Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the debut novel by Charles Yu asks many questions - about the past and our memories of the past, and who we are and who we are meant to be and who we turn out to be - but the fundamental question at the heart of this father-son time-travel story is: do we ever learn anything about ourselves?

The protagonist/antagonist is the author himself, or a representation of the author, just as you or I are representations of ourselves in our own memories and even in our own futures. Charles lives in Minor Universe 31, a half-completed universe that also leaves its inhabitants feeling incomplete themselves; in a sense, it isn't so different from our own universe. In MU31, people use time machines not to change the past or anything like it (in fact, to do so is a pardoxical impossibility - "The universe just doesn't put up that," writes Yu), but instead use time machines to relive moments from their past they were unsatisfied with in some way, in the hopes of learning something from these memories. Yu is a time machine repair man, the kind of guy who helps people who've gotten themselves into trouble using their time machines (i.e. running into their former selves; trying to change an event from their past, which inevitably causes an alternate timeline for the user, one in which everything seems to be the same, but isn't and never was). In his tiny box, where he's spent the last 10 years, Charles has a nonexistent retcon dog named Ed and a mopey, depressed computer, TAMMY, whom Charles is in love with but won't admit to himself.

We learn early on that Charles' father, one of the early inventors of the time machine, has been lost in time for about 12 years. The story delves into Charles' memories of his father and the invention of the time machine and the narrator's attempt to locate his father in the past. In this way, Yu, the author, and Yu, the narrator, examine the ways in which our dreams of the future are rooted in the memories of the past and how those very same dreams have the potential to fail us; how sons have the ability to hurt their fathers and vice versa; how each of us can be utterly oblivious to the tower of neglect we have for the ones we love most.

The book will break your heart and give you a sense of the impact we have on each other (particularly fathers and sons, but also mothers and sons and husbands and wives), but, for all that, How to Live Safely isn't a sad book. The easy, sometimes humorous, voice of the narrator saves it from over-sentimentalizing the heavy subject at the book's heart; and the time machine conceit - a conceit most authors flub (read: plot-gaped holes, ridiculous inconsistencies in timelines, and general complete nonsense) - really works because of Yu's simple, clear language.

If there's one flaw in this magnificent story, it's a minor stylistic one and it's this: the narrator occasionally lets his voice run away from him. Every now and then, a sentence will run on for a page or two and, though this stylistic choice is most times used to humorous and heartaching effect, there are times when the point Yu was trying to make gets lost.

At its finest, at it usually is at its finest, How to Live Safely, is a book about what it means to be human, to be ourselves. Whether or not the narrator learns anything about himself - maybe he does, maybe he doesn't - doesn't matter. In the end, all that matters is that we do.

--Dustin J Monk