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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


How to Live Safely
in a Science Fictional Universe

Charles Yu

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To purchase How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Title: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Author: Charles Yu
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 237 pages
Availability: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - US
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - UK
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - Canada
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - India
Handbuch für Zeitreisende - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clever, often appealing, if ultimately too clean

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 20/9/2010 James Lovegrove
The Guardian A 30/10/2010 Adam Roberts
Independent on Sunday . 19/6/2011 David Evans
The LA Times . 22/8/2010 Ed Park
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/9/2010 Ander Monson
Scotland on Sunday A 10/10/2010 Stuart Kelly

  From the Reviews:
  • "Littered with pop culture references, complex physics and meta-fictional devices, Yus novel is SF -- but not as we know it." - James Lovegrove, Financial Times

  • "Though the title is badly chosen (unwitting booksellers will shelve it in popular science, or with those memoirs about growing up as an SF fan), Charles Yu's novel is pretty superb: involving, clever, perky, properly science fictional and above all funny." - Adam Roberts, The Guardian

  • "Although there are poignant moments (...) for the most part this bewildering debut novel is rather too clever for its own good." - David Evans, Independent on Sunday

  • "Yu has a crisp, intermittently lyrical prose style, one that's comfortable with both math and sadness, moving seamlessly from delirious metafiction (...) to the straight-faced prose of instruction-manual entries. (...) At times, How to Live Safely is like watching an animated version of that Escher print of hands drawing each other. But it's far from a sterile exercise in closed-system aesthetics, thanks not only to Yu's sense of humor but also the patient tracking of the ghost in the (time) machine." - Ed Park, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Mostly it works. We all want it to work. (...) These pyrotechnics balance the tender moments, creating a complex, brainy, genre-hopping joyride of a story, far more than the sum of its component parts, and smart and tragic enough to engage all regions of the brain and body. As science fiction writers know, sometimes its easier to see ourselves clearly in the mirror of technology creep and the future. Yus novel is an elegy for that future and those beautiful, broken selves." - Ander Monson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, on the other hand, buzzes with ideas, takes stylistic risks successfully, and is tightly focused on the emotional impact of the story. (...) Although Yu has evidently read his literary theory (and there is a glorious set piece where his character reads, writes and edits the book from the future simultaneously which is as good an account of literary creation as I've read), this doesn't hobble his emotional acuity. The novel is especially ingenious in using the language of grammar more than "techno-babble"." - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe begins wonderfully, with narrator Charles Yu, a technician who fixes time machines for a living, careening about in his TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device. The premise is a fine one: time travel has, in a sense, been conquered -- but while the time machines open a window to the past, it turns out you can't really change things to your liking. (If you know how, you can also peek into alternate universes and do things like check up on how your alternate selves are faring -- which Yu does, not that it cheers him up ("I guess I've come to terms with that, with what it probably means. If 89.7 percent of the other versions of you are assholes, chances are you aren't exactly mister personality yourself.").)
       When not floating about in his time machine Yu heads home to Minor Universe 31, which is largely made up of a (literal) amalgam of New York City and Los Angeles, with a slice of Tokyo thrown in -- and: "Reality represents 13 percent of the total surface area and 17 percent of the total volume of Minor Universe 31". Mom is spending her old age in a time loop, reliving the same hour (that's all they could afford) over and over, while Dad has long been missing -- and, of course, this is a story of a son searching for his Dad, and learning that the past is past and can't be undone, and that you can't really go home again.
       Yu's father was a tinkerer who tried to invent a time machine. He had the right idea, but he couldn't quite pull it off, and the failure pushed him away from his family (his increasing distance nicely presented here). Yu has to come to terms with how his family drifted apart: yes, this is ultimately a very conventional kind of quest-story, Yu just working within rather different fictional parameters here.
       Between the short chapters in which the protagonist is recounting his adventures (or at least what he is doing) there are also excerpts from a book, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Eventually this Yu finds a copy of this book -- and finds that he is its author. And he finds himself in his own time loop, repeating everything -- and unsure how to proceed, knowing what awaits him: all good meta-fictional and paradoxical fun.
       There's a lot of clever stuff here, especially in the details of Minor Universe 31 and the ways in which the small and everyday differ (often radically) from the familiar reality, whether in the dog that is Yu's companion or the computer programs that he communicates with (a general theme being that most of these entities are not very self-aware: as Yu says about his dog, Ed: "I'm pretty sure he doesn't even know that he doesn't exist"). Time loops and the like also offer wonderful opportunities, and Yu has a good touch with some of Yu's wistful philosophizing about the human condition (and specifically his condition):

Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language . The individual events in your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, pre-processed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.
       Time-travel suggests the possibility of more: of going back -- just as time loops seem to allow a moment to be relived forever -- but, of course, it's not that simple, and Yu does quite a good job spinning these ideas and consequences out.
       How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe tells a solid if surprisingly conventional story. The science fiction isn't pure padding and frills, but they do come to feel like trappings for a very specific story Yu wants to tell. After a very promising beginning, Yu doesn't take things anywhere near as far as he might have, stalling in the more mundane.
       How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a fine and fun book, but in the end a bit of a disappointment after a beginning that glitters with greatness.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 October 2010

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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Charles Yu was born in 1976.

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© 2010-2011 the complete review

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