How’s this for a book review: Go and read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu and then come back and read this book review.
I’m sort of serious. This may seem paradoxical, but it is nothing compared to the paradoxes presented in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. This book may not be for everyone, especially those people who thoroughly enjoy the time they spend in front of a TV, being entertained by something completely external to themselves. If you fall into that crowd, move along. Nothing to read here. But, if you are a person who, from time to time (or incessantly) enjoys trying to decipher the internal babbling “monologue of doom” that hums along between your ears, then this may be the perfect book for you. And if you absolutely thrive on that activity, well, welcome to your new favorite author.
In How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe Yu has managed to inhabit the consciousness of his protagonist (also, coincidentally, named Charles Yu) so thoroughly, that it is a bit hard to tell them apart, especially if you ignore that part where Charles Yu (the protagonist) lives in Minor Universe 31, which was “slightly damaged during its construction”. Charles Yu (the protagonist) fixes time machines. He has been living in one the size of a cardboard box for a while, traveling around in time, fixing other time machines. In his machine the ‘Tense Operator’ is set to ‘Present-Indeﬁnite’. (If, like me, you are not sure what the present-indefinite tense is, you could look it up and find that it is the one which we use when an action is happening right now, or when it happens regularly (or unceasingly)). Yu (the writer) crafts the entire story from this strange ‘present-indefinite’ tense, weaving in flashbacks and ‘flashforwards’ as if they are happening in the present (although it becomes increasing difficult, and in the end somewhat arbitrary, to determine what ‘present’ means). Yu (the writer) lets his protagonist get himself stuck in a time loop where, while he is always in the present moment, he is traveling back and forth in time, searching for his father. With all the ‘events’ of the story either having already happened or, paradoxically, not having happened yet, we, as readers, spend the entire book inside the very strange head-space of Charles Yu (the author and the protagonist).
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe begs to be read by your right and left brains simultaneously. While Yu wows us with his grasp of science, science fiction, and writing ability (specifically his ability to manipulate tenses), he also asks some very existential questions like these: How can you (and Yu) move on with your life and let go of the past? Especially when your past is full of regrets and unresolved emotions and things that you really, really wish you could change? Who wouldn’t be tempted to spend time reliving the parts of your life that you wish you could do over? And don’t we all, on some level, do that anyway? Isn’t that what that inner ‘monologue of doom’ is all about?
Do you understand the book any better for having read this review? Probably not. Don’t let that stop you from reading the book, though. I read all the short blurbs on the back cover when I picked it up, and none of them made a whole lot of sense to me until after I finished the book, my favorite being this one by Colson Whitehead: “This book is cool as hell. If I could go back in time and read it earlier, I would.”
So, like I said, read the book, and then come back and read this review. Hopefully it will make more sense in the past tense.