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

September 16, 2011 at 2:49 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Genre fans (including me) like to complain that mainstream critics prefer fantastic or science fictional elements in stories to be symbols or allegories. Respectable literature, in this line of thinking, should be relevant to the real world, real world elements are relevant by a sort of literary reflexive property, but anything not real must be transformed somehow back to mundane reality or else the work cannot be taken seriously. There are many examples of this, past and present, but for me the one that jumps out is from a critic named Marc Mohan, who is quoted by Wikipedia as saying the that Time Traveler’s Wife “uses time travel as a metaphor to explain how two people can feel as if they’ve known each other their entire lives”.

This isn’t a review of Time Traveler’s Wife, but bear with me while I assert this is nonsense. Time travel is not a metaphor for anything in Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s just time travel. The thing in itself. Despite its mainstream publication, Time Traveler’s Wife sets out in a very science fictional way to sift through all the ramifications of its particular flavor of time travel. To reduce time travel to being only a metaphor is to ignore the large portions of the novel spent examining the many aspects of the protagonists’ relationship that are unique to their science fictional situation and therefore completely absent from any real world relationship.

That said, it’s very easy to overstate the degree to which modern criticism, mainstream or otherwise, forces science fiction and fantasy into allegorical or metaphorical boxes. Even if it still shows up from time to time in reviews and interviews by mainstream critics and even authors, these days mainstream fiction is full of fantastic and science fictional elements that are mostly played straight. Genre started out as just a marketing category and to a marketing category it has returned.

I feel the best way to understand How to Live Safely in the Science Fictional Universe is to realize that, despite the trend away from the reductive approach to science fiction by the mainstream, this is a novel which is committed like nothing else I’ve ever read to employing science fictional elements for allegory, allusion, metaphor, and symbolism but never, ever for their literal meaning. I just said that today science fiction is just a marketing category, but when people suggest that it is something else, they usually are referring to an approach to fictional speculation. The author posits something that does not currently exist and then works out the implications. Not only is this technique central to most (not all) of what we call science fiction, it’s the foundation for alternate history and even quite a bit of fantasy as well.

But this is not a technique employed by How to Live Safely. It’s true that various science fiction tropes appear. The protagonist has a time machine. He has a job, in fact, as a time machine repairman, journeying to where time travelers have broken down and fixing their machines for them. The fulcrum of the book, as revealed in its opening lines, is the protagonist shooting his future self. You could write a literal science fiction novel about these things, and so many time travel stories have been written I am confident someone has already, perhaps several times over. But right in the opening pages, Charles Yu signals that none of this is to be taken literally. The time machine has a “Tense Operator” and as the book opens it is in “Present-Indefinite”. If that’s not enough, the fourth (or fifth, depending on how one counts) paragraph is as follows:

The base model TM-31 runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

That pretty much lays it out there, if the reader actually reads it. That might not happen, for at first glance this looks like technobabble, like Star Trek namedropping tachyons or more recent fiction’s handwaving about string theory or nanotechnology, and thus one’s eyes may skim over it. But it’s not really technobabble, or rather the technobabble is confined to the adjectives “six-cylinder” and “quad-core”. Most people will have to look up the word “diegesis” but otherwise a little scrutiny should reveal that what this paragraph is saying about the TM-31 is that it is a vehicle for navigating a science fiction novel.

I almost feel like that’s a spoiler, but that paragraph really is the fourth one, and that’s really what those words mean. What’s amusing about this is that the typical science fiction reader will assume those sentences are meant to be allusive, not literal. They might think to themselves, as I did when I first read this paragraph, “He’s using language and tenses as a loose metaphor for the physics of time travel…that’s pretty clever!” But no: this paragraph is literally true, and perversely that means that time travel in this novel is not literal time travel at all, but instead a loose metaphor for the way people think about the past and the future.

Consider the matter of the “Present-Indefinite”. This means he’s not in any particular time or place, but rather sitting between universes. He’s been doing so a long time, in fact. If you’re like me, your mind immediately starts trying to massage this into something that’s consistent with the way you think time travel and multiple worlds might work: “Let’s see, so there are multiple universes, and his machine lets him move between them, but in doing so he travels through some sort of intermediate zone, like hyperspace in Star Wars or that business with the tubes in the Bill and Ted movies, but that zone isn’t part of anything we would call a universe, so maybe it’s like the “space” between branes in m-theory, except he’s experiencing linear time while he’s there, which means his time machine is really a sort of pocket universe with its own space-time…”

Were this a typical science fiction novel, further developments would allow me to refine my internal speculations about the nature of this curious between-universes space and lead me through an exploration of the implications this sort of travel has for humanity. But, in fact, it is never developed further, and other revelations about the story’s metaphysics mean all of the Present-Indefinite concept makes progressively less and less sense, not more. My error was trying to apply concepts from (speculative) real world physics. The Present-Indefinite isn’t really the gap between universes, it’s a metaphor for the way an person sometimes feels stuck in their circumstances, unable to progress to something better or even to regress into a worse situation. The genius of the novel is that despite the Present-Indefinite only being a metaphor and not actually making any kind of physical sense, it is still consistent with the story’s metaphysics, because the metaphysical system of the novel is not that of the real world or a supposed physical universe, but that of, well, a novel.

The author has a great deal of fun developing his peculiarly literal metafiction. The protagonist’s name is Charles Yu, just like that of the author. Also like the author, this protagonist writes a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and in Escherian fashion this fictional book is literally the same book we are reading. He has a dog that “doesn’t exist” in that it was part of a different story, got retconned out, and then through some physically incoherent process ended up getting taken in by the protagonist. The story takes place in “Minor Universe 31”, which is described as follows:

Thirty-one is a smallish universe, slightly below average in size. On the cosmic scale, somewhere between shoe box and standard aquarium. Not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it. Despite its relatively modest physical dimensions, inhabitants of 31 report a considerable variance in terms of psychological scale, probably owing to the significant inconsistency in conceptual density of the underlying fabric of this region of existence.

Tolkien referred to the building of a fictional world as subcreation, and the here we see a science fictional interpretation of that concept: the novel as a pocket universe. When you translate the terms in the quote above from those describing universes to those describing novels, you get the following accurate description of the novel: “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a smallish novel, slightly below average in length. Not long enough for space opera and anyway shelved with literary fiction. Despite its short length, it intensively develops a few characters, but necessarily this depth comes at the expense of the rest.” Elsewhere, the physics is described as being “only 93 percent installed” by the “builder-developer” of the universe, which I read as a metafictional apology for things like the Present-Indefinite not actually making sense when taken literarlly.

What you think of all these layers of elaborate metafictional artifice is a matter of taste and expectation. If you haven’t read it yet, hopefully reading this review will help you set your expectations properly, but that still leaves us trying to account for taste. It will strike some as too pleased with itself, too distancing, too affected. Others will find it fresh and stimulating. There’s nothing new about metafiction, but rarely is it pursued so exhaustively as it is here. But even though there is no genuine science fiction world underlying all the sly winks and inside jokes, there is a genuine story. All of this material is working in service to a single theme, best summed up in a sentence from relatively early in the book:

Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.

Once again, interpreted in terms of physical reality, this is nonsense. “Within a science fictional space” it says, again pointing to the fact we are speaking of a story’s reality, not a physical reality. Now, there’s actually a pretty good argument to be made that even on these terms it’s still not true. The thesis of How To Live Safely is that, when given a time machine capable of taking them to any point in all of the universe’s vast history, people use it to relive some unhappy moment of their life, even though they know the metaphysics of time travel prevents them changing it. This strikes me as untrue even (or especially) in stories, where there are plenty of examples of characters using time machines to go to all sorts of places far removed from their own lifespan. But if I can humbly venture a small correction to the text, I would say it would have been true had the sentence instead begun: “Within this science fictional space…” Within this particular novel, time travel is a metaphor for the human memory and imagination. Within the human mind, memory and regret are indeed necessary and sufficient to “time travel” in one’s imagination back to the low points of one’s life. Likewise, the relationship of this metaphorical time travel to paradoxes is clear: you can cry over spilled milk, but you can’t change the fact you’ve spilled it. Thus time travel in the novel must obey the maxim popularized by Lost (“Whatever happened, happened”), even though when considered as a rule of physical reality this concept doesn’t harmonize well with the novel’s assertion of the existence of multiple universes (an assertion made necessary by the conceit that the novel is a pocket universe, seeing as there are, after all, a lot of novels).

The novel’s story is an emotional development of this memory/time travel metaphor. The protagonist grows up in a somewhat unsettled home. His father is obsessed by his conviction that he can invent a time machine and thereby become rich. Too distracted by his hobby to do well at work, his father’s efforts impoverish rather than enrich him, while also robbing him of almost all the time he would otherwise have spent with his wife and child. His wife is deeply unhappy about this but can do nothing to change his mind. His child, the protagonist, does the only thing he can think of to get access to his father and joins his father’s efforts as soon as he’s old enough to help. The father eventually uses his time machine, which may or may not be working correctly, to disappear into the future and leave his family once and for all. The mother, despairing of the present and still longing for family togetherneess, immerses herself in a “time loop”, a sort of virtual reality recreation of a happy family dinner, complete with a young virtual protagonist and his virtual father, that replays again and again for years. As for the protagonist himself, he gets a job as a time machine repairman and eventually goes off to sulk in the Present-Indefinite, the point at which the novel begins. The backstory, then, provides examples of a father whose mind is stuck in a future that may never come, a mother who is pining for a past that may never have happened, and their now grown-up child who is stuck in the present.

All this is established early on, and the rest of the novel simply deepens the portraits of these three characters while constantly elaborating the story’s metafictional architecture with further tricks and jokes. Although the time travel metaphor is the novel’s centerpiece, the narrative never stops referencing scientific concepts and then undermining them via metaphors, like in this passage from the protagonist’s retreat to the Present-Indefinite in the opening of the story:

[The TM-31’s door insulates] against temperatures ranging from, at the low end, about half a degree above absolute zero to, at the high end, about a million degrees Kelvin. Hot, cold, people’s opinions. All of it just bounces off. In addition, you can install an aftermarket cloaking device, so that the unit can be made invisible with the flick of a switch. You can just sit in here, impervious and invisible. So invisible you might even forget yourself.

I’ve used a lot of quotes in this review because this is an unusual novel and one that by its nature will spark a wide variety of reactions. The book was very well received when it was released last year, both in mainstream and genre circles, so certainly many people really enjoyed it. Personally, I liked how clever and well-thought out the metafiction was, but my enthusiasm is limited by the nagging feeling that there was too much artifice and not enough story. Your mileage can and will vary. If you go in looking for serious scientific speculation, the story’s habit of introducing scientific concepts only to pivot them into metaphors, demolishing any sense it is describing a functional world in the process, is just going to tease and infuriate you. If you admire clever writing, or at least don’t let it keep you from connecting emotionally with a fairly poignant story about a family that, despite good intentions, doesn’t quite fit together, you might really love it. I’m glad I read the book, but I found myself somewhere between those two camps, enjoying the creativity on display but still wishing the world depicted was internally consistent.


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