How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

I read Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and I loved it in the end. I might even say it changed my life in a few pointed ways. It’s a mildly science fictional story that pairs a good sense of humor with some great thinking on memory, nostalgia, wistfulness, and stories we keep telling ourselves.

Time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain to experience.

The writing is slightly distant and self-aware because it’s more fun that way. Like this heavily-footnoted passage, where he’s describing the time machine he lives/works in, which leads to a minor footnote on particle physics:

This unit, this phone booth, this four-dimensional person-sized laboratory, I live in it, but, over time, through diffusion and breathing and particle exchange, the air in here, the air that travels with me, it is me, and I’m it.* The exhaled carbon dioxide that gets recycle and processed by the pump, the oxygen-rich air that is piped back in, these molecules* move around me, and in me, and then back out, all* of it* the same matter.* I breath it* in, it* is in my bloodstream. Sometimes, they* are part of me, sometimes, I am part of them.* Sometimes, they* are in my sandwich,* […]

There are plenty of little aphoristic moments that come up, like…

Life is to some extent an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.

…or like this aside on growing up in a household with parents arguing and fighting:

Call it the law of conservation of parental anger […] bouncing around, some of it reflected, some of it absorbed by the smaller bodies in the house.

One of my favorite turns of phrase came up in one travel scene, picking up on that swelling, aching beautiful uplift you can feel when flying:

As the machine banks into its approach and we angle into our steep descent spiral, looking down into the city, I have, for a minute or two, some clarified sense of scale, the proper balance of awe and possibility, a kind of airplane courage […]

There’s also some clever meta-textual work relating to the physical book itself and some interludic commentary (like how people in recreational alternate universes can qualify as “protagonists” or even “heroes” in these fantasylands, or diagrams that clarify the plot, background sketches on history/setting, magazine tips for time travel, etc.).

I have to acknowledge that there’s a definite patch just after the halfway point where it dragged a bit for me. (You can see him getting carried away, piling ideas between commas.) But the opening half is so fun, and the final sprint led to a goosebumps ending for me. Very much recommended. Earlier this spring I also really liked Yu’s collection of short stories, Third Class Superhero.