'm reading. I need to have a period or at least a pause created by white space (or a "longshot" panel in comics). A sentence that runs on for more than 200 words is too long. I put up with it in 2666 because I was already invested. But I stopped reading this one because even after 180+ pages I don't really care that much to continue. I had already decided that I was only reading this because it was so short and not a tremendous burden to finish. But after a 200+ word sentence it is too much. He's pulled me out of the story and I don't care enough to return.

I stopped on p. 183. I doubt I'll return.

Profile Image for Beth Dawkins.
Author 9 books23 followers
May 17, 2011

This is very close to amazing. The only thing that fell off, was the story. The depressed time traveler is after his father. That is the point of the book, but the point changes to the narrative. I wouldn't have enjoyed it, but the narrative was pretty good. It points out crazy ideas and thoughts all of us have had when intoxicated. You know that moment where you think you are so smart? Yep, there are a lot of those, and I enjoy those.

It is also funny. Mentions of Star Wars had me laughing. The problem was that all of this stuff I liked seemed contained to the first part of the book. The other half, things are going on. Our main character is trying to find his father, but instead, finds himself. Hard decisions have to be made, but the question is if there was ever any real choice? I still don't really know the answer to that.

I guess, my best answer would be no. At the start of the book we are told that we can't change time. That we are not important enough to change time. I loved this idea. If something happened, it always happened. In some ways that might sound depressing. In fact a lot of this book is depressing. The narrators life sounds, well it sounds awful.

This book is neat. I would recommend it.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,684 reviews347 followers
January 15, 2023
A lot of people liked this, Yu's debut novel. I didn't, and DNF'd it. I didn't quite hate it, but not far off.

Since I kept no notes but the 2-star rating, let's see what I can find:

You might look for my GR friend Tim Hicks 2-star review nearby:
"There are a few good ideas, and some good wordplay. But the characters aren't at all interesting, and not much happens.
That forces us into philosophy, and what we have here is mostly handwaving; worse, it's dull.

Summary: I wish I had used the time to read something else."

Exactly! Not recommended.
Profile Image for Steffanie.
98 reviews5 followers
June 14, 2011
I am now in love with Charles Yu, this bright new young author. I feel like Yu was onto something *so* big here. Everything about the book excited me. I read it in just a couple of days. The cover excited me. The plot description excited me. Every page I read excited me a little more.

The first time that I predicted that this was going to be my new favorite book was on page 17:

(Yu is a time machine repairman...and these machines only break down when people try to break the rules---change the past or what-have-you)...

"But the reason I have job security is that people have no idea how to make themselves happy. Even with a time machine. I have job security because what the customer wants, when you get right down to it, is to relive his very worst monment, over and over and over again. Willing to pay a lot of money to do it, too."

The theme of regret throught the novel is very strong. Powerfully worded, I believe. There are so many quotes that I want to put up here, because there are so many beautiful sentences. Well, since I'm a sucker for romance, I'll give you another one:

"All of her heart, a meaningless phrase, but correct and precise, too. She used her heart to love him, not her head, and not her words and not her thoughts or ideas or feelings or any other vehicle or object or device people use to deliver love or love-like things. She used her heart, as a physical transmitter of love, and what came out of it was no more voluntary than gravity or time or time travel or the laws of fictional science itself."

Now, I really love that sentence, but what does it even mean? It's cute, but no...the heart is not a physical transmitter of love. That would be gross. It *is* words that transmit love. The heart may feel it, but you can not touch your heart to your lover's heart to transmit some loving electrons. This is the problem I have with the book. There are a lot of really cool sounding ideas, and sentences that make you think. But many of them are empty. I think are suppose to sound cool, more than anything else.

The premise of the story is seriously and ridiculously awesome!! And Yu keeps building and building, bringing us closer and closer to the moment of awe (that I think we all felt coming). And then it ended. It's almost like the book isn't about what we are lead to believe it is about. It's not really about time paradoxes or tears in the fabric of the universe. It's really about loss and regret and guilt and shame and every other negative feeling you can conjure up when you think about the past.

I did say *almost*. Some of the science-fiction in it is certainly new and fresh and not stolen from the older greats of sci-fi. And the non-narration pieces of the novel--the parts that are meant to resemble the handbook alluded to in the title...are very cool.

i.e. "Theorem- At some point in your life, this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever." It's cool things like this that keep the book compelling, but in the end, I just wish it would have come together a little more. It needed to be clearer, and more plot driven, and less regret filled (at least by the time the end rolled around)...or else what did Charles Yu teach us? I didn't learn anything. I suppose that's where the loss of the star (4 stars) comes from. I thought the book was the coolest thing ever, but I don't feel any different today. Other authors change me a bit. Some (like Haruki Murakami and Issac Asimov and John Irving) change me a lot! Charles Yu needs a little more practice turning an awesome idea into a truly moving work of art.

I definitely recommend the book, and even though I can't help but be a little dissapointed, I would do anything to be this guy's friend. Charles Yu is the guy I want at my party. Perhaps I can find him and change him from 'the man I never befriended' to 'the man that I am going to befriend someday.' (reference to the novel) :D

Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,505 reviews230 followers
December 10, 2018
I'm always a little skeptical when a literary prodigy does genre fiction. Science fiction is bad enough enough, without the literary ball of neuroses that is the Iowa Writer's Workshop sliding in. So let me say that How to Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe is slick and brilliant, and so gloriously clever that my concerns are washed out in a trillion degree flash of light.

Charles Yu is a time machine repairman is a science-fictional universe. Glamorously described, his job involves shutting breaches in the spacetime continuum and rescuing time travelers from reliving the worst day of their lives over and over again. In practice, it has all the glamour of being a technician for Verizon. Yu lives in a box that drifts in a kind of temporal neutral outside of the normal flow of life, with an ontologically valid but nonexistent dog, his time machine's AI TAMMY, and occasional messages from his manager Phil, a piece of software which mimics a kind of extroverted bro. It's more or less what Charles wants, since his father disappeared and his mother retired to a 60 minute time loop.

Time travel in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is based around a combination of narrative tenses and the intersection of physics and information theory a la Roger Penrose. Yu uses this to literary device explore his narrator's relationship to his father, a striving immigrant engineer who almost invented the time machine, and then became unstuck from the present in disappointment. We are all time travelers, moving into the future at a rate of 1 second per second, and yet it is unclear why we perceive the present and member the past.

When Charles returns to his home base, he breaks the first rule of time travel, "never interact with yourself" when a future him appears, he shoots the future him, and his dying future self hands him a copy of a book "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" before he escapes into his time machine, and the spiraling doom of a closed time-like loop.

The novel is dizzyingly inventive and creative, but pessimistic in its assessment that there only a few seconds in the roughly 2.3 billion we are bestowed which in which we are truly present, truly authentically there with ourselves. Kemper put it better words than I could:
My main issue is that Charles Yu arranged a big Homecoming Metafiction Parade down Metafiction Avenue, and he’s the Metafiction Parade Marshal waving to us from his big Metafiction Float just in front of the Metafiction Show Horses who will take a big steaming Metafiction Dump right in the street in front of us.

This book is good, maybe even great, but it's too ironic to be perfect, and I wish it was.
Profile Image for Sandy Parsons.
Author 7 books9 followers
May 17, 2011
This book has all the same problems that every time travel story has, those moments when you're going "Wait, but..." and then a little later, you're like, "But...?" until you finally end up glossing over the paradoxes/improbablities/undefinable-in-words so that you can appreciate the narrative, which, in this case was a little thin. This is, I think, in part, due to an attempt to circumvent the reader's delving too deep and realizing it's all a fancy magic trick, a bunch of glittering streamers sparkling only so long as there's someone on the other side blowing them at you.

Still, there are some laugh out loud bits, like the advice that "...if you ever see yourself coming out of a time machine, run" and some keen, current pop culture references appreciable by everyone but especially precious to readers of both literary and mainstream sf. Still further, there are some moments that make you go hmmm, like when his father wonders, "How do we know what it means to percieve an event as presently occuring, rather than as a memory of a past event? ...How do we move the infinitesimal window of the present through the viewfinder at such a constant rate?" Finally, there are moments of jaw-dropping poignancy,like the following quote, which manages to both be true and complex in a way that you always had the knowledge inside you and are glad that finally somebody pointed it out to you-

"...it's true: time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. If you're not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncatergorized, preprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter."

Profile Image for Jonathon Von.
376 reviews37 followers
January 11, 2023
2.5 What an enormously self-absorbed book. I feel bad criticizing it because it’s all so dreadfully EARNEST. At one point I thought of it as, what if Ready Player One had twice as much of the self-pitying nostalgia and a fifth of the action and creativity. But then I realized where this book was headed, and it’s really a book about isolation and what happens when one is given entirely too much time for self reflection. A time machine technician finds himself trapped just a little out of time and revisiting his life with his somewhat pathetic computer girlfriend. Of course he proceeds to whine about his parents. Did his daddy love him? Did his mommy love him? Did he really understand them? Was his happy childhood actually bittersweet? Calling this any sort of adventure is a stretch. But it has a sort of confessional honesty that is, dare I say, almost endearing. A nerd reflects!
Profile Image for Aura.
9 reviews6 followers
December 31, 2010
It starts like this. We have a book in our hands and we're looking at it thinking: the summary on this jacket cover is funny and sort of cute, what with its self-deprecating asides to depressed software and ontologically-valid domestic pets, and with its blurbs from famous authors saying stuff like "This book is cool as hell" - well, this is at the creeping onset of the winter crankiness, so we say to ourselves, we could use a book that is cool as hell! And we take it home.

It sits on our nightstand for a few weeks, next to The Varieties of Religious Experience and on top of Beloved and under The Stupidest Angel, while we bustle from here to there, generally forgetting about it and doing work and getting ever crankier.

But every now and then we will open it up just to reread the jacket-cover summary, to lift our flagging spirits, or to construct wistful fantasies about how wild and original and inventive and adventurous and tongue-in-cheek this book is going to be compared to our sorry excuse for a life. And then we will forget about it, again.

Anyway, it starts like this. We open the book because we have a migraine that day, and we want to cheer up. Mind-bending start. Clever. An explosion of an imagined universe. We think to ourselves through our migraine-induced haze, we like this. We really like this.

Then, slowly, things start to annoy us a bit: where is the cheap action we'd fantasized about? The adventure? Why is this a book more intensely emotional than we'd bargained for? Why does this invented reality require so much concentration to understand? And why, why, is the narrator so gosh darn repetitive, just endlessly repetitive, repetitive like the fixed cycles of reality in which we're all trapped, repetitive all the time??!? DO YOU KNOW THIS IS NOT CLEVER, CHARLES YU?

We put the book down, disgruntled and headache-y, and go to sleep.

The next day we pick it up again, no headache, no expectations.

It starts like this. We're reading along - still, without realizing it, feeling the mild dregs of yesterday's irritation - and something begins to occur to us, very slowly and sneakily. We are not sure what that something is. At first we think it's the fact that the book is getting funnier - which it is, but that's not it. Possibly it's the fact that the book is getting more serious - which it also is, but that's not it. Possibly it's the fact that the protagonist is nothing like us, and yet.

And yet.

Or possibly it's the fact that even as How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe unfolds itself, revealing its sad, screwed-up, mind-bending reality to be increasingly nonsensical, that's when its pieces come together and make the most sense they ever will.

We don't know how it started. We don't know when we first moved up our mental star rating from three stars to four stars. We don't know when we realized that at some point, some alternate self of us has probably thought stuff like the stuff in this book; but we are not an alternate self of us, we are just us, so we've only thought about a tiny fraction of this stuff, and with much less awareness. Yet all of this is so shockingly relevant to our life that a smarter alternate self would have picked up on these things, we are convinced.

So it started a million times but we can't say how it really started. We just know that it ended by watching this story fall face-first into its fifth star, in a blazing nebula that was brilliant and stunning and sad. You know how some stars are brighter dying than they are living (look! metaphor! see, we can do it too!)? - that is our opinion of this book. Which is not to say the build-up is at all dim. It's just that that was one hell of a nebula.

Profile Image for Harold Ogle.
318 reviews43 followers
June 18, 2012
An interesting conceit, this book posits that time travel is a combination of technology, verb tense, and personal perspective. But it's also not primarily a book about time travel. It's one of these science fiction books that Larry Niven famously scorned, in which the science is not really necessary for the plot. It's much more a story of personal discovery, a young man wrestling with a sense of insignificance and the general meaninglessness of his life. The book is both charmingly absurd and ridiculously drawn-out, and has a great deal in common with any number of late-night monologues from drunken undergraduates (particularly ones I knew), who all seem to favor this blend of Wired-style science fantasy, philosophy, and literary criticism. In all, the book reads a great deal like a first draft of a NaNoWriMo entry, in which the author indulged in quite a few long, meandering trains of thought in order to flesh out the length of the manuscript. It's still entertaining, and though it would probably have been a better novella, it's still a pretty quick read. I found it satisfying.

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