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January 13, 2011 / Leslie

Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

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

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Pantheon
Publish Date: September 7th 2010
Format: Hardcover | 239 pages
Rating: 3 of 5

Charles Yu, not to be confused with the author Charles Yu, is a time travel technician; more specifically, Charles is “a certified network technician for T-Class personal-use chronogrammatical vehicles”. His job is to fix the errors of other time travelers.

In Minor Universe 31 time travel is commonplace. Anyone can rent a machine and go for a ride. Breakdowns occurs when people try to do things they are not supposed to do. Give people the opportunity to travel back in time and most end up choosing to go to the worst day of their lives and try to fix it rather than going back to a day they enjoyed. Fixing the past is not allowed and ultimately their machine gets stuck in place until Charles arrives to rescue them.

Charles lives in his time machine. Instead of parking it when not working he continuously travels in the Present-Indefinite mode except when he is peeking into alternate universes to spy on other versions of himself. P-I mode allows him to avoid straight forward travel and live achronologically. He can ignore the future and see everything as the present. He has been living like this for the past 10 years while in reality only a few weeks have passed.

All this sounds like the makings of a great science fiction adventure; but it’s not. The story does not revolve around Charles’ adventures as a time travel repairman or anyone that he might be sent to rescue. There are lots of science fiction elements and we are in a science fiction world but it’s more of a literary story about a young man searching for his father, worrying about his mother and confronting his dysfunctional childhood. Charles has issues. He is searching for his father, an inventor of time machines, who disappeared into time years ago and was never seen again; he visits mother who lives in a time-loop of her own choosing, “the sci-fi version of assisted living”, but only observes her; and now he is stuck in his own time loop because he abused P-I mode and the gear broke down.

This was not an easy book to read, follow or understand. I’m still not sure I understand it. I could not get engaged in it and I really tried. After reading about 40 pages I thought, “huh? what? I’m lost”. So I went back and re-read them hoping to gain better understanding. At about half way through this book still wasn’t happening for me but I finished it anyway. There was just enough there to keep my interest and, frankly, I wanted to know how it ended.

I liked the concept but the story wasn’t going anywhere. The idea was original, the writing clever, sometimes a little too clever, quite a bit geeky and often funny. I loved the blending in of pop culture and science fiction references. Time Warner Time, a division of Google, owns the rights to Universe Minor 31. Charles has a software boss called Phil – Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0 who doesn’t know he’s software (that one made me laugh out loud) and a neurotic operating system named TAMMY. As children, everyone wants to be Han Solo, except Charles.

I kept waiting for a plot to develop, but it never happened. Everything was about the main character, Charles, and he spent too much time pontificating and whining. We learn little about anyone else. Sentences were rambling, often with long wordy paragraphs, to the point where it got tedious to read. I kept thinking this would have made a great short story. Perhaps I was expecting a Doctor Who type adventure or a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy type universe, and that is not what this book is. Or maybe, as an old-time science fiction reader (think Heinlein, Asimov, PK Dick, Bradbury) I’m not the target audience. Or maybe the book needed more editing for my tastes.

This is not a book for everyone. If you don’t read any science fiction at all I can’t recommend it but if you enjoy the genre you might want to give it a try. Would I read any future works from this author? Yes, definitely. There’s a lot of promise here, I just didn’t like the way it was carried out.
CymLowellI participate in Book Review Party Wednesday. Click the link to read more great reviews.


Leave a Comment
  1. Suko / Jan 13 2011 11:40 pm

    Leslie, I don’t read a great amount of science fiction, but I do enjoy the genre from time to time. Your review does make the book sound worth reading, even though it fell short for you in some ways.


  2. Rebecca Rasmussen / Jan 14 2011 9:01 am

    This is probably a book for my husband, I think, after reading your review, but I did pick it up in Borders the other day because the cover grabbed my attention. 😉


  3. TheBookGirl / Jan 16 2011 7:32 pm

    Great review Leslie 🙂
    I don’t read alot of science fiction. The few things that I did read last year in that genre I really enjoyed, and I don’t want to break my streak, lol, so I think I will skip this one. Your review was really helpful; gave me a great sense of the book and why I think it would probably not work for me.


  4. Cym Lowell / Jan 19 2011 10:37 pm

    I always struggle with writing a review on a book that I am not crazy about but you handled this very eloquently. I could take some lessons from you 🙂

    Thanks for linking this up to the party-


  5. Alyce / Feb 18 2011 9:41 am

    I love science fiction, but have heard from several people that this is not the easiest book to read, so I’ll probably pass on this one.


    • Leslie / Feb 18 2011 10:40 am

      Not easy at all. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you like to struggle through a convoluted story. Although, in all fairness, I have read reviews from people who loved it.



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