I’m a total sucker for time travel stories, with their wild narrative possibilities that allow for glimpses of the future, or to meddle with the past, producing paradoxes that can bend your mind. Charles Yu’s tale about a time machine repairman, a meta-man called Charles Yu, promised just the kind of time brain-bending thrill I needed. But a curious thing happened – I didn’t connect with the book at all and found the plot to be pedestrian compared to other great time travel related novels, such as Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (1990) and Greg Bear’s Eon (1991).
How to Live Safely in A Science Fictional Universe’s protagonist is a bit of a loser who has escaped his problems by hiding out in his time machine with a pet dog who doesn’t really exist and a computer with a female persona called Tammy. Unfortunately most of the narrative is centered around Yu’s family, most notably his father who toils for years to create the world’s first time machine by working on the theory that human psychology is the key to time travel. Yu goes on to get himself in a spot of bother with a time paradox and has to work out a way around it. What could be intriguing stuff is unfortunately let down by the subdued loser tone and Yu’s endless ruminations about his relationship with his parents. Charles Yu, the protagonist, not the author, is not an engaging character and the novel also suffers from sluggish forward momentum.
I could go on to further criticize the book’s shortcomings, but instead I’ll talk about how being dissatisfied with this novel made me think about the nature of writing and criticism. This is Charles Yu’s debut novel and as someone who is trying to write fiction I know that it’s no mean feat to sit down and put in the hours to actually write a decent story. Yu undoubtedly put a great deal of hard work into this novel and Corvus also believed that it was good enough to be published. But then someone like me reads it and finds it wanting. Every reader is a critic, whether they write about it or not, but how can we be sure of our critical acumen? With any work of art there exists an objective criteria that can act as a critical roadmap for judging its worth. In the case of literature it is not enough to merely state that the book did not engage or that you simply didn’t like it, you need to be sure objectively as to why the book falls short; that your criticisms are not wholly given over to the subjective whims of your tastes. This is why a book like Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is considered the greatest novel ever written despite the fact most people do not actually enjoy reading it (I’ve met a few who have, but not many).
I am actually comfortable with my conclusion that How to Live Safely in A Science Fictional Universe is flawed due to objective reasons rather than subjective distaste. But there is still a nagging doubt, enough to stop me from giving it a rating. Looking around on the net I found that reader’s reactions ranged from one star reviews right up to five star reviews with raves about the novel’s originality. Did I miss the point of the novel entirely? Was the narrative so clever that all I could notice was some trivial shortcomings that are perhaps commonplace in an author’s debut novel? Did I miss key clues that could have led to an understanding of a complex hidden subplot? This has also made me rethink the plot and wonder if the book is a clever analogy for an individual’s journey through life and therefore space/time? A journey filled with regrets and what ifs that define our psychological landscape.
Perhaps, Charles Yu, I should read your novel again. Perhaps this is the very point of the novel, after all the eponymous protagonist is stuck in a time loop, reading a book that came from the future, a book that Yu is actually writing as he is reading it. A book called How to Live Safely in A Science Fictional Universe. Confused? So am I. Read the book yourself and let me know what you think.