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

Pantheon, 2010, 239 pages, C$27.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-37920-7

It used to be that Science Fiction was something best enjoyed by a small self-selected bunch of geeks.  Nothing wrong with that; in fact, I’m often tempted to argue that SF in its purest essence is best when it’s meant to be literature for nerds who otherwise wouldn’t crack open any fiction.  Every genre serves a purpose, and SF’s reason for existing may have been to provide entertainment to the techno-scientific subculture.

That, however, stopped being true a long time ago.  As SF movies got more popular, as SF television series multiplied, as SF took over video games, Science Fiction has diffused itself into the world, earning some permanent space in the mind of every reasonably-socialized citizen of the western world.  SF won; hurrah!  Call it a snowball effect: as SF becomes more popular, it becomes more accessible to more people; as it becomes more accessible, it grows even more popular.

But there are consequences to such pervasiveness, and the biggest is that people will use Science Fiction for their own purposes.  While a common snotty stereotype among the SF fans is that popularity will invariably dumb-down the material, there is also a possibility that it will spur some truly oddball creation using SF tropes in ways that would never be imagined by old-school SF fans.

I know nothing about Charles Yu except that he’s under 35, and that’s enough to make a few safe predictions: He has lived in the American cultural matrix all of his life.  No surprise if his brand of literature is influenced by a boiling cauldron of SF-flavoured references.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is one of those increasingly common novels that use Science Fictional elements with a good understanding of how they work, but don’t quite fit the straightjacket description of genre SF.  Unlike previous generations of SF novels written by mainstream writers with a distant, incomplete or dismissive view of Science-Fiction, Yu’s cohort simply picks what they want to use from SF’s bag of tricks in the service of what they’re trying to do.  Yu’s first novel is playfully meta-fictional, intensely self-reflective (to the point of having a narrator sharing his name with the author), doesn’t attempt to deliver a fully-imagined reality and doesn’t really want to play by the stylistic or narrative guidelines of the genre.

It’s nominally about a time-travel machine repairman who gets in trouble when he kills a future version of himself, but that’s really just a narrative framework on which to hang reflections on personal destinies, a process of self-growth, funny snippets about the nature of science-fiction universes and an interesting look at a protagonist who knows that something very unpleasant is about to happen to him.  There are plenty of nods to classic SF writers in-between “Holy Heinlein” [P.160], a “Niven Ring” [P.162] and “Holy Mother of Ursula K. LeGuin” [P.213], plus some cleverness in skewering the narrative conventions of SF world-building with the titular passages.

The meta-fictional games (referring to the novel by its own page numbers, or as a book to be written by the narrator who’s aware that he’s writing one) are the extra proof that Yu’s novel is meant to be taken as literary diversion rather than hard-edged speculation.  As such, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe works more often than it should: If the novel feels shorter and les substantial than narrative-heavy classical-mode SF novels, that’s a prejudiced reading from a genre-SF perspective.  It may be more fulfilling to consider the book as a playful mainstream novel that fully engages with a science-fictional trope.  It’s certainly a joy to read –not for the story, but for the moments, digressions, references and new ways to look at familiar issues.  Despite the novel’s emo-mopey attitude, I smiled quite a bit more than I expected, and I’m going to carry the amusing bits longer than the maudlin ones.

For those taking a wider-spectrum view of the novel and what it means, I note that it fits well between Michael Ruben’s  The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife and Larry Doyle’s Go Mutants! (not to mention Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) as hip quasi-mainstream novels that take a somewhat light-hearted approach to blending genre or genre-friendly elements into a literary framework.  The generation that grew up on VHS horror movies, Nintendo gaming, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Gulf War is finally finding its voice… and it has a vision of the present that’s influenced by Science Fiction.  Gernsback and Campbell wouldn’t necessarily approve of the result, but they’re not around to complain.

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