How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

December 5, 2010 at 5:18 pm (Reads) ()

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

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If ever you want to read a book that plays with your conventions of what a novel is, and then keeps playing with it from the start of the book until the end, then this book is the right one for you.  Originally, I thought it was going to be something funny, like a Terry Pratchett novel.  Then, it veered into some serious, deep topics, and I figured it was going to be a quirky parody of some kind.  Then, I realized that the main character was the author, and knew that this was going to be a dark satire.

By the time I was 40 pages into the book, I actually felt a little depressed.  I think it had more to do with my outlook instead of the book itself, but it really drove home the point of time and life and how we don’t really do all that we should with what we have.  Yu also opined on the idea of us only getting one time to get it right, and how unfair it is.  I imagined that the book would deviate from that idea at some point, but at the time, it hit pretty close to my own fears and insecurities, and I started wondering if I had gotten into something bigger than I wanted.  At the same time, I figured that this might mean that it was a novel I needed to read, so I kept on going.

Ultimately, this is a novel about family, relationships, and, yes, time, and how all of them are intertwined and interconnected.  The main character is someone who lives outside of time, in a stasis where he manages to exist without really living.  His only companions are his imaginary dog (who, of course, has a physical state) and his onboard computer, who knows she is a computer program, but still has a lot of human traits and emotions.  Charles (the character, not the author) is the son of the man who came up with the theory of time travel, but he’s been estranged from both his parents since he was a teenager, and the qualities of time travel give him the unique perspective of being able to catch up with them and try to make amends with them.  Only he can’t find his father, and his mother has opted to live in a one-hour time loop that she considers to be the best time of her life with her family.

It’s a complicated story, not because it’s difficult to follow (an achievement of this novel is that it talks about quantum physics and time travel without being a morass of jargon and such), but because the relationships are complex.  As such, the novel is more character driven than anything else, although the author does put a small semblance of a plot in place.  Not only does it drive the main character forward, but it also helps him come to terms with his parents.  But it doesn’t have that thrilling sort of end that a good, plot-driven novel will have.  That’s not a bad thing, though.

This book is quirky for a number of reasons, but overall it stands as a good example of a good storyteller taking you along for a ride.  It’s not funny-quirky, by any means, and that’s probably the biggest failing of the book, though that has more to do with the publisher than the author.  The book is certainly promoted as something that will make you laugh, and while it has its moments, overall it’s more a book to make you think.  So long as that’s understood up front, I think readers would enjoy going along with Charles (both of them) for this ride.

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