Tuesday, 27 March 2012

How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

I saw some amazing reviews of this book, and just had to read it for myself for this month’s entry in the Sci-fi challenge. How to Live in a Science-Fictional Universe is almost impossible to describe, but I’ll give it my best try!

Our hero is Charles Yu (yes, he does have the same name as the actual author), who lives in Universe-31, a small, slightly unstable universe which is kind of based on Star Wars. Charles has spent the last ten years (of his own personal life, but only a few days in real time) in a phone-box-sized time machine, racing around rescuing people who have created paradoxes and time-loops in time machines they’ve rented from Charles’s employers. Accompanying Charles on his adventures is TAMMY, the over-emotional AI who runs the time machine, and Ed, a small terrier who doesn’t, strictly speaking, exist.

Charles has a few personal issues to work out and floating around in his little box, observing situations in the past without ever moving forward in an actual life of his own is no way to do it. The book is interspersed with incidents from his past, when he worked with his father on inventing the world’s first time machine, and his father’s later abandonment of his family and the effect this has had on Charles (and his mother, who has chosen to relive the same hour over and over again in a time-loop) is a major theme of the book.

This synopsis doesn’t really do justice to the total mind-bending weirdness (in a good way) of this book. Elements such as a book which is simultaneously being read and written (that’s the same book you have in your hands), universes that split whenever the past is altered, characters shooting their past selves and thereby negating their own existence and a city that’s a time/space contraction of Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo ensure that you will need to have your wits about you to follow what’s going on.

You can see influences from elsewhere as you read. There are echoes of Red Dwarf’s Holly in TAMMY, and every chapter is preceded by an extract from the handbook, confusingly also called How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe, which reminded me of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but this is an original work and by no means a rip-off of other people’s ideas. I really loved it, and enjoyed trying to bend my brain to follow the convoluted physics being explained. But at the heart of the novel are very human issues to do with time, the pointlessness of looking back and the need to seize the day and get out there. Four stars.


  1. I'm sure I saw some pretty off-putting reviews of this as it caught my eye and something stopped me adding it to the wishlist. Will stick it on there now :)

    1. I can see why some people might dislike it; some say the author's trying too hard to be clever and that it's a bit gimmicky. I thought it was lots of fun though and I liked having plenty to think about.