Monday, August 15, 2011

2011 Not a Hugo Nominee: Novel – HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu

Charles Yu is really good at freezing a moment in time - not necessarily a particularly important moment - and picking it apart. Within these moments, he manages to detail every conflicting emotion, all of the personal history and potential, and the interplay of little background vignettes. In this novel, Yu hand-waives his way through some science fiction traditions like time machines and temporal loops as an excuse to create some of these frozen-in-time moments. We get to see every detail of a father and son meeting in a park, for instance, because the narrator is reliving it.

Just as with Super Sad True Love Story, we’re back on the topic of literary/sf crossover. I generally try to avoid excluding books with labels, but I’m going to put my cards on the table and say what I think about the genre elements here: while Shteyngart is an example of a literary writer doing science fiction, this novel is an example of a writer using science fiction references to write a postmodern, literary novel. I spent much of my decade away from reading science fiction reading “po-mo” novels by the likes of Pynchon and Auster, so I know these things when I see them. There are a lot of genre tropes here, but this is really a story of an unhappy man thinking about his father and about where his own life went wrong. Heinlein, LeGuin, Niven and others get name-checked, but there’s not much of their spirit here – which is not inherently a bad thing, though perhaps it is misleading.

The narrator, Charles Yu (first sign we’re in a postmodern novel: the author or his/her name appears somehow) is a time travel machine repairman in some sort of meta-universe that is finite, shifting and crowded with characters and ideas from science fiction (Luke Skywalker’s disgruntled son appears – it’s totally non-canonical if there are any hardcore Star Wars expanded universe fans out there reading :P ). Yu finds himself in a time loop, and he kind-of-maybe has to solve the mystery of the book he’s in that we’re reading (now we’re really getting po-mo!) and find his Dad. He’s aided by a cute computer program named TAMMY and his retconned dog Ed (if you don’t know what a retcon is, you don’t read/watch enough serialized storytelling). That’s kind of the plot, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. We mostly get these detailed deconstructions of scenes of Charles and his dad as they struggle to build and market the first time machine.

I have mixed feelings about these freeze-frame analyses. As I said, Yu does a great job with them, and there are moving moments and a few beautiful lines in the mix. On the other hand, they tend to drag on and maybe even get a bit repetitive. And they’re pretty damn self-indulgent. And, if you don’t like them, there’s not much going on in the rest of this short novel other than some po-mo games with illustrations and metatextuality. But, when the book is moving, it really is moving. It feels like there’s a lot of raw emotional truth on the page, trying to hide behind the games, and (deliberately?) failing. I kind of admire Yu’s sincerity, even if I didn’t always completely enjoy it.

I’m having a hard time rendering a verdict on this novel. I'm glad I read it, but I didn’t love it. I admired the emotional content and enjoyed some of the po-mo games about half the time, but found them cloying and tedious the other half. I liked its metatextual engagement with science fiction, but found it too shallow in the end to say that it added all that much…

I think I’d give this novel a mild recommendation, but I’d like to see more work from Yu, specifically something more ambitious and straightforward. I wish the sf literati had taken a harder look at Super Sad Love Story, but they weren't missing much here (even though this book seemed to get a little more attention in sf circles - I guess its the title).

Grade: B-


  1. I read this not long after reading KA Bedford's "Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait". While I appreciate that they're telling different stories, there was so much overlap, and I found Bedford so much more engaging that the lure of an OTT space/time war finale was perfect... Where this left me feeling that I wasn't the only one who liked Bedford... Yu takes the setting to totally different places, but I just didn't find it as satisfying.

  2. I'll have to check that story out. I did love the concept.