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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (edition 2010)

by Charles Yu

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Title:How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Authors:Charles Yu
Info:Pantheon (2010), Kindle Edition with Audio/Video, 258 pages
Collections:Your library

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

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Showing 1-5 of 100 (next | show all)
First off, this book has a lot of physics terms (at least I think they are physics terms; he could be making it all up for all I know of physics). But that does not matter. Just like watching Star Trek or Star Wars, or any other science fiction show or movie, you do not really have to understand what they are talking about. You can get the general gist of what it means in normal terms. I do not understand how the Star Trek: The Next Generation Enterprise Core worked, but I have general ideas when the plot centers around the engine core blowing up.

This book centers on a thirty-year-old time machine tech, Charles Yu who spends most of his time in his time capsule named Tammy (who has a self-esteem problem and cries often). His job is to go back in time to help other time travelers who have damaged their machines and fix them so they can get back to the present. He finds it sad that when you can go to any point in your timeline and visit (you must NEVER meet yourself or bad things will happen) they choose the worst moment of their life and relive it over and over again, hoping for a different outcome which never happens, because no matter how hard you try, you can not change the past. The universe will not allow it.

Charles got into the time machine business as a young child. His father came up with a theory on how to make time travel possible and the two spend ten years working on building a time machine. When things do not work out as planned, Charles's father hops into his new time machine and disappears, leaving him and his mother alone. He is forced to drop out of school and get work as a tech and his mother ends up renting a machine that replays one hour on a loop for however many years you pay for. She plays out a dinner with Charles and her husband as holograms. Charles, in person, rarely visits her, which he feels guilty about. Charles has shut himself off from the world by essentially living in his time machine with a science fiction dog and Tammy for company. Every few years or so he goes back home for maintenance of his vehicle, and while years have passed in his life a day or maybe a week has only passed at home.

After returning for maintenance he shows up to pick up his machine and he sees another him step out of a machine and instead of running away, which is what he is supposed to do, he shoots his future shelf and climbs into the time machine and is now in a time loop. Inside the machine is a book that is partly filled out and shows him how to find his father, who can possibly save him. But time is running out and as he tries to accept his impending death, he cannot quite give up so easily, even though you cannot change time he will do his best to attempt it.

This book delves into the life of a lonely man who longs to know why his father deserted him and his mother and shows how he refuses to face life and instead hides away from it in his machine. He makes up a life he could have lived and convinced himself that he does not need others, but over time, he begins to regret that he did not try to meet the girl of his dreams or make those close friends or be nicer to Tammy and his manager, a computer program that does not know it is only a program and acts like it is human and has a family, with a wife who is a spreadsheet program. She knows they are not real, but she goes along with it to keep him happy in his delusion. Truly this is a story of a boy and his father and their attempts to connect until it all falls apart and he loses his father, this incredibly innovative, creative, and emotional book will keep you turning the pages until the end dying to find out if you can cheat fate.

…but unfortunately, it’s true: time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, preprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.
--Charles Yu (How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe p 54)

If I could be half the person my dog is, I would be twice the human I am.
--Charles Yu (How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe p 65) ( )
  nicolewbrown | Jun 8, 2017 |
For the first couple of chapters, I thought this was going to be a really fun book. I thought that maybe another author was finally going to do something as clever and funny with time travel as Jasper Fforde in the Thursday Next series.

Then, I started to get annoyed by the long sentences. I normally love long sentences - give me a gramatically-correct, two-page sentence, and I'll read it repeatedly just to savor it. But with Yu's long sentences, it's like he couldn't decide which word or phrase to use so he just listed them all.

Then I started to wonder if we were actually going to be explanations for all of the time travel concepts he was throwing around. There are lots of invented words to describe how time travel works, and they all sound really cool. Somehow, the time travel engine uses grammar to travel through time. That's an awesome concept, but was never explained at all (and then, when the invention of time travel is described, it is invented by a scientist, not a linguist, and grammar plays no role whatsoever).

Then, the big plot-driving event happens (an accidental interaction with his future self), and all of a sudden the main character is going on and on about how he is stuck in a time loop. But this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It is never explained why he is in a loop. There is absolutely no reason for him to be in a time loop. The whole story seems to revolve around this time loop, but every time he said "time loop" I wanted to scream "what time loop?!"

Then there is the narrator's relationship with his father.... The father has apparently run away somewhere to hide, and the narrator wants to find him. In fact, this appears to be the narrator's main motivation throughout the book. But there is so much that isn't explained here. The narrator's relationship with his father is terrible, so why does he have all this nostalgia for his dad? Why does he want to find him? What does he think will happen when he finds him? And what about his poor mother, who suffered from depression and a neglectful husband her whole life? It just makes no sense that this quest for his father would be the narrator's driving motivation.

There is a lot of talk about being in a science fictional universe. But the thing is.... being in a science fictional universe only makes sense in relation to non-fiction. In other words, if you know you are in a science-fictional universe, then you must also be aware that there is a non-fictional universe, right? No mention is ever made of how this science-fictional universe relates to reality, or what medium it exists in, or anything. This could have been really fun and fascinating, but it just falls flat: you could take out all of the references to this being a science fictional universe, and it wouldn't make any difference to the story. Not that there is much of a story....

I got to the point where about once a paragraph I just had to stop and sputter. The story makes no sense. The author crams in a lot of scientific and mathematical terms to make himself sound smart, but he never actually says anything. And then there were scenes that were so redundant that I thought maybe I had turned to the wrong page of the book and was re-reading something I had read before. I don't know why I bothered to finish it, and I really wish I hadn't. ( )
  Gwendydd | Apr 23, 2017 |
The jacket copy says the book is wickedly funny. This is a blatant lie. Nevertheless, I did like the book, but the overall tone is rather depressing. No, despairing. The narrator tries to turn it hopeful at the end, but the despair is still there, waiting. ( )
  Jon_Hansen | Apr 2, 2017 |
Review originally found on Looking Glass Reads.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu has won several awards, has a pretty awesome title, and an interesting premise. The main character, referred to as Charles Yu the very few times he is named, is a time machine repairman. Haunted by his past, he lives largely between time; ten years for him is only a handful of days as far as the rest of the universe is concerned. One day, he meets a future version of himself, winds up in a time loop he must break out of, and is trying to save his father from wherever it was that he has mysteriously disappeared to.

Sound like there’s a lot going on in here? That’s because there is.

I have some mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I always enjoy a story involving time travel. I like that the repairmen know that the past cannot be changed, and act at almost in a bartender fashion for the poor souls who find out firsthand that their worst memories really cannot be changed after all. It feels real, raw at times, and very human. I also like the universe it’s set in. Things are science fictional. All universes are this way. We have a universe with the Death Star and young Skywalker’s running about needing their time machine repaired. It’s a fascinating concept the book teases us with. Ultimately, though, it has little effect on the story itself other than providing a great setting, a great title, light humor, and some rather interesting philosophizing points.

First, the characters. I liked the main character. I liked the pet dog which wasn’t really there. I liked the time machine’s AI. But there were very few ‘real’ characters. The majority of the book is just the main character speaking to himself, or the main character watching scenes from his past unfold as he travels through time. We meet the occasional minor character as the story moves along, but most are there simply used for the main character to get from point A to point B and are never seen again. Having so few characters works for the narrative. However, I can see some readers getting a bit frustrated by this as there is a quite a bit of Charles Yu (the character) talking to himself, working out philosophical topics in his head, or speaking to something or someone who may not be as real as we the reader initially believed.

The second half of the book focuses largely on the main character’s relationship with his father, a time machine inventor who went missing many years ago, and the struggle to find him. At times very real, and poignant, it was a good story in and of itself.

However, the second half of the book is also where things started to fall apart for me. I was fine with the time loop. I was fine with the events set outside of time. I was fine with the, at times, convoluted timeline business (the book we are reading is the one the main character is writing which was given to him by an older version of himself and is, therefore, already written). But it almost felt like a different story was being told from that in the first half of the novel.

The world building in the first half was largely forgotten or ignored after the halfway marker. We never really got to see much of this science fictional universe. In fact, the world the main character grew up in was so mundane, normal to our non-science fictional eye, that it honestly broke suspension of disbelief for me. There was no mention of interstellar travel when the main character and his father were working on his time machine. There was no dimension breaking of cities disappearing and appearing in the middle of other cities. There was no sign that the people of that world knew of a science fictional universe at all.

Most importantly, I got bored reading about the character watching scenes from his past and coming to terms with what happened, and trying to figure out where his father left for and never returned from. The second half of the book simply fell flat for me.

Do I recommend reading How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? Yes. I do. The book does exactly what all speculative fiction is supposed to do - it speculated. Some interesting ideas are brought up, and the book has a rather likable protagonist. However, I don’t think this book is for everyone, and I did, ultimately, wind up giving it fewer stars than I had originally thought. ( )
  kateprice88 | Jan 30, 2017 |
Here’s the short review. 1) I give this book five stars. There were many things I loved about it, but the three best were its overall oddness, the way math and science were interwoven into the story, and its brilliant observations about human nature. 2) There were a couple things I didn’t like, but I acknowledge that they may say more about me than they do about the book. 3) I discovered that I can go right ahead and read a novel if it’s this unique, and it doesn’t screw with my inner voice at all. Now I just have to find more books like this.

A slightly longer version of the review would let you know that .... (read the full review at https://zsquaredblog.org/2016/12/09/safety-in-science-fiction/) ( )
  SherrieCronin | Dec 9, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 100 (next | show all)
The deceptively simple plot can be told in one sentence: a time-travel-machine repairman wants to locate his missing father before his past catches up to him and shoots him dead. Our anxieties and fears are heightened as the protagonist's past gets ever closer. That the protagonist's father devoted his life to creating a time-travel machine allows us to ponder the dilemma of a brilliant person trapped in the role of a family man. VERDICT: Fans of Ursula K. Le Guin and 'social science fiction,' as well as readers of an adventurous nature, will enjoy this book, which has the potential to become a cult classic.
added by sduff222 | editLibrary Journal, Victor Or (Oct 1, 2010)
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is intellectually demanding, but also emotionally rich and funny. It's clearly the work of a scifi geek who knows how to twist pop culture tropes into melancholy meditations on the nature of consciousness.
added by sduff222 | editio9.com, Annalee Newitz (Aug 16, 2010)
There are times when he starts off a paragraph about chronodiegetics that just sounds like pseudo-scientific gibberish meant to fill in some space. And then you realize that what he’s saying actually makes sense, that he’s actually figured out something really fascinating about the way time works, about the way fiction works, and the “Aha!” switch in your brain gets flipped. That happened more than once for me. There are so many sections here and there that I found myself wanting to share with somebody: Here—read this paragraph! Look at this sentence! Ok, now check this out!
The eponymous lonely-guy narrator in Yu’s debut novel is a time-machine repairman working in the slightly damaged Minor Universe 31, where people can time-travel for recreational purposes—or, Charles muses, is it re-creational purposes, given our desire to rewrite history? Charles dwells in a small module with TAMMY, a cute but insecure operating system, and Ed the dog, who is good company even though he’s a “weird ontological entity” rather than a flesh-and-blood animal. Woebegone Charles has never gotten over the disappearance of his father, a thwarted time-travel pioneer. With Star Wars allusions, glimpses of a future world, and journeys to the past, as well as hilarious and poignant explanations of “chronodiegetics,” or the “theory of the nature and function of time within a narrative space,” Yu, winner of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award, constructs a clever, fluently metaphorical tale. A funny, brain-teasing, and wise take on archetypal father-and-son issues, the mysteries of time and memory, emotional inertia, and one sweet but bumbling misfit’s attempts to escape a legacy of sadness and isolation.
added by sduff222 | editBooklist, Donna Seaman
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a triumph, as good as anything in Calvino or Stanislaw Lem. I wish I could travel back in time with a copy and fraudulently publish it under my own name. Like most people, I thought I learned everything I needed to know about time travel from H.G. Wells and Star Trek, but I thought wrong: In Yu's skillful hands a worn-out science fiction plot device becomes a powerfully expressive metaphor for how we experience the flickering, ineffable, ungraspable spatio-temporal phenomenon of life. Because after all, we're all time travelers, blundering forward into the future at the rate of one second per subjectively experienced second.

Except when we don't. Think about it: How many times have you yourself been trapped in a time loop, cycling obsessively through one inescapable moment, again and again and again, while the rest of the universe rolled forward and left you behind?

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307379205, Hardcover)

Lev Grossman Reviews How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Lev Grossman is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Magicians. Read his review of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe:

The science-fictional universe in question in this marvel of a novel is Minor Universe 31 (MU31). It's something of a second-rate universe, having been left unfinished by whoever was constructing it--the laws of physics were abandoned only 93 percent installed, Yu tells us, and the human inhabitants "seem to have been left with a lingering sense of incompleteness." This is a universe you need to visit. If by some happy chance you don’t already live there.

The hero of this story, also named Charles Yu, ekes out a living there as a time travel repairman--"a certified network technician for T-class personal-use chronogramattical vehicles, and an approved independent affiliate contractor for Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this universe as a spatio-temporal structural and entertainment complex zoned for retail, commercial, and residential use." (Time Warner Time -- that's the kind of three-pointer Yu never misses.) Charles is a high-tech sad sack, whose only companions are a dog, who's mostly hypothetical, and a computer with a sexy feminine AI interface that Yu has a crush on.

The thing about time travel in MU31 is that it's not all wormholes and apocalypses and "look out that's a temporal anomaly off the starboard nacelle, Captain!" Human beings mostly use time machines to go back and eavesdrop on their own screwed-up lives, reliving key moments, bad decisions and missed opportunities, in the mistaken belief that they can change them. They can't. "I have job security," Yu explains, "because what the customer wants, when you get right down to it, is to relive his very worst moment, over and over again."

Not that Yu has it all figured out. His elderly mom is parked in a time loop, where she cooks a Sunday dinner over and over again. His father, a tragically frustrated inventor, is lost somewhere in the chronoverse. And Yu has a problem: one day he accidentally ran into his future self … and shot him. That's right: he shot himself. And one day, the laws of the universe dictate, that future self will be him.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a triumph, as good as anything in Calvino or Stanislaw Lem. I wish I could travel back in time with a copy and fraudulently publish it under my own name. Like most people, I thought I learned everything I needed to know about time travel from H.G. Wells and Star Trek, but I thought wrong: In Yu's skillful hands a worn-out science fiction plot device becomes a powerfully expressive metaphor for how we experience the flickering, ineffable, ungraspable spatio-temporal phenomenon of life. Because after all, we're all time travelers, blundering forward into the future at the rate of one second per subjectively experienced second.

Except when we don't. Think about it: How many times have you yourself been trapped in a time loop, cycling obsessively through one inescapable moment, again and again and again, while the rest of the universe rolled forward and left you behind?

Questions for Charles Yu on How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Q: You’re a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award-winner and this is your debut novel. When and why did you start writing, and what advice do you have for other young writers out there trying to get published?
A: I wrote poems and essays as a kid, and in college, I dreamed of becoming a professional writer, whatever I thought that meant, although, for a lot of reasons, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Mostly, my parents were going to murder me if I tried to apply to an MFA program. First-degree murder.

So I didn’t actually start writing until 2002, shortly after I began my career as a lawyer. Working in a high-pressure environment was squeezing me pretty hard, and all that pressure found its way out in the form of little things I was jotting down, in the margins of receipts, on the backs of business cards. I wrote a series of physics problems about a married couple’s life together. I wrote some instructions for how to play a metaphysical video game. Stuff like that.

But I didn’t think I was actually writing, let alone writing what anyone would call fiction, until I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. That book blew the doors off the empty little space that had previously housed my puny imagination.

Up until that point, I’d had no clue as to what a story could be. And it was because my ideas were assumptions. Tacit, limiting, ultimately false assumptions, which added up to a severely impoverished conception of what was possible in fiction. After reading CivilWarLand, I knew I wanted that feeling, wanted to be surprised like that, and flattened onto the floor, and embarrassed my by own narrowness. I wanted to have my doors blown off again and again. It was a short distance to go from wanting to have that feeling to also wanting to see if maybe I could ever give that feeling to someone else.

As for advice, it would be to transfer all the anxiety about publication into anxiety about whether the story works, whether a reader is going to care about the characters. I break down the process into four components: writing, rewriting, submitting, and worrying. My ideal, not at all realistic, scenario, would be to make the proportion of time spent on each of those activities something like: 19 percent, 80 percent, 1 percent, 0 percent. This is very hypocritical of me to say, of course, as I’ve never done this myself, I’ve never even been close. But I do know that the farther from zero the last two numbers get, the more I’m in trouble. And that the second number should be much bigger than the first.

Q: How has your interest in and knowledge of science and science fiction contributed to and inspired your writing of this book?
A: I read and collected comics as a kid, read pretty much everything I could find of Asimov, including the whole Foundation series in one semester in eighth grade (to the detriment of my English grade), and so much else, too much to list or even remember. Then, at some point in high school, I got the idea that there were serious books we read in school, and there was science fiction, and there was not a lot of overlap. That lasted until my senior year in college, when I stumbled on Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, which wasn’t exactly science fiction, it was this amazing love story. It also handled actual science (cognitive science, artificial intelligence) without watering it down, and yet was still clearly Serious Fiction, whatever that meant to me back then, the kind that was in the Sunday book review sections. After that, I began to search out more writing like that, more Powers, and Jonathan Lethem.

Currently, I read more science than I do anything else, including fiction. I especially enjoy reading books written by scientists for lay folk, like me. I was a biochem major in college, and so part of it is that I am interested in the science itself, but I’m just as interested in the process of explanation, how the author, an expert in a specialized field, tries to explain difficult concepts through simplification and creative analogy. I am fascinated by that process of distilling something really complex into something most people can understand. There are so many examples of great books that do this, but the one that still stands out for me is Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. After finishing that book, I was convinced I had a working knowledge of string theory. I was like, I can do this stuff; I could hang with string theorists at a cocktail party. Of course, when I tried to explain even the simplest concept from the book to someone else, I realized how much Greene had been holding my hand. I was like a baby who thought he could walk, until I tried on my own.

Q: Your book deals with time travel in a more serious and even tragic way than most stories about the subject, though you mask the severity with humor to keep the dialogue light and amusing. What made you decide to write about this complicated topic, and how did you come to write about it in this unique manner?
A: I knew I wanted the novel to be a family story, mostly about a father and son, but also about a marriage, and a son-mother story, too. But I could not find the right frame for the story. At the same time, I kept coming back to this idea that had been floating around in my head and on my laptop for years, but one that I could never find a home for. It was about of a man who keeps popping up in different hypothetical universes, trying to find the universe where he belongs. I’d been messing around with that conceit, on and off, for close to five years. Then I remembered a book I’d read years earlier, called The Fabric of Reality, by David Deutsch (which sets out, among other things, Deutsch’s multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics), and in particular, one specific sentence from that book: “Other times are just special cases of other universes.” That sentence was a bridge for me. I realized I didn’t want to write a story about hypothetical universes. I wanted to write a time travel story.

Once I decided that the novel would be about time travel, the book started to take shape. Not quickly, more like, I had a frame, and now little pieces started sticking to the frame, just odd scraps here and there, but the frame was the right one, and I could hang things on it. Most important, what happened was that the two vocabularies—the emotion of a father-mother-son story and the technical glossary of a time travel story--started to interact; like two dry wool blankets, they started to rub up against each other and crackle a bit. Things would pop out of that, phraselets and new words and little surprises of grammar and language and emotion, and science fiction would fall out from that interaction.

Whatever humor there is in there, if any, is probably also a product of that process, of smashing together two sub-languages, emotional and science fictional, and seeing what weird tonal particles are produced from the collision. I knew that the story needed weight, because if it were just whimsical, a reader might wonder why any of it mattered, and of course, the most important thing that I am trying to do is create characters who matter to the reader. I do hope that there are at least a few laughs in there.

Q: Your protagonist, a time travel technician attempting to save people from trying to alter their pasts, is named Charles Yu. How did you come to name him after yourself?
A: It was originally a placeholder, to be honest. So was the father’s name, which is my father’s name. I tried different names for the son and the father, but none of them would take, so I just put in my real name (and my dad’s) so I could get going with the writing, but when I did that, a strange thing happened: the story started moving, fast, in a different direction. Suddenly, it was about a self meeting his self, and the details of the character’s life started to come together, as did the relationship between the son and the father. I think having my actual name in there gave me a straw man, a straw story, that I could write in reaction to. For some reason, once the name of the character became Charles Yu, I stopped slipping in autobiographical or semi-autobiographical information, and actually started removing it. I think I realized, wow, if this character is going to have my name, I’d better take some of this stuff out. There is still a fair amount of it in there, semi- or pseudo-autobiographical, but much of it is more emotionally resonant than factually resonant.

Q: Though there is a definite science fictional aspect to your novel, it is also heavily literary and much more about real life than it at first appears. How, then, would you characterize your novel? Fiction, science fiction, or something outside the realm of typical genre classifications?
A: I was hoping it would be characterized as a time machine, although I realize there is no section for time machines in most bookstores. In terms of topology, I think of it as a stable, looped, four-dimensional object with chronodiegetic properties. In terms of genre, I would be happy for it to be shelved in both fiction and in science fiction. Or maybe under a new category, where they would put books that resist either classification. A lot of my favorite books would be in that category.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m working on a new novel that takes place in “America,” i.e., not America, but a dream-and-desire-fueled holographic projection of the collective mental environment of Americans, which exists as a geographical place that happens to overlap the physical America. It’s also a story about a man looking for his ex-wife and daughter. I hope I can figure out a way to make that make sense.

(Photo © Michael Zara)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:37 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Charles Yu, time travel technician, helps save people from themselves in Minor Universe 31, a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction. When he's not taking client calls, Yu visits his mother and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog named Ed, and using a book titled "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" as his guide, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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