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Charles Yu: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

04 Nov 2010 · No Comments

I’ve been mulling over How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe for a couple of weeks now, and frankly, I’m not sure I completely get it. But I enjoyed reading it a lot, and I’ve also enjoyed thinking about the author’s choices, and why I can’t quite make coherent sense of them. Although I found it thought provoking, it’s not hard to read — despite an intimidating chart or two and a few excessively self-referential passages, the prose is lucid and unadorned. (I might particularly recommend this novel to fans of Russell Hoban’s Fremder, and vice versa, although if I remember right Fremder is a good bit creepier.)

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe seems to operate in at least three dimensions:

On one hand, it has (as you might expect from the title) some science fictional trappings: the narrator travels around in a time & space navigation machine that perhaps-not-coincidentally seems to be about the same external size as Dr. Who’s TARDIS; the story includes robots, and alien creatures, and other planets.

On another hand, the narrator’s name is “Charles Yu” and characters in the novel encounter a manual titled “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” excerpts from which are included in the text. So there’s some amount of meta-text/break-the-fourth-wall shenanigans going. But neither author-Yu nor narrator-Yu address this head-on; narrator-Yu seems to implicitly acknowledge that his life operates according to “science fictional” rules, but he doesn’t confront this awareness directly the way the characters of, say, Flann O’ Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds do — narrator-Yu seems to more-or-less accept his science fictional lot. The set up might seem designed to suggest that author-Yu might be exploring autobiographical material through the vehicle of rendering it in science fictional form. Author-Yu explicitly rejects some aspects of this in his acknowledgements, although, given all the fourth-wall perforation, it may be fair to wonder if Author-Yu is necessarily any less given to self-delusion and/or dissembling than narrator-Yu (who is clearly practiced at both).

On the third hand (since this is science fictionish, if not science fiction per se) what the novel is really about is narrator-Yu’s struggle toward emotional maturation, largely expressed through the plot device of searching for his (literally, physically) absent father. This plainly represents searching to understand his father a little better, more specifically understanding why his father was fundamentally unhappy, with the goal of avoiding (if possible) choices that led to that sort of unhappiness. As the son (like narrator-Yu) of an emotionally distant scientist who probably would have preferred much more bench-work than his career held, I found much of this heartbreakingly on point.

What I’m not quite sure of is whether the science fictional aspects are just a clever device to enliven a (finely observed, but not fundamentally surprising) coming-of-age story or if it all scare quotes means something end scare quotes. The “minor universe” in which the story is set has the same designation as the Andromeda galaxy in the Messier catalog, for instance, and if that’s not coincidental, you might claim it says something about the science fictionality of our reality . . . but then again, maybe “31″ is just “31.”

Dept. of “huh.”: Just about a year ago I read (and also really liked) another book in which the physical book I was reading was described in its own text. So far, I’m down with this meme.

needs more demons? nuh uh.

Tags: fiction · h-title · y-author

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