“Glittering layers of gorgeous and playful meta-science-fiction. . . . Like [Douglas] Adams, Yu is very funny, usually proportional to the wildness of his inventions, but Yu’s sound and fury conceal (and construct) this novel’s dense, tragic, all-too-human heart. . . . Yu is a superhero of rendering human consciousness and emotion in the language of engineering and science. . . . 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.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Compulsively rereadable. . . . Hilarious. . . . 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. . . . [The book itself] is like Steve Jobs’ ultimate hardware fetish, a dreamlike amalgam of functionality and predetermination.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick are touchstones, but Yu’s sense of humor and narrative splashes of color–especially when dealing with a pretty solitary life and the bittersweet search for his father, a time travel pioneer who disappeared–set him apart within the narrative spaces of his own horizontal design. . . . A clever little story that will be looped in your head for days. No doubt it will be made into a movie, but let’s hope that doesn’t take away the heart.”
“If How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe contented itself with exploring that classic chestnut of speculative fiction, the time paradox, it would likely make for an enjoyable sci-fi yarn. But Yu’s novel is a good deal more ambitious, and ultimately more satisfying, than that. It’s about time travel and cosmology, yes, but it’s also about language and narrative — the more we learn about Minor Universe 31, the more it resembles the story space of the novel we’re reading, which is full of diagrams, footnotes, pages left intentionally (and meaningfully) blank and brief chapters from the owner’s manual of our narrator’s time machine. . . . . Yu grafts the laws of theoretical physics onto the yearnings of the human heart so thoroughly and deftly that the book’s technical language and mathematical proofs take on a sense of urgency.”
“How to Live Safely is a book likely to generate a lot of discussion, within science fiction and outside, infuriating some readers while delighting many others.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“An extraordinary work. . . . I read the entire book in one gulp.”
—Chris Wallace, GQ
“A great Calvino-esque thrill ride of a book.”
“Science and metaphor get nice and cozy in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. The novel joins the likes of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Jillian Weise’s The Colony, fiction that borrows the tropes of sci-fi to tell high-tech self-actualization narratives.”
“A brainy reverie of sexbots, rayguns, time travel and Buddhist zombie mothers. . . . Packed with deft emotional insight.”
“A funny, funny book, and it’s a good thing, too; because at its heart it’s a book about loneliness, regret, and the all-too-human desire to change the past.”
“A keenly perceptive satire. . . . Yu’s novel is also a meditation on the essentials of human life at its innermost point.. . . Campy allusions to the original Star Wars trilogy, a cityscape worthy of the director’s cut of Blade Runner and a semi-coherent vocabulary of techno-jargon cement these disparate elements into a brilliant send-up of science fiction. . . . Perhaps it would be better to think of the instructional units of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe in terms of the chapters of social commentary which John Steinbeck placed into the plot structure of The Grapes of Wrath.”
—California Literary Review
“How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the rare book I pick up to read the first several pages, then decide to drop everything and finish at once. Emotionally resonant, funny, and as clever as any book I have read all year, this debut novel heralds the arrival of a talented young writer unafraid to take chances.”
“A wild and inventive first novel . . . has been compared to the novels of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Jonathan Lethem, and the fact that such comparisons are not out of line says everything necessary about Yu’s talent and future.”
“Bends the rules of time and literary convention.”
“Getting stuck with Yu in his time loop is like watching an episode of Doctor Who as written by the young Philip Roth. Even when recalling his most painful childhood moments, Yu makes fun of himself or pulls you into a silly description of fake physics experiments. In this way, he delivers one of the most clear-eyed descriptions of consciousness I’ve seen in literature: It’s full of self-mockery and self-deception, and yet somehow manages to keep its hands on the wheel, driving us forward into an unknowable future. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is intellectually demanding, but also emotionally rich and funny. . . . It’s clearly the work of a scifi geek who knows how to twist pop culture tropes into melancholy meditations on the nature of consciousness.”
“Funny [and] moving. . . . Charles Yu’s first novel is getting ready for lift-off, and it more than surpasses expectations which couldn’t be any higher after he was given the 5 Under 35 Award . . . How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe is one of the trippiest and most thoughtful novels I’ve read all year, one that begs for a single sit-down experience even if you’re left with a major head rush after the fact for having gulped down so many ideas in a solitary swoop. . . . Yu’s literary pyrotechnics come in a marvelously entertaining and accessible package, featuring a reluctant, time machine-operating hero on a continual quest to discover what really happened to his missing father, a mysterious book possibly answering all, and a computer with the most idiosyncratic personality since HAL or Deep Thought. . . . Like the work of Richard Powers . . . How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe fuses the scientific and the emotional in ways that bring about something new.”
—Sarah Weinman, The Daily Beast
“One of the best novels of 2010. . . . It is a wonderfully stunning, brilliant work of science fiction that goes to the heart of self-realization, happiness and connections. . . . Yu has accomplished something remarkable in this book, blending science fiction universes with his own, alternative self’s life, in a way, breaking past the bonds of the page and bringing the reader right into the action. . . . Simply, this is one of the absolute best time travel stories . . . even compared to works such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells or the Doctor Who television series.”
“Within a few pages I was hooked. . . . There are times when he starts off a paragraph about chronodiegetics that just sounds like pseudo-scientific gibberish meant to fill in some space. And then you realize that what he’s saying actually makes sense, that he’s actually figured out something really fascinating about the way time works, about the way fiction works, and the “Aha!” switch in your brain gets flipped. That happened more than once for me. There are so many sections here and there that I found myself wanting to share with somebody: Here—read this paragraph! Look at this sentence! Ok, now check this out!”
“In this debut novel, Charles Yu continues his ambitious exploration of the fantastic with a whimsical yet sincere tribute to old-school science fiction and quantum physics. . . . A fascinating, philosophical and disorienting thriller about life and the context that gives it meaning.”
—Kirkus, starred review
“With Star Wars allusions, glimpses of a future world, and journeys to the past, as well as hilarious and poignant explanations of “chronodiegetics,” or the “theory of the nature and function of time within a narrative space,” Yu, winner of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award, constructs a clever, fluently metaphorical tale. A funny, brain-teasing, and wise take on archetypal father-and-son issues, the mysteries of time and memory, emotional inertia, and one sweet but bumbling misfit’s attempts to escape a legacy of sadness and isolation.”
“This book is cool as hell. If I could go back in time and read it earlier, I would.”
—Colson Whitehead, author of Sag Harbor
“Charles Yu is a tremendously clever writer, and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is marvelously written, sweetly geeky, good clean time-bending fun.”
—Audrey Niffenegger, author of Her Fearful Symmetry and The Time Traveler’s Wife
“Funny, touching, and weirdly beautiful. This book is awesome.”
—Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World
“How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is that rare thing—a truly original novel. Charles Yu has built a strange, beautiful, intricate machine, with a pulse that carries as much blood as it does electricity.”
—Kevin Brockmeier, author of The View from the Seventh Layer and The Brief History of the Dead
“Poignant, hilarious, and electrically original. Bends time, mind, and genre.”
—David Eagleman, author of Sum
A conversation with Charles Yu
author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
You’re a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award-winner and this is your debut novel. When and why did you start writing, and what advice do you have for other young writers out there trying to get published?
I wrote poems and essays as a kid, and in college, I dreamed of becoming a professional writer, whatever I thought that meant, although, for a lot of reasons, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Mostly, my parents were going to murder me if I tried to apply to an MFA program. First-degree murder.
So I didn’t actually start writing until 2002, shortly after I began my career as a lawyer. Working in a high-pressure environment was squeezing me pretty hard, and all that pressure found its way out in the form of little things I was jotting down, in the margins of receipts, on the backs of business cards. I wrote a series of physics problems about a married couple’s life together. I wrote some instructions for how to play a metaphysical video game. Stuff like that.
But I didn’t think I was actually writing, let alone writing what anyone would call fiction, until I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. That book blew the doors off the empty little space that had previously housed my puny imagination.
Up until that point, I’d had no clue as to what a story could be. And it was because my ideas were assumptions. Tacit, limiting, ultimately false assumptions, which added up to a severely impoverished conception of what was possible in fiction. After reading CivilWarLand, I knew I wanted that feeling, wanted to be surprised like that, and flattened onto the floor, and embarrassed my by own narrowness. I wanted to have my doors blown off again and again. It was a short distance to go from wanting to have that feeling to also wanting to see if maybe I could ever give that feeling to someone else.
As for advice, it would be to transfer all the anxiety about publication into anxiety about whether the story works, whether a reader is going to care about the characters. I break down the process into four components: writing, rewriting, submitting, and worrying. My ideal, not at all realistic, scenario, would be to make the proportion of time spent on each of those activities something like: 19 percent, 80 percent, 1 percent, 0 percent. This is very hypocritical of me to say, of course, as I’ve never done this myself, I’ve never even been close. But I do know that the farther from zero the last two numbers get, the more I’m in trouble. And that the second number should be much bigger than the first.
How has your interest in and knowledge of science and science fiction contributed to and inspired your writing of this book?
I read and collected comics as a kid, read pretty much everything I could find of Asimov, including the whole Foundation series in one semester in eighth grade (to the detriment of my English grade), and so much else, too much to list or even remember. Then, at some point in high school, I got the idea that there were serious books we read in school, and there was science fiction, and there was not a lot of overlap. That lasted until my senior year in college, when I stumbled on Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, which wasn’t exactly science fiction, it was this amazing love story. It also handled actual science (cognitive science, artificial intelligence) without watering it down, and yet was still clearly Serious Fiction, whatever that meant to me back then, the kind that was in the Sunday book review sections. After that, I began to search out more writing like that, more Powers, and Jonathan Lethem.
Currently, I read more science than I do anything else, including fiction. I especially enjoy reading books written by scientists for lay folk, like me. I was a biochem major in college, and so part of it is that I am interested in the science itself, but I’m just as interested in the process of explanation, how the author, an expert in a specialized field, tries to explain difficult concepts through simplification and creative analogy. I am fascinated by that process of distilling something really complex into something most people can understand. There are so many examples of great books that do this, but the one that still stands out for me is Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. After finishing that book, I was convinced I had a working knowledge of string theory. I was like, I can do this stuff; I could hang with string theorists at a cocktail party. Of course, when I tried to explain even the simplest concept from the book to someone else, I realized how much Greene had been holding my hand. I was like a baby who thought he could walk, until I tried on my own.
Your book deals with time travel in a more serious and even tragic way than most stories about the subject, though you mask the severity with humor to keep the dialogue light and amusing. What made you decide to write about this complicated topic, and how did you come to write about it in this unique manner?
I knew I wanted the novel to be a family story, mostly about a father and son, but also about a marriage, and a son-mother story, too. But I could not find the right frame for the story. At the same time, I kept coming back to this idea that had been floating around in my head and on my laptop for years, but one that I could never find a home for. It was about of a man who keeps popping up in different hypothetical universes, trying to find the universe where he belongs. I’d been messing around with that conceit, on and off, for close to five years. Then I remembered a book I’d read years earlier, called The Fabric of Reality, by David Deutsch (which sets out, among other things, Deutsch’s multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics), and in particular, one specific sentence from that book: “Other times are just special cases of other universes.” That sentence was a bridge for me. I realized I didn’t want to write a story about hypothetical universes. I wanted to write a time travel story.
Once I decided that the novel would be about time travel, the book started to take shape. Not quickly, more like, I had a frame, and now little pieces started sticking to the frame, just odd scraps here and there, but the frame was the right one, and I could hang things on it. Most important, what happened was that the two vocabularies—the emotion of a father-mother-son story and the technical glossary of a time travel story—started to interact; like two dry wool blankets, they started to rub up against each other and crackle a bit. Things would pop out of that, phraselets and new words and little surprises of grammar and language and emotion, and science fiction would fall out from that interaction.
Whatever humor there is in there, if any, is probably also a product of that process, of smashing together two sub-languages, emotional and science fictional, and seeing what weird tonal particles are produced from the collision. I knew that the story needed weight, because if it were just whimsical, a reader might wonder why any of it mattered, and of course, the most important thing that I am trying to do is create characters who matter to the reader. I do hope that there are at least a few laughs in there.
How did you come to develop your protagonist’s interesting sidekicks TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog? Are they based on real people (or pets) in your life?
Ed is based on my dog, Mochi. Much of the writing of this book took place between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. Mochi kept me company in the cold, dark hours, as I stared at a mostly blank screen. And when she sighs, it really is the most emotionally charged and communicative sound I’ve ever heard. And her face is pretty mushy-looking, in a good way.
In terms of real people, I suppose TAMMY arose from, in part, my own self-defeating inner monologue. But mostly TAMMY is based on my real-life operating system, which is always telling me how it has just failed, and then asking if I want to report the failure to its parent company licensor. I’m always like, no, let’s just keep this between the two of us.
Describe Minor Universe 31 and how you were inspired to write about such an intangible, mysterious place.
It’s an interior space. But it’s also real, a physical place. It’s a box, a white space, a forgotten gap-filler between more important universes. The dimensions vary from moment to moment, as does the shape. It can feel claustrophobic one night, and then in the morning it’s back to feeling large and noisy. Physics is not completely installed, and you can’t count on anything the way you could in a more reliable universe. It was built for one purpose, but when that purpose was abandoned, the inhabitants felt it like a gravitational wave that swept through the cosmos, instantaneously leaving everyone with a feeling of incompleteness.
I guess I wanted to describe a place where everyone was an underdog, and had something to prove, and wanted to be redeemed.
Your protagonist, a time travel technician attempting to save people from trying to alter their pasts, is named Charles Yu. How did you come to name him after yourself?
It was originally a placeholder, to be honest. So was the father’s name, which is my father’s name. I tried different names for the son and the father, but none of them would take, so I just put in my real name (and my dad’s) so I could get going with the writing, but when I did that, a strange thing happened: the story started moving, fast, in a different direction. Suddenly, it was about a self meeting his self, and the details of the character’s life started to come together, as did the relationship between the son and the father. I think having my actual name in there gave me a straw man, a straw story, that I could write in reaction to. For some reason, once the name of the character became Charles Yu, I stopped slipping in autobiographical or semi-autobiographical information, and actually started removing it. I think I realized, wow, if this character is going to have my name, I’d better take some of this stuff out. There is still a fair amount of it in there, semi- or pseudo-autobiographical, but much of it is more emotionally resonant than factually resonant.
Though there is a definite science fictional aspect to your novel, it is also heavily literary and much more about real life than it at first appears. How, then, would you characterize your novel? Fiction, science fiction, or something outside the realm of typical genre classifications?
I was hoping it would be characterized as a time machine, although I realize there is no section for time machines in most bookstores. In terms of topology, I think of it as a stable, looped, four-dimensional object with chronodiegetic properties. In terms of genre, I would be happy for it to be shelved in both fiction and in science fiction. Or maybe under a new category, where they would put books that resist either classification. A lot of my favorite books would be in that category.
What is your favorite genre of books to read? What book have you read recently that you found particularly fascinating?
I love books that defy genre: Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, The Fabric of Reality. I love short stories, and for whatever reason, I think genre-bending or -breaking seems to be much more permissible in stories than in novels. Or at least people are more flexible about reading a “literary” short story that has science fictional elements, or a “sci-fi” story with, say, formal experimentation more frequently found in “literary fiction,” and not worrying too much about what area of the store they found the book in. Over Christmas, I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and I can’t get over it. It changed my understanding of not just comics, but all visual storytelling, and even creative work in general.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new novel that takes place in “America,” i.e., not America, but a dream-and-desire-fueled holographic projection of the collective mental environment of Americans, which exists as a geographical place that happens to overlap the physical America. It’s also a story about a man looking for his ex-wife and daughter. I hope I can figure out a way to make that make sense.