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

by Charles Yu

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1,088807,657 (3.42)57
Member:Alliebadger
Title:How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Authors:Charles Yu
Info:Pantheon (2010), Kindle Edition with Audio/Video, 258 pages
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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

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Showing 1-5 of 80 (next | show all)
Well now that I've finished it...

Basically nothing happens until page 89 of 233. That's a long time to wait, especially while reading logorrhea from a guy who states explicitly that he's avoiding living--just hanging out with some software (and a dog that's not real) in a little box/womb. (For a minute, I thought it would turn out to be a Doctor Who parallel, but no.) Why should I care about this guy and his blathering?

And once the "action" does start, he discovers he's in a time loop, so we get the same thing over and over again until he figures out how to break "free." Trust me, it's even less interesting than the dry description I've given here.

Once free, he goes to revisit scenes from his childhood, in an effort to figure out where his father might have gone. Some of these are very well done (thus the 2-star rating). Too bad they came too late for me to care.

This probably would have been a kick-ass short story. Cut out all the blah, blah, blah and I think it really could have been striking. But unless you're into a VERY poor (and apathetic) man's Ulysses, give this one a pass. ( )
  Pat_F. | Jul 25, 2014 |
Poignant novel about parents and children disguised as a hilarious look at the logical consequences of time travel. ( )
  HenryKrinkle | Jul 23, 2014 |
At the onset seemed this like a clever, quirky, futuristic romp. But while the author had good ideas I hated to see them passed over with little or vague description. The drab prose and ineffectual narrator left me disinterested in the plot. Shame on those who compared this to Douglas Adams. ( )
  emilyingreen | May 28, 2014 |

This is a book I by all accounts should not like. It reeks of postmodernism, the characters would harshen the mellow of most Dickensian characters and it swims in ironic detachment and trying to be clever. In this story it kind of works.

This book is very much in the spirit of, and quite unlike the style of, Douglas Adams. It'll be returning to this one from time to time.

( )
1 vote StigE | Feb 22, 2014 |
I decided to read this book after hearing the author's interview on the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast. It turned out to be a bit different from what I had originally expected, as a sort of hybrid between SF and literary avant-garde, and much of it taking place inside the head of the main character, who happens to have the same name as the author. He gets put through the wringer, both physically and psychically, in the process of discovering the narrative of his own life story. ( )
  rmagahiz | Dec 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 80 (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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Charles Yuprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
塔, 円城Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:33:18 -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)

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