Monday, July 04, 2011

[Books] How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Book Look: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu: Just when you think there was nothing left to make out of time travel stories, somebody comes up with something new. The protagonist uses time travel for the purpose of avoiding pain and hiding from life, or, as he describes it, living chronologically.

The protagonist, also named Yu, has deep connections to time travel. His father devoted his life to the invention of a time machine only to have it fail when demo-ing it to an investor. It turns out someone else had been working on similar idea and ended up with the glory. Devastated by this failure, his father used his machine to disappear into a parallel time/space and Yu's been searching for him ever since. His mother, given to depression and passive aggression, has locked herself into a time loop to escape her own pain. For Yu's part, he's become a time machine repairman, which seems to mostly consist of popping in on other time travelers when their machines have broken down because they tried to change the past. All the while, he lives his entire life inside his own time machine, with its hyper-feminine artificial intelligence for a girlfriend and a holographic, yet "ontologically valid", dog as a companion.

The narrative is alternately loaded down with ironic and semi-satirical time travel/metaphysical exposition, which ranges from snicker-worthy to tedious (although mostly the former). As Yu flits from universe to universe you lose track of the when and where of things (kind of like Inception), but that's OK. The metaphoric aspect of the time travel is what counts here. It's very well done and quite clever, the way he keeps the story human.

Should you read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? You'll need a strong streak of geek, or the time travel aspect will chase you away. Otherwise yes, it's an engaging book all the way around, with a thoughtful core about our inability to escape the past; getting lost in time and fear of moving forward; playing it safe. So we beat on, time machines against entropic swells, borne ceaselessly into nonlinear reality.