Time travel: tricky stuff. Meta-fiction: tricky stuff. Combining time travel and meta-fiction? Extremely tricky stuff. Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe aims high by doing just this. I read it at a time when I was precisely in the mood for this kind of timey-wimey, universe-bending confusion of a narrative, so that was a point in its favour. And by and large I think Yu manages to pull it off, though it’s lacking a certain something that might have pushed it to the next level—likeable (or simply less cardboard) protagonist, more clearly defined conflict/antagonist, or more tense worldbuilding—pick one.
Charles Yu is a time travel technician in Minor Universe 31. He lives, sleeps, etc., in a TM-31 (coincidence?) pod thing that lets him travel through time. His job is to rescue people whose time machines have broken down or, more often, intercede when they try to do something stupid like alter their own timeline. All the while, Yu narrates for us his own feelings about his relatively mediocre existence, laments the loss of his father (who kind of invented time travel but then disappeared, like fathers do), and shoots his future self.
That’s when the shit gets weird. See, his future self has a book on him, called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe … and it’s this very book. So there’s a page or three where the book talks about Yu reading that the book talks about Yu reading that the … well, you get it. It’s kind of like that moment in Spaceballs where they check the tape.
I love self-referential stories, provided they do it right. This is a tight rope: too self-referential and the story becomes confusing, circular, and boring; not self-referential enough and it becomes a meaningless, minor gag. Yu walks the tight rope by including the book within the universe of the story, making it a kind of guidebook and part of the mystery that he has to solve before his “time” runs out and his worldline loops back on itself. I read this following on from my re-reading of Sophie’s World, which also does meta-fiction well, but in a very different way.
Similarly, I like how Yu deploys time travel here. Actually, there isn’t that much time travel. It’s just kind of part of the setting. Obviously the main plot wouldn’t exist without it. Beyond that, however, this is a fairly linear story about a guy who shoots his future self, and his quest to find his father.
I think that’s where How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe starts to lose me. The whole conflict of Yu missing his father, wanting to find him again, and reliving memories of the past for our benefit … it’s just a little clichéd at this point. How many more stories about sons feeling like they never measured up to their fathers, wanting to reconcile, needing to find where they’ve hidden/lost themselves within a temporal universe, do we really need?
The same can be said for Yu himself, as a narrator and protagonist. It’s not that he’s a bad guy, but he isn’t exactly likeable either. He’s just your average sort of everydude protagonist of any nerdish comedy: can’t get a “real” woman so falls in love with his feminine computer instead, resigned to a life of mediocrity because he can’t be bothered to do anything else, etc. As with the father–son plot, it’s not that his is poorly done, just an example of a larger trope that is overdone.
So I’m left with a book that I enjoyed reading but whose contents are not, in my opinion, all that stellar. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe has its fun moments; it’s just that unlike Charles Yu’s own narrative, the story itself never escapes the boundaries of its own tropes to blossom into its own, intriguing universe. This was a nice enough pit stop in between a very dry, academic book and an Animorphs read, but it’s not something I’m going to be remembering for a long time.