A lonely time machine repairman and his dog, drifting through a "minor universe" owned by Time Warner Time, spend their days rescuing people from temporal paradoxes. Charles Yu's first novel is a goofy, sad mindbender about getting stuck outside time.
Yu's book of short stories, Third Class Superhero, earned him a coveted "5 under 35" selection from the National Book Foundation for promising young writers. It's still not common for science fiction writers to get literary recognition like that, so Yu's first novel has been greeted with quite a bit of attention already, though it won't hit bookstores until September.
And you can see why: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is intellectually demanding, but also emotionally rich and funny. It's clearly the work of a scifi geek who knows how to twist pop culture tropes into melancholy meditations on the nature of consciousness.
Our protagonist begins by explaining that he's gotten trapped in a time loop of his own making, caused when he thoughtlessly shot his own future self as he emerged from a time machine. As we ponder what it means, psychologically, to have murdered your future self, Yu takes us on a journey that gets progressively more emotionally intense. We learn about his protagonist's job as a time machine mechanic where his colleagues are mostly artificial intelligences who act more human than he does - or who actually believe they are human. Yu effortlessly switches between comic vignettes about the fate of Luke Skywalker's less-famous son (who has messed up his time machine in a fictional universe), and his protagonist's painful memories of growing up at the center of a Venn diagram whose circles include the alien universes of Taiwan, America, and Tatooine.
Yu is fond of meta-narrative, and packs the novel with adventures that take place entirely in theoretical universes, nostalgia-altered pasts, fictional worlds, and inside the protagonist's own time-looped mind. At one point, our protagonist - named Charles Yu, of course - spends several chapters writing the book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and we get a long stream-of-consciousness passage where Yu ponders the weirdness of reading words that you've just written.
Before Yu gets stuck in his ultra-meta time loop, however, he's spent ten years slacking off in his time machine, never entering the timestream. He's ostensibly trying to find his mad scientist father, who disappeared in one of his inventions, but mostly he's trying not to deal with the painful legacy his father left behind.
The time machine becomes a powerful metaphor for how we deal with our own histories. Because it can only go backwards, not forwards, Yu is constantly revisiting his childhood home, watching (and eventually helping) his father try and fail to invent a time machine. (Another guy beats them to the punch, selling his prototype for a ton of money.) The elder and younger Yu grow more emotionally distant and bitter in the process, becoming so focused on time travel that they're robbed of their ability to engage with the present.
On his return trips to the past, Yu's obsessions emerge. Did his lack of faith in his father cause him to fail? Was it a cultural problem, caused by the fact that time travel requires an understanding of verb tense - something that doesn't exist in his father's native Mandarin? Self-doubt holds him in temporal freefall, and he enters the present only for hours at a time.
Getting stuck with Yu in his time loop is like watching an episode of Doctor Who as written by the young Philip Roth. Even when recalling his most painful childhood moments, Yu makes fun of himself or pulls you into a silly description of fake physics experiments. In this way, he delivers one of the most clear-eyed descriptions of consciousness I've seen in literature: It's full of self-mockery and self-deception, and yet somehow manages to keep its hands on the wheel, driving us forward into an unknowable future.
Though sometimes the book gets so meta that it verges on navel-gazing, for the most part it delivers a fresh take on the old story of how we learn to deal with our pasts.
Can Yu's character ever get out of his tragic feedback loop, leave behind his computer friends, and enter the precarious world of the present? Plunge into the weirdness of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - you won't escape without realizing something bizarre and new about the time machine that is your brain, traveling alone through the minor universe you call home.