How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu—the character, not the author—lives in a TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device, a small pod many iterations removed from the prototype he and his dad built in their garage years earlier. Employed by the device’s manufacturer, Yu floats through Minor Universe 31, a “science-fictional story-space,” fixing the machines broken when their pilots attempt to change their paths. Yu, for his part, sets his Tense Operator to “Present-Indefinite,” so he can avoid interacting with his real-time life, drifting through the universe, conversing with his neurotic operating system, TAMMY.
Tucked into the high-minded sci-fi structure is the story of Charles’s dad, an amateur inventor whose lack of social skills and single-minded pursuit of creating a time machine drove away both son and wife. His father eventually built the machine (but only after another inventor beat him to it) and disappeared when Charles was a teenager, and now son lazily searches for dad. He also shoots his future self, gets stuck in a time loop, and enters a long stretch where he’s both writing and reading the book we’re reading.
The real-time, real-world Yu’s 2006 story collection Third Class Superhero won over critics and readers by adorning stories of everyday joes with genre costumes, enough so that the National Book Foundation granted Yu one of its 5 Under 35 awards. Superhero worked so well because, in short order, Yu launched into the premise of each story and then twisted it to reveal the outlandish character’s yeoman woes. How to Live Safely abides by the time-tested formula, using time travel as the ultimate metaphor for regret and disconnect from the past.
But with this ambitious novel about the failure of ambition, Yu has fallen victim to his own theme. How to Live Safely lacks the proper world-building exercise that true science fiction requires to get us to buy in. We see character Yu in his machine and visiting his hometown city, peppered with some neat, futuristic ideas like “news clouds” that surround commuters’ heads with vaporous information. But they come across simply as gestures at genre there to feint at a more complete world without doing the work. Most effective is Yu’s lighthearted investigation into time-travel theory, complete with some creative math and charts that ought to win over some of the geeks.
Then there are the real-world stories about his father, a not-quite-brilliant but imaginative man whom Charles could never be convinced was great. The failure of the family and the isolation of the father from his son is supposed to provide the emotive underpinnings, but really, it’s a fairly standard tale of sad-sackery, one we’re never allowed to believe will transcend.
If all that seems a bit harsh, it’s probably time to admit I’m suffering from a case of failed expectations. Superhero was a great surprise, and this book’s premise and early pages hinted at a brilliant and imaginative novel. But Yu never quite figured out what novel he wanted to write; there are simply too many half-starts to end up at the finish line. Like the father in his garage workshop, one can see Yu tinkering and drilling to attempt to ground the sci-fi theatrics to the simple story of familial alienation, but the ambition doesn’t pan out.