Simpy put, this is the story of a man named Charles Yu, and he is a time machine repairman. He accidentally meets a future version of himself, and receives a book called How to Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, written by himself, in the future.
His time machine computer, named TAMMY (who Charles has a bit of a crush on) happily transcribes the book while Charles is reading it, therefore writing the book he wrote, as he is in the process of reading it, while his nonexistent dog, Ed, sits happily at his feet. There is simply no way he’ll have time to read the entire book before he shoots himself. Still with me?
Charles is a lowly IT tech with the time machine company. He travels around in his shower stall sized time machine and helps clients between phone calls from his supervisor, Phil, who is also just a computer program. After 10 years on the job, Charles knows people use recreational time machines for only one thing: to revisit the saddest times of their lives and try to fix things. To fix their regrets.
Charles is no hypocrite, he does the same thing. Revisiting the past, over and over again. His clinically depressed mother and his inventor father, who only wanted to invent a way to spend more time with his wife and child. The more time he spent on his invention to create more time, the less time he had with his family. Ordinary stresses can pull or push apart any family, and Charles’s family is no different.
Is this a science fiction novel? Is this a coming of age novel? A story about a man trying to figure out where things went wrong so he can avoid the same mistakes? A man trying to find his parents, so he can tell them one last time that he loves them? A self help novel masquerading as a SF novel? Yes, a little bit, yes, most def, and sort of.
Yu’s writing style is very stream-of-conscienceness, he writes the way a person would talk or dictate, with lots of run on sentences and tangents. Becoming only more so as the book progresses, be sure to watch the tenses, as many things that have already happened are happening right now and will always happen. Such is the fun of time travel. All I can say about the bizarre writing style is go with it. It will reward you.
The best word to describe this book is unusual. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is both one of the funnest novels I’ve ever read, yet at the same time one of the most depressing. We’ve all said things we regret to our parents. We were all stupid kids once upon a time. We’ve all spent moments and sometimes lifetimes feeling guilty about not being our best, about letting someone down, about letting our parents down. Charles dwells on it. When you have a time machine, it’s easy to dwell on any moment you choose. Charles is looking for that one perfect moment, that one perfect memory that doesn’t yet exist, to make everything right with his parents. For a man with a time machine, he is running out of time quicker than he can read a book called How to Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe.
The infodumps are hilarious. Charles will spout all this mostly meaningless Star Trek engineering department talk and mix Microsoft metaphors and then end with the simplest most perfect phrase that sums it all up in a “Everything I needed to know about life I learned in Kindergarden” kind of way, and it really is that simple. Charles needs to do something, and he is running out of time to do it. And if he would only stop for a moment, he’d have a better chance of find that moment.
I guess it’s all about what you choose, as a reader, to dwell on. If you focus on the funny parts, and there are a ton of them, you will get a kick out of How to Live Safely. If you choose to dwell on Charles’ regrets, which will only cause you to dwell on your personal regrets, you will have a very different experience.
Why should you read this book? Because it’s unusual. Because you will laugh your head off. Because you’ll feel your throat tighten when you can’t help but realize we all have regrets, it’s part of living. Because it has a happy ending. Because this is a book that everyone, science fiction fan or not, should read.