One of the things for which fantastic fiction is particularly good is dramatising metaphors – and, more than that, creating texts that can be read equally productively at both metaphorical and literal levels (Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett is a good example from earlier this year). Charles Yu’s debut, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, does this, but it also goes further, dramatising science fiction itself as a literary mode.
Yu’s protagonist is himself named Charles Yu (from now on, I’ll refer to the protagonist as ‘Charles’ and the author as ‘Yu’), a time machine repair-man living in, yes, a science fictional universe – which is to say, one built so its inhabitants could enjoy the sorts of adventurous lives one reads about in sf, but which could never be possible in mundane reality. (The thing is, though, the construction of this minor universe was imperfect, and only those who can afford it get to live in the sf-nal part.) Charles has one of the ‘back room’ jobs needed to keep his universe running smoothly, and, when he’s not on a call, spends most of his time (such as the concept applies to someone who lives outside the usual chronological flow) in his phone-booth-sized TM-31 time machine, with no company but a dog that sort of exists, but only on a technicality; his time machine’s gloomy AI; and the occasional call from his boss, who’s virtual but doesn’t know it. He also reflects a lot on his relationship with his father, who invented the time travel technology, and has now gone… somewhere.
One of the golden rules of Charles’s profession is: if you ever see another version of yourself, run. Well, Charles has seen a future version of himself, but he shot him, thereby trapping himself in a time loop. Before he died, that future version handed Charles a book and told him that the key was inside. The title of that book was How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe…
In Yu’s novel, time travel is linked explicitly with Charles’s issues with his father; as he solves the problem of the time loop, the protagonist is simultaneously working out how to deal with and move forward from those personal issues. But How to Live Safely would be a pretty thin read if that were also there was to it; happily, there is much more. Yu, it seems to me, is examining the value and the limitations of both science fiction and ‘literary’ fiction (quotation marks because I don’t personally see those two as entirely separate, but we’ll go with the difference here, because science-fictionality and ‘reality’ are different in the novel). The time travellers who provide Charles’s bread and butter don’t have as much power as they think, because it’s not possible to change the past in the science fictional universe, however hard they try. The way Charles solves his problem is effectively a fusion of the two modes, as he relives his memories as an outside observer, before a return to science-fictionality slots the pieces together.
The novel’s dialogue between modes is also reflected at the level of prose, as Yu blurs the line between the scientific and emotional aspects of his book by using scientific language in his descriptions. For example:
Our house was a collection of silences, each room a mute, empty frame, each of us three oscillating bodies (Mom, Dad, me) moving around in our own curved functions, from space to space, not making any noise, just waiting, waiting to wait, trying, for some reason, not to disrupt the field of silence, not to perturb the delicate equilibrium of the system. (p. 34)
Yu creates some quite powerful effects in How to Live Safely. One scene that I think works particularly well is when Charles visits his mother, who is currently living in her own repeating hour-long bubble of time, and there are echoes of a parent’s being abandoned in a home (‘I don’t like it in here,’ Charles’s mother tells him. ‘Why did you stick me in here? Can you please take me out? I don’t like it in here’ [p. 81]). And such moments are nicely balanced out by the playfulness elsewhere in the book, the humour in Charles’s situation, and the way Yu handles the self-referentiality of the book in our hands purportedly being one that Charles himself has written. There’s a lot to enjoy in How to Live Safely, and a lot to think about afterwards.