How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Brief Review

Cover of 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu
Vintage, 2011

After a couple of people at WorldCon recommended How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe to me, I decided to give it a shot. I’d seen it on the shelves, after all, and the premise looked interesting. I love stories about time travel, paradoxes, that sort of thing (Doctor Who is one of my favorite TV shows — ’nuff said), so a novel that features that sort of thing should be right up my alley.

And, on the whole, it was. I can’t honestly say that this was the best book of the year, as some reviewers have said; but, then, I haven’t read that many new books this year. This novel has its comic moments (though I would probably have listed Vonnegut and Fforde as the antecedents of this novel’s humor, rather than Douglas Adams, as one of the reviewers cited on the cover did), not to mention moments of poignancy and near tragedy. I’m a fan of wordplay, and Yu incorporates a lot of that as well, with techno-babble which is obviously not meant to be taken seriously and a (very) few well-considered puns. There’s a lot here to like.

So the question I have for myself is, why didn’t I enjoy this novel more? Why would I give How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe three stars instead of four or five?

I think it’s partially because it was a chore to get into this book initially. There’s a lot of exposition in the beginning; cleverly written exposition, to be sure, but exposition nonetheless, that tells us about how time travel works in Yu’s universe. He tells us about how the vagaries of human emotions — particularly nostalgia — play into how time travel works, and in why people go to the trouble of traveling through time. These are important ideas for Yu to get across to the reader because they are important to understanding the novel’s underlying theme, but the technobabble — and remember, I love technobabble — got on my nerves. I found myself rolling my eyes and muttering, “Again?” at certain passages. By the time I reached the midpoint of the novel, which is where it really begins and the plot clicks to “activate”, I was more annoyed than amused. Of course, once the plot did click in, then the novel, with the themes and ideas that had been developed in the first half, really shone. In short, I felt the first half of the book could have been cut by, oh, at least half, probably three-quarters, without losing the important ideas that are developed thematically in the rest of the book.

The second half of the book is more enjoyable, with its meta-fictional devices and its evocation of time loops and the Ontological Paradox (which just happens to be my favorite of the time travel paradoxes), but still far too reminiscent of Vonnegut for me to feel like there was a lot of originality here. Don’t get me wrong here: I like Vonnegut, and I grant that it’s very hard to evoke him without sounding like a pastiche, and Yu manages to do that here. Still, I wish there were more Yu and less Vonnegut in this novel. And I wish I could make this paragraph make more sense than that.

In short, then: I did enjoy How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and would recommend it to other people looking for comedic science fiction, though I’d offer some caveats (e.g., “Just stick with it through the first half, I promise it’ll work out”). But would I call it a masterpiece of the genre? I’m not certain. I think it’s flawed, but shows promise. I know that Yu will publish more novels, and I know that I will read them.