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How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu
Corvus paperback �12.99

review by review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

In the acknowledgements at the end of this novel, Charles Yu notes expresses his admiration for David Deutsch's The Fabric Of Reality, which helped inspire the writing of How To Live Safely..., even though it is "based on a complete misunderstanding of your ideas." It is an amusing comment - one thing that is immediately evident when reading this novel is that Yu possesses a very agile and pleasing wit - but I also felt a certain relief when I read it, as though Yu had in turn given me permission to misunderstand his novel. Or, rather, given that reading is such a complex business, that he wasn't going to mind if I chose to read his novel differently to the way he intended. Or, and this layering of observation is somewhat indicative of the way Yu's novel is structured, part of the point of this novel may be to show how different people can read the same thing in different ways. Or... maybe I should stop this before I disappear into a recursive loop of my own making.

At the heart of this novel there is a sad and in some respects rather conventional story. A small immigrant family struggles to survive in the US. The parents quarrel about money and the lack of money; in turn, quarrelling about money becomes a cover for arguing about their other dissatisfactions with life and one another. Their son, 'Charles', is struggling to make sense of what he sees and hears, comparing his own family to others, as children do, while trying to build an interior world in which he feels safe. Put like this, it could as easily be a story by Raymond Carver or Alice Hoffmann or any number of other writers who minutely scrutinise the wretched details of ordinary everyday life.

"My father sometimes said that his life was two-thirds disappointment. This was when he was in a good mood," comments 'Charles', who describes his house as a "collection of silences, each room a mute, empty frame, each of us oscillating bodies." His father is a scientist who sees himself trapped by his desk job, diminished by professional defeats, the nature of which are not initially clear to his son, who instead watches his father shrivel up and disappear into himself. This is, suggests the narrator (who may or may not also be the author), "the tragedy of modern science fictional man."

There are various conventional ways this story might have been resolved but from the novel's opening, we know that Yu is unlikely to have chosen any of them. As he tells us early on, "I repair time machines for a living." That and his abandoned "master's in applied science fiction" signal that we are in an unfamiliar world; indeed signal so hard that I began to suspect I might have strayed into a world that wasn't so much futuristic as metaphorical or even meta-fictional. And I am quite sure this was also intentional on Yu's part.

It might be, for example, that the character, 'Charles Yu', living in his minute time machine, a mere cubicle in space, is representative not so much of a fictional reality as of the creative process being enacted by a writer, for example Charles Yu, in producing a novel. Or, that the narrator has chosen to recast his disappointing daily life as a science fictional adventure, in which the mundane becomes futuristic in that he can control his relationship with time. Or, is this just a fancy way of saying that his life isn't really going anywhere much but is suspended in the here and now, marking time what he calls the 'Present-Indefinite'?

Are we really living in the narrator's imagination with him, his imaginary dog, the female AI he secretly rather fancies, and the woman he never met and never married? Psychologically, it could be regarded as an extreme form of distancing. Or it might be what is really going on. All of it, all at the same time� For, as 'Charles' notes, and here he might be quoting from his master's thesis, "a character within a story, or even a narrator, has in general, no way of knowing whether or not he is in the past tense narration of a story, or is instead in the present tense [...] and merely reflecting upon the past."

So, let us travel, then, through time once again, back beyond this Present Indefinite in which the narrator has parked himself and return to the young 'Charles Yu' who helped his father invent a time machine in the garage, a time machine which worked except when it failed, right at the point when they most needed it to work, at a point where someone else had also devised a time machine, one which worked when it needed to, and that person got the financial support that the narrator's father didn't.

We have known all along that 'Charles'' father at some point vanished from his life, and it has been easy to simply assume that he gradually withdrew and then abandoned his wife and teenage boy. The question that has never properly been posed is how he vanished and it is only when 'Charles' is forced to confront this that the story begins finally to unfold. And at this point it might be worth bearing in mind that the narrator's day job involves fixing time machines when people have unwisely tried to go back into their own past to come to terms with significant events, and that his father had a particularly innovative approach to time travel, with it being more than a simply mechanical process.

I am not sure it is actually possible to give away the ending to this novel, not least because it remains ambiguous to the very last, even at the point when all seems finally to have become clear. Perversely, I find that very satisfying because of the way in which the author has played with and challenged my expectations all through the novel. Is this really a science fiction novel or a novel that uses science fictional tropes, or is the writer playing with Barthesian ideas of the death of the author and publicly co-opting the reader into the process of writing, or is he playing with a meta-fictional level of narrative to open the process of writing to the reader? To which the short answer is yes, all of those.

Charles Yu is playing with ideas about form and narrative technique but at the same time he is still telling a compelling story. And there is something undoubtedly joyful about the way that Charles Yu plays with science fictional ideas. On occasion, the story may threaten to descend into sentimentality but Yu always pulls it back in time, avoiding any mawkishness. The tone is by turns controlled, thoughtful and suddenly exuberant, and Yu clearly takes pleasure in language. The reader is always engaged with the narrator, we consider his seemingly commonplace predicament anew because of the way in which he casts it, and at the same time we experience that sense of wonder that is supposedly at the heart of science fiction. In all, Yu's novel, his first, is a genuine pleasure to read.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe



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