Review: How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu

Pantheon
Released September 7, 2010
233 pages
Science Fiction / Philosophical

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National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award winner Charles Yu delivers his debut novel, a razor-sharp, ridiculously funny, and utterly touching story of a son searching for his father . . . through quantum space–time.

Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots beckon failed protagonists, and time travel is serious business. Every day, people get into time machines and try to do the one thing they should never do: change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician—part counselor, part gadget repair man—steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls or consoling his boss, Phil, who could really use an upgrade, Yu visits his mother (stuck in a one-hour cycle of time, she makes dinner over and over and over) and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory. He learns that the key may be found in a book he got from his future self. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and he’s the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could help him—in fact it may even save his life.

Wildly new and adventurous, Yu’s debut is certain to send shock waves of wonder through literary space–time.

This book is not what is advertised. If this book wasn’t advertised as funny, hilarious, compared to Hitchhiker’s Guide and all around touted as a super meta comedy adventure, I probably wouldn’t have found myself so down on it when it was over. This book is not funny. There are a few moments of levity, but instead I found How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe more of a philosophical triste on how a child’s relationship to a parent changes throughout a lifetime than anything involving action, adventure or hilarity.

The nameless narrator, who I guess based on the blurb is supposed to be Charles Yu himself, is a time travel technician, helping people who get stuck when time traveling. There are so many possibilities for action and adventure and fun with this concept, so it’s unfortunate that none of those possibilities are used. The narrator brings in his time travel machine in for maintenance after hanging out in the time stream for nearly 10 years only to find himself getting stuck in a time loop when he returns to pick up his ship the next day. Memories of his father, who has been missing for a long time and sorta, kinda developed time travel, haunt him as he relives key moments of his life and wonders if he will ever find his lost father.

This book is philosophical meanderings on family and lost and growing up. There are small illusions to interesting science fictional concepts as part of the world building, but they never feed into the larger story. There is little to no action and the plot is very simple as the narrator relives memories after getting stuck in a time loop and re-examines who his parents, especially his father, were as people while he was a child, but now from an adult perspective. There’s wandering thoughts on the nature of loneliness and what ifs and parallel universes created by making different choices. Wu goes heavy meta on language and high sci-fi concepts that twist your brain into a noodle-y mess by the end. In the end it all just kind of made me sad.

What there isn’t is much in the way of action or comedy or anything to ramp up pacing. This book really should be advertised in as more of relational book about family that happens to take place within the constraints of a science fiction world. Had that been what I was expecting, I probably wouldn’t have felt so jipped by the time I had finished it, and I probably would have enjoyed it more instead of getting bored while I waited for the fun to start.