Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

“We are all time machines.”

Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

In what I can only imagine was a subliminal act of self-sabotage, I managed to leave my current read, Stephen King’s bloated and rather tedious The Dark Tower, at home this weekend. Since, mysteriously, I did have my back-up book with me, and stuck for an hour at Clapham Junction with no other form of entertainment, I started mainlining Charles Yu’s psychedelic, fast-paced, clever and downright weird novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. By the time my train arrived, I’d read 100 pages. By the time I got off the train at Salisbury, I was on page 201. I couldn’t stop reading.

What’s this miraculous book about? Well, at root, it’s an almost mundane family drama, spliced with an SF conceit: a time machine repairman who’s voluntarily spent ten years in a kind of timeless suspension, refusing to experience normal, moving-forward time, goes looking for his vanished father while trying to escape a time loop which he knows will end in his death. But it’s also bubbling with ideas: ideas about stories, ideas about time, ideas about family and personality and growth and memory. It is both metaphorical and literal, both SF and literary, both genre and not.

It is, then, as unstable as the concept of science fiction itself (science/fiction, a phrase which collapses two very different concepts into one unstable compound), interrogating the boundaries of observable truth much as the genre does. One of the questions I asked myself as I was reading How to Live Safely was why it was so important to Yu (as it evidently is) that his narrative is science fiction, not fantasy, not fiction, not horror. SF is generally a genre of possibility, I think: it is a genre whose postulates always encode the sense that they might one day come to pass. It is a genre of the future, to state the obvious, and this is one of the reasons why we can’t read How to Live Safely as purely metaphor. The novel is filled with history, future history: it tells us how things came to be the way they are, it roots itself in our reality (Google, Microsoft, Apple all make appearances), it refuses to inhabit the Platonic form of pure allegory. Though, clearly, there is metaphor here – the narrator meeting himself is a metaphorical way of expressing a moment of introspection, and his ten-year timelessness encodes a refusal to live fully, an evasion of reality – we also have to take Yu’s narrative as something true, or something that may be true. It parades itself as both fictional and real: as science/fictional.

It’s a device that extends throughout the work, in fact, on several levels. The novel is partly metafictional: Our Hero just happens to have the same name as Our Writer, so that the concerns which Charles the Writer stumbles across in his “real” life – his science life – are concretised as the timey-wimey plot reversals which Charles the Protagonist faces in his fictional life: a father lost in nostalgia becomes a father literally dislocated in time. Fiction becomes a performance of reality: we understand and comprehend reality (science, if we want to stretch the figure a little bit) as it is bodied forth as fiction.

But it isn’t, of course, as straightforward as that: because when Charles’ story becomes embodied as science/fiction, it becomes a little bit real. The Charleses even tell us this, describing the universe of the novel:

 it is now believed that, in some geological sense, the SF layer is structurally supported by the non-SF core of “reality”, and researchers have recently begun to conduct experiments to study what they suspect may be an invisible, microscopic, but highly dynamic exchange of materials at the thin permeable boundary layer between the two regions.

The very nature of the metaphor is forcing reality and fiction to react, as it were, and if we read reality into our fiction then we also have to read fiction back into our reality. The science fictional universe of the title is both the fictional world and the real one: because we are all time machines, held in the past by nostalgia or propelled into the future by ambition and pride, our experience of time is science/fictional. We dwell more in the fiction of memory or hope than we do in the observable, scientific present.

In telling the story, then, we become the story. In creating fiction, we become fictional. And this is fascinating stuff, SF being one of the few genres that has definitively resisted post-modernism, evidence-based and rational as it so often is. SF writers don’t usually have any truck with this kind of writing, which is a shame, because if this book says anything it’s how easily the genre lends itself to exactly this kind of playfulness. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is an exciting book because it understands what stories are, and because it pushes the boundaries of where they can take us.

I heartily recommend it.

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