The International Writers Magazine: Book Review (From our Archives)
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu
Publisher: Corvus Pub 1.10.2010
Sam North review
I told her I’d never met software with low self-esteem before.
This a novel about the perfect time you will never have with the perfect girl you will never meet, about a life never lived in a time that never happened.
The other day I was thinking about writing a book about time travel called ‘A Waste of Time’ and realised that no one would ever read a book called ‘A Waste of Time’ because no matter how good it was, they’d always be conscious of the time they were wasting reading it. It’s a paradox and that’s what ‘How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe’ is like. Meet the time machine repairman who lives with a retconned dog called Ed, who was once a sidekick in a western but was kicked off the show and never existed anyway, but nevertheless is a loyal dog. Meet Tammy who is unreliable software that just maybe our repairmen is in love with and he’s arranged his life so that he lives in his tiny box of a time machine in a moment between time – mostly to avoid moving on with his life. He has issues, the failure of his father to be a successful time machine inventor who spent a life wishing he had more time, but not for his family. He has a mother who lives in a sixty-minute loop by choice, re-experiencing a Sunday lunch family forever. Are they all crazy?
Curiously, the moment of going back to relive the day his father and teen version of himself went to show the big Corporation the time machine machine that his father had been working on for decades is beautifully crafted and replete with wistful knowingness. His father wasted time and never really recovered from it. His son, our nerdish hero, ended up a repairman of time machines for the same corporation they unsuccessfully pitched to.
Seems time travel isn’t all it is cracked up to be. You can’t change the past. No matter how you hard you try. Kill all the butterflies you like but it will only ever produce alternate universes (and it seems there are a few). ‘Butterfly Effect’ similarly played with the idea that you can only make things worse but ‘How too…’ is riddled with a chronic sense of despair and nostalgia, which attracts and detracts from any sense of narrative loyalty.
There’s one rule for a time machine repairman: If you see yourself coming at you, don’t think, don’t talk, don’t do anything. Just run.
The nub of this story is that our repairmen sees himself coming and shoots himself dead. You don’t recover easily from something like that.
Repairman, Ed the dog, Tammy the software with sexy pixels and predilection for crying are all brilliant creations and you wish, desperately wish for something more than a mawkish investigation into ‘why didn’t my father love me enough’ angst. But that’s what this is and all I can say is, if you see yourself coming, say hi, make notes, move on, you might learn something. This is a great idea that is trapped in an ever-tightening loop with some curiously sad and wonderful moments on the way. Kind of like Solaris with jokes.
© Sam North December 2010
author of Another place to Die: Endtime