What is Liz Reading? — a review and minor gush-fest of “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” by Charles Yu

Surprise surprise, I’m reading something I’ve already read three times.

More surprise, it’s my favorite book: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.

This book. This book. It was an accidental purchase on my Kindle about three years ago. I got a sample, thinking it looked neat but hesitant to spend the $10. I devoured the sample, then continued to mull my financial dilemma. One day, I opened my Kindle and accidentally clicked the “Buy Now” button. And it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is, on the surface, about a man who uses a time machine to patrol the universe and fix other people’s time machines. He works for the company who lends/sells these machines to consumers, and he is mostly responsible for helping people get out of temporal snafus caused by them trying to “fix” things in their pasts. The main character, Charles Yu, has been traveling in his time machine for ten years, fixing other people’s problems and trying to run from his own. He’s middle-aged and sarcastic, and his companions are his machine’s AI interface, TAMMY, and a “nonexistent” (fictional) dog named Ed.

Beneath the surface, however, this is a book about Charles’ desire to fix his own past, to find the father that invented the time machine, had his concept stolen by the company to which he pitched it, and then lost himself in the universe. Charles hasn’t seen his father in years, and as the book progresses, you discover more about this past with his father and about how really, the last ten years, he’s been trying to find his father, discover traces of him that may be left in the universe.

Why do I love this book so much? The novel is set in a universe that is sort of similar to ours, but with a very big difference: it’s totally meta-fiction. It’s a metaphor about metaphors. The setting is literally the setting of a novel.

Thirty-one is a smallish universe, slightly below average in size. On the cosmic scale, somewhere between shoe box and standard aquarium. Not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it. Despite its relatively modest physical dimensions, inhabitants of 31 report a considerable variance in terms of psychological scale, probably owing to the significant inconsistency in conceptual density of the underlying fabric of this region of existence. (23)

Within the novel setting of Universe 31, there are two types of people you will find:

Inhabitants of Universe 31 are separated into two categories, protagonists and back office.

Protagonists may choose from any available genre. Currently, there are openings in steampunk.

Back office support works must choose between retcon, accounting, human resources, time machine repair, or janitorial. (31)

The setting feels real, almost, like this could be our universe in a few short decades. As Charles talks about his childhood, you almost imagine that he could have seen the technological rise that would allow things like spaceships and time machines — but then you realize that he grew up in a subsection of the universe on the outskirts of what is known as “reality” but was still technically “science fiction.”

The book is a book about books. At one point, Charles even finds this book (the one you’re holding — How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe) that he will have written in the future, and starts writing it even as he’s reading it, and the book you’re reading becomes the book he’s reading and writing and it’s like you’re reading and writing it with him.

WHAT.

My favorite part of this book, however, is the poetry of it. The language is wistful, nostalgic, somber. Heavy. The way Yu describes things that are supposedly mundane in this world is magnificent, as you can see from this paragraph about a thing called a “news cloud” that works basically like personalized TV.

The guy reaches his stop and gets off, leaving his news cloud behind. I love watching the way these clouds break up, little wisps of information trailing off like a flickering tail, a dragon’s tail of typewriter keys and wind chimes, those little monochrome green cloudlets, a fog of fragments and images and words. On busy news days, the entire city is awash in these cloudlets, like fifty million newspapers brought to breathing, blaring life, and then obliterated into a sea of disintegrating light and noise.

The exercise of wrapping your head around this book — both its concept and sometimes startlingly scientific jargon — is so worth it, if only for these little moments that read like a sigh of contentment in my head. Each time I read it, I find something new and profound, something heavy that sits on my chest for days afterward. This is not a book to read while doing other things. This is a book to give attention to, to ruminate over slowly and then digest, because if you do, you may learn something, or nothing, or everything. If I sound overly dramatic, it’s because I’m biased and thinking about it makes me want to be dramatic.

If you do anything for yourself this week, get this book. Immerse yourself in it. Get lost with Charles in his time machine. And then come tell me about your experience. 🙂

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