Getting Lost in Charles Yu’s “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”


I’ll be frank with you: I’m not even sure I understand this book. That’s not an impediment to enjoying it, though. Just like wandering a house of mirrors, getting lost is most of the fun.

When he’s not fixing other people’s existential mishaps, time travel machine technician Charles Yu (the author is the main character here, or maybe he just shares the same name, or maybe he’s an alternate reality analog, or uh, jeez, my head hurts) spends most of his time – or maybe not, it’s all relative – in an indefinite state somewhere in the limbo between present and past with only his non-existent (yet still ontologically valid) dog and needy, self-hating operating system for company. His own father invented the time machine and has since disappeared somewhere into time-space, which hasn’t really helped Charles to resolve his own feelings of guilt and anger about their relationship. A chronological mishap lands Charles in an endless loop, forcing him to seek his father out in the hope that he can help resolve it.

Or maybe not. Maybe this isn’t really happening at all.

Both the author and the character hints at the true definition of time travel many times in the book, and it doesn’t necessarily involve a machine. All of us are time travelers, constantly moving forward into time, and just like the time machine that Charles operates, our own memory allows us to revisit the past but never change it. Charles needs to resolve his past with his father in order to stop reliving the past and engage once again with his present.

Makes sense, right? Not really. That’s way too Jonathan Livingston Seagull to be right.

The book itself is a time machine. Charles Yu is living within it. In a moment of meta-textual mind freakery, one Charles Yu even gives the real (?) Charles Yu a copy of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which he then begins to write…as he reads it simultaneously…therefore ensuring its creation here and now…as it is being written by Charles Yu…and read by you.

I think that I want to lie down now.

You’ll want to read this book, though. It’s clever, this science fiction time travel meta-textual Moebius Loop of a book/not-book. Entirely like anything you’ve ever seen…or never seen, depending on which “you” you are. Or were.

  • This is one of my favorite books of the year, it’s so clever and inventive,

  • Topiary Cow

    Matt, thank you for this recommending and also for your review which made more sense to me than the book did.
    The book was clever, funny and engaging at first. The author is clearly introspective and questions deeply every relationship in his life, and comes up with some original and at times hilarious insights, for instance about the requirements to be a hero.

    Where he lost me was towards the end where he goes on for pages and pages whining about not fitting in with the rich kids at his school, feeling victimized that his family was poor, etc. It’s a tired old saw that there are always people worse off than you, but the author is obviously educated and living well enough to write for a living, according to his acknowledgments he has more friends and helpful co-workers and family than many of us can dream of, so I would like to see him ditch the self-pity. How about being glad he had the opportunity to attend such a school? Glass is half-empty author.
    Yu in the beginning
    TAMMY the computer
    Ed the dog
    Humorous and thought-provokingly original at first
    The cleverness for the sake of being clever
    Self-pity and feeling his Dad was a victim
    Whining about being immigrant and not fitting in
    Lost opportunity
    This could have been a more engaging book had he left off the time-travel word-play cleverness and followed the main character doing his job and experiencing some personal growth. For instance, having the narrative following some of the time-travelers who subverted their machines and got into trouble could have given the main character some adventures and the possibility of love with someone besides his self-reflection robot Tammy.
    Overall the first half of the book rates an A+. The second half needs to do some time traveling and come around again in a different form.

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