Into the Deep End: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
By nature, the day-to-day of a time travel machine technician is ripe for all sorts comedic juicing. There is a vast selection of concepts for an author to plumb when jockeying through space-time, and plenty of room for profound questions of genuine cosmic importance. The premise alone was an immediate sell for me; the blurbs on the jacket so unashamedly enthusiastic and encouraging that I opened to the first pages with an instant smile stretching up my face. I was ready to laugh, and to care.
What I found in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe nearly satisfied my expectations, at least initially. Even if elements felt tugged straight from Douglas Adams, there was still enough novelty in Minor Universe 31 (our universe’s clever moniker) to generate a few chuckles, a few sympathetic nods of the head. The hero of our story, Charles Yu, shares the author’s name and, we’re led to believe, many personality traits. Not a new idea in fiction, but certainly not a tired one. Not yet.
There is a decent amount of playfulness in the beginning, as Charles travels to a galaxy far, far away to prevent Linus Skywalker (Luke’s overshadowed son) from committing an act he’d surely regret. Charles’s early search for his father also feels meaningful, and is interspersed with fun, made-up facts and suggestions on how to actually live safely in such a science fiction cosmos. Sadly, I couldn’t help but cringe at the depressed AI system in our protagonist’s time machine, TAMMY, which felt like a borderline rip-off of Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Whether the author was aware of TAMMY’s spiritual predecessor or not, her appearance (on page 6) marked the dawn of my concerns about the book. Concerns which, I’m saddened to say, continued to bloom into frustration, and finally disappointment.
Now, I’m a big fan of science fiction (despite what we mostly focus on here at Bookshelf Stories), and an even greater fan of literary work that dives into the deep end of experimentation. And there’s no denying that Charles Yu’s novel took slices from each category, but what was left in Minor Universe 31 felt like the awkward kid on the playground, a little too late in calling first dibs to swing from the jungle gym. The sci-fi magnetism and humor-pumped charm wear off about a third through the book, and though the total page count hovers around 250, the remaining portion is a drag. There are long-winded passages of introspection that seem out of place and (as I channel TAMMY’s enthusiasm) become rather boring rather quickly.
To quote from one of the book’s three epigraphs, this from the long-dead philosopher David Hume: “We are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception.” By the time you snap shut How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, you’ve certainly been privy to Charles Yu’s particular perception, and it’s a worn-out, gimmicky, ambitious shot at a first novel. One could never fault his vitality, yet the ultimate outcome is that of a driverless eighteen-wheeler, short on gas, climbing blindly up a mountain toward the clouds. You think maybe, just maybe it will reach the summit. But then you see the pothole and hear the deflating tires. You remember the empty tank and that there’s no one to steer the truck in the first place, and so making it halfway to the top suddenly seems the best you can do.