Book 100 of the Year: Charles Yu’s strange science fictional universe

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

Inspired by Susan’s review of Yu’s latest novel, Interior Chinatown (which I’ve had to order!), I returned to Yu’s previous novel, his first published in 2010, which has a winning cover full of ray-guns, and if you look carefully enough, a dog. Both are important, as is the distinction between Science Fiction and Science Fictional in the book’s title. The book is proper full-blown SF in its literary genre, but its milieu is not SF in the eyes of our narrator Charles – it is SF-al though. We are in an alternate universe that is essentially our own, but one in which time-travel is possible. All this makes life like SF, ie SF-al sometimes for those who indulge.

After some diagrams which introduce us to the concept of chronodiegeticity, a single paragraph prologue starts at the end, or is it?, of the novel, in which a man from the future steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu, hands him a book, and our Charles shoots his future self. Yes, we’ve gone meta as well as SF-al, timey-wimey.

Charles is a time machine repairman. He gets sent to rescue those who get stuck in the past to get them and their machines home. People still believe that they can travel back in time to change things and are disappointed to find out that they can’t – the past has happened – you can’t change it. He has essentially lived in his own tiny customised TM-31 time machine for ten years now, living in the Present Indefinite, with few visits back home. I instantly loved how Yu describes the states of time travel in terms of tenses – genius!

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 freeform navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

Or, as Mom used to say: it’s a box. You get into it. You push some buttons. It takes you to other places, different times. Hit this switch for the past, you pull up that lever for the future. You get out and hope the world has changed. Or at least maybe you have.

Charles shares his pod with Ed, a rescue dog, who is real, smelly and slobbery, but also not real. He’s a paradox, but he loves Charles, and Charles loves him. Charles’s machine’s AI is called TAMMY, and his jobs come via Phil, a robo-programme that always tries to make small talk with him.

Charles had intended to become a proper scientist like his father, but when his father disappeared while he was an older teen, he had to take care of his Mom, who now lives in a one-hour long time loop. He’s always wondered what happened to his father, a disappointed engineer who’d hoped to make the big time as time travel was developing. Charles’s quest to find his father is one part of the rest of the novel, the other is, of course, all leading us up to his encounter with his future self and the creation of a time-loop that he must get out of via the book.

I adored this novel. It’s full of unashamed techno-geekery that we’re not meant to understand, just accept it for what it is – the enabling process for travelling between the tenses. Pages from the textbook ‘How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe’ full of technobabble definitions bound up in grammar interleave with the chapters. I loved the philosophical meta nature of it, but also the playfulness of Yu’s writing. I loved our narrator Charles too, and really hoped that he wouldn’t end up lonely. As to what happens, I couldn’t possibly comment!

Science fiction that makes you think and chuckle at the same time. What a superb novel I chose for my 100th read of the year. (10/10)

Source: Own copy. Corvus paperback, 239 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

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