If you like your novels quirky with a big dose of existential melancholy, then get thee to a copy of Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Don't ask me why I picked up this book because I'm not much of a science fiction fan. Although the goofy title is partially to blame. How can you not want to read something with that title? I'm glad I read it.
This is a story of a of recreational time machine repairman. Not just any recreational time machine repairman, but one that happens to be the son of the man who invented the time machine in is his garage. The main character, Charles Yu (yes that's the same name as the author), spends much of his time in a tiny time machine traveling the decades with the help of his scroungy dog and his personified Microsoft operating system, Tammy. (Yes, at some time in the future, Microsoft makes its operating system available for time machines.) Tammy is one of my favorite characters. She's always a little depressed and maybe even suicidal, which leaves Charles wondering what happens if your time-machine operating system decides to end it all. When Charles realizes he may be too distant from the present to get his machine back in time for needed repairs, Tammy wonders, "Is it my fault?" When Charles replies that it's his fault Tammy asks hopefully, "Is it my fault that it's your fault?"
There are plenty of other delightful characters and stories in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe to make it a super fun read. I won't pretend to have understood all the mind-bending, time-traveling technology outlined in this book. But maybe I wasn't supposed to understand it. I mean it is science fictional after all.
The bigger surprise is the book's more subversive, serious side . It's that side of the book that is most rewarding. How to Live Safely talks about time travel from a perspective of past tense, present tense, and future tense, giving it a literary bite that gets under your skin. At one point Charles puts his machine into present-indefinite gear which, "isn't even a real gear. It's like cruise control." It's through this lens of grammatical time that Yu asks the reader to ponder his or her own life. Are we all stuck in a time loop? Do we avoid our past because we don't want to think about something difficult? Are we too afraid of the future to really move forward? Don't read this book if don't want to face some pretty big philosophical questions. Do read this book if you want the fun of a great science fiction story combined with the angst-filled philosophy of Kirkegaard.
I'll close with a passage from the book:
"How many times have I gone around this loop, refusing to move forward? How much of my life have I spent cycling through these events, trying to learn from them, attempting to decipher the meaning of this tableau in front of me. . . What is this called, what I am doing, to myself, to my life, the wallowing, this pondering, this rolling over and over in the same places of my memory, wearing them thin, wearing them out? Why don't I ever learn? Why don't I do anything different?"