Living Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

The Daily Beast has been running a series devoted to emerging writers, and their first two choices – THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer and EVERYTHING LOVELY, EFFORTLESS, SAFE by Jenny Hollowell – are very much on the mark, at least in my book. So too is Charles Yu’s HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE, which won’t be published until September but which I’m pleased to be writing about now, because the book is such a joy: brainy and accessible, entertaining and ruminative.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Yu doesn’t shy away from asking tough existential questions—is it

possible to kill your own future? What does it mean to be trapped in a

time loop? Can you occupy the same space in several universes?—and

sparks all sorts of brain explosions in the reader with schematic

diagrams, fragmented, occasionally perpendicular narratives, and

humorous bullet point lists. But Yu’s literary pyrotechnics come in a

marvellously entertaining and accessible package, featuring a reluctant,

time machine-operating hero on a continual quest to discover what

really happened to his missing father, a mysterious book possibly

answering all, and a computer with the most idiosyncratic personality

since HAL or Deep Thought (and certainly the most memorable neuroses,

including a crippling case of low self-esteem that creates boot-up


Not surprisingly, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe as written in a non-linear fashion. “If I were to describe the

geometry of the book’s construction, I guess I would say it was built

from the inside out, in concentric rectangles, if that makes any sense,”

Yu told me in a recent e-mail interview. “I started with the idea that

here’s this guy, he’s in a box. This box he’s in is a vehicle of some

sort. He’s moving through space in his vehicle. But wait, it’s not just

space. It’s time. Okay, he’s in a box moving through time, but now, hold

up, there’s a problem, and I think this is a general issue in trying to

create a time travel story, as in, what are the constraints? Because

you have to have constraints in a time travel story, and probably a lot

of them, otherwise there are going to be way too many degrees of


Read on for the rest, and I’ll be posting some bonus material that couldn’t make it into the piece closer to the publication date.