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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu
Pantheon Books, 242 pages

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu
Charles Yu received the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and he has also received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. His work has been published in the Harvard Review, The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, and Mid-American Review, among other journals. He lives in Los Angeles with his family.

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A review by Steven H Silver

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Charles Yu's debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, posits a time machine repairman caught in a manufactured, cast-off universe dealing with issues of abandonment while being fully cognizant of his own fictional origin. Although the book could have been a witty and clever satire, or even a existential examination of life, it is, instead, a self-congratulatory novel that doesn't live up to its promise.

The novel's protagonist, also named Charles Yu, lives his life in a small time machine with the company of his AI, TAMMY, and an "ontologically valid" non-real dog, named Ed. Although he has minor contact with other characters, notably those who need time machines repaired, his only other relationships are with his AI boss, Phil, and his mother, who is caught in a time loop of her own devising. Most of the time, Charles Yu, the character, is spent philosophizing on his existence, which he occasionally understands to be a construct of the fiction into which he was written, although he takes Phil to task for not realizing Phil's own lack of existence.

On this framework, which doesn't stand up very well on its own, Yu, the character, finds himself dealing with his abandonment by his father, who was indispensable in the creation of time machines. Yu, the character, harkens back to their conversations, none of which ended satisfactorily for the young boy. While these considerations form the main part of the novel, they seem to be interspersed between gonzo ideas that seem to be there more to simply lengthen the text than to add to the overall work.

Yu, the author, seems to hope that his experimentation in writing the novel, which severely lacks a plot and with characters who are not particularly sympathetic or multi-dimensional, will make up for the novel's lack. However, this isn't the case. The philosophical musings of Yu, the character, and the strange situations he finds himself in, from spying on his time-looped mother to dealing with his own suicidal assassination isn't enough to maintain interest in a novel that is a 256 page study in omphaloskepsis.

Despite the shortcomings of Yu's novel, there is a similarity to the way Kurt Vonnegut used science fictional tropes in his own novel in a nonsensical manner. Both authors take the phrasing and ideas commonly found in science fiction and apply them in ways they are internally inconsistent, but help them to achieve the satire they were striving for, although that satire is not particularly focused in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which further detracts from Yu's narrative innovations.

Yu demonstrates his imagination throughout How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, but the story he tells is thin and unstructured, making the novel more a philosophical treatise than a narrative, although even at that level it seems unfocused, showing the writer as an author with potential that has not yet been realized.

Copyright © 2010 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a seven-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings. He is the publisher of ISFiC Press. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.


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