Thursday, November 24, 2011

How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

I'm often torn when it comes to meta-fiction. Is it clever or is it gimmicky? I think it can be a fine line and Charles Yu's How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is right on that line.

The main character in Yu's book is Charles Yu. He's a time machine repairman and is a lonely fellow. As a child, his father was passionate about time travel and he recruited young Charles to help him in his pursuit of a working time machine. One day his father disappears and story Yu longs to find his father and learn why (and where or when) he vanished.

Story Yu suffers from a general ennui. He puts his time machine in a sort of neutral, keeping himself from moving through time except for the occasional call to help others with their machines. His only companions are his female computer system, Tammy, and a non-existent but existent dog named Ed.

When Yu is called in to have his own machine serviced, he is stunned to discover his future self appearing. Despite having been trained to run from one's future self, Yu instead draws a gun and shoots his future self then escapes in his time machine into the future. He discovers that his future self has left him a book that he will write in the future called How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. As he reads the book, he sets out to write it knowing, however, that he will eventually go back in time and be killed by himself.

See what I mean? Clever or gimmicky? I think it's clever in that usually when you have a story about time travel, the future person goes back to change the past. It's sort of novel to have the present change the future while the future is on it's way back to the present.

While in this loop, he discovers a little more about his father and seems to be making headway right about the time he goes back to the point where he shoots himself.

Despite the meta-fiction aspect, it's a nice story about father-son relationships with a special guest appearance by one L. Skywalker. Well, of course, you may say. Is there a more notable science fictional father-son relationship than Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker? Well, it turns out the L. Skywalker is Linus Skywalker, Luke's son, who has really had a tough time coping with his father's fame. Funny little twist but really the only external reference to science fiction.

There's quirks like that. The number 31 plays an important part although I don't know why. Yu's time machine model is a TM-31 and he travels through Minor Universe 31. The book How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (the one I read, or the one Yu wrote or both?) has 31 chapters. Nice number, 31, but I must have missed the significance.

Then there's all the book references to itself. He mentions something happening on a page in the book which is the same page that it appears on in the book you're reading. Stuff like that.

It's a cute book. Very brief. I'd put it at like a 55/45 clever/gimmicky split which makes it enough to recommend.

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