How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Pantheon Books, 2010
“When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.
Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.”
Time-travel technician Charles Yu has found himself stuck in the very kind of predicament he is employed to help others extricate themselves from: Yu is trapped in a time loop, initiated by shooting his own future self. With only TAMMY, his time machine’s overly apologetic operation system, and Ed, his “nonexistent but ontologically valid dog,” for company, Yu sets out to unravel the mystery of his present difficulties, the key to which seems to be a book he received from his future self.
From a synopsis, you might be justified in expecting a novel of Hitchhiker’s Guide silliness, and the book does have its fair share of tongue-in-cheek, self-referential humor. But ultimately, How to Live Safely turns out to be something else entirely: a sustained meditation on time and memory and a touching fictional memoir.
After starting with a hell of a hook—the quote at the start of this review—the novel does get a little bogged down in its own conceit, the text interspersed with pseudo-technical digressions on time travel in the form of notes, diagrams, and miscellaneous excerpts from the book-within-the-book that is central to the plot. But as the plot turns to explore the character’s past, and in particular his relationship with his father, an unsuccessful early pioneer in time-travel technology, there emerge moments of genuine brilliance and some profoundly thought-provoking reflections on the nature of time and the intractability of the past.