Sep 18, 2012

[Books] How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, as the old saying goes. But does it count if you go by it's title instead? Because I'll admit that's precisely the reason that I picked up this book in the first place - because I thought the title was nicely quirky and cool. I didn't even read the synopsis when I picked it up - I just went for it since I had seen it mentioned in some round-up of geek books worth buying.

While this is never a "strategy" that I'd recommend to others when it comes to buying books, I know that I totally got lucky this time around in terms of how much I enjoyed this book. The title alone was quite quirky and playful and the rest of the book was equally so. Okay, well most of it was - naturally there were some bits that didn't quite cut it.

It's sort of a shame that this book didn't garner too many awards nominations despite it's rather creative approach to telling its story. Then again, I guess you can't really predict what goes well with critics versus what goes well with your average geek. Or something.

Synopsis: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a time travel science fiction story written by Charles Yu.

The novel is told from the perspective of one Charles Yu (and yes it's the same name of the author), who works as a mechanic that specializes in reparing time travel machines. And yes, time travel is widely available at this point and people are able to rent such machines to get around the universe. He pretty much lives in his time machine (a TM-31) together with his dog Ed (who doens't really exist) and the ship's AI personality TAMMY.

At first we follow him around as he goes on his little repair missions and learn their stories (and thus how they pushed their time machines beyond acceptable parameters. And these stories are interesting enough since you end up learing the "rules" of time travel in this universe and more and more about our protagonist as well. But of course this alone wouldn't make for quite the gripping tale on its own and eventually the book reaches a critical point when, well, everything changes completely. And that's where the real story begins.

I want to spend most of this review talking about this major plot twist that changes the direction of the whole book, but that would also be a major spoiler that would sort of ruin your experience with the title. All I can say is that you need to hang in there - the initial chapters may not seem so compelling on their own but once you hit that big transition, you'll thank me for reminding you to stick around.

Yu (the author) demonstrates a rather clever use of language in the way he writes. And the way that he merges the science fiction time travel aspects with the fact that Universe 31 is also a fictional universe means that you get a lot of language terms mixed into things. Thus you end up with some rather creative terminology utilized to explain the time machines and the related temporal mechanics. Or whatever you want to call all this. But I didn't think it was too forced or anything like that - it felt really fun.

On the flip side, the book does go down a rather deep rabbit hole as the full implications of the time travel issues sort of pile-up. And here the book does gets borderline philosophical and at times it felt like they were laying things on a bit thick even for me. But you press on.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a smart, playful and clever romp into a time travel adventure in a universe with rather distinct science fiction elements. I strongly feel the book should have gotten more attention than it did, but then again maybe it the future! Thus I rate this book 4 quirky stuck time travelers out of a possible 5.

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