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A theory of regret, on the emotional asymptote toward parabolic melancholy

  • Sep 3, 2010
Colson Whitehead thinks that this book is cool as hell. I have some reservations about that.

Yu grapples with time travel problems and paradox, physics and metaphysics, and the unmathematical mysteries of the human heart. The protagonist, who is also named Charles Yu, is an emotionally stunted time machine technician who gets himself into a time loop, armed with a cryptic message from his future self. He writes a book that his future self has already written. The title of the book that Charles writes (re-writes) is also the title of this book: How to live safely in a science fictional universe. So which book are we reading? Is this physical book different from the book in the story? Is the question unnecessary? The paradoxes quickly pile up in a logical and slightly dismaying sequence, until the plot becomes very confusing.

Yu has thought a lot about the complications and ramifications of time travel, presenting them to the reader in rapid sequence, all with the laid back attitude that says these things are already well known, so try to keep up. The tone of the early pages is a bit jaded, but when he gets into emotional space-time, the tone changes, becoming more sympathetic. I liked the emotional parts of this book a lot more than the technical ones.In the emotional part of the story Charles revisits his childhood, his mother, and his father, and we learn about their tortured Huis Clos relationships. They mistreated each other for years, but they love each other nevertheless, and he wants to return to them, if he only could.

Yu makes lengthy asides on various topics, from the mathematics and physics of space-time to the personal nature of failure. He writes in plain, unadorned prose, at times conveying profound emotion and meaning, at other times boring me half to death. His explanations about events, truth and volitional interstices often just get in the way of the story, and left me sorely tempted to skim ahead until the story started moving again. I wish Yu had spent more time with the emotional universe, less in the technical one. He has a gift for both, but the emotional one is much more satisfying. This is his first novel, and I think he has a bright future. Three stars.

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review by . September 21, 2010
When a book is about to take you back into the past of propel you into the future, you know the author has done thei job of writing a book that people will read, appreciate and share. When HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE, author Charles Yu puts himself into a story where he is havng to deal with the life that is his reality and the sheer uncertainty of what is to come.    In the book Charles and his father find it difficult at times to communicate, or at least …
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Yu uses futuristic ideas to explore a mundane theme: writing about the self and the moment in Tristram Shandy–esque digressions. The protagonist, who shares the author's name, spends most of the story interacting with entities that either mirror him (TAMMY, an operating system who reflects his personality) or don't exist (Ed, a "weird ontological entity" in the shape of a dog; Phil, a programmed supervisor who thinks he's human). The conclusion tries to mitigate character-Yu's risk-averse solipsism, but is too quick and abstract to really counter the rest of the book's emotional weight. Mainstream readers will be baffled by the highly nonlinear Oedipal time travel plot, but the passive, self-obsessed protagonist is straight out of the mainstream fiction that many SF fans love to hate, leaving this book without an audience. 
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ISBN-10: 0307379205
ISBN-13: 978-0307379207
Author: Charles Yu
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Publisher: Pantheon
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