Charles Yu and His Science Fictional Universe

By day, he’s a lawyer for a visual-effects shop in Los Angeles. In the evening, he’s a happily married father of two young children. And late at night, Charles Yu drops his mild-mannered secret identity, puts on a costume, sits in front of his laptop and becomes a prizewinning fiction writer whose first novel is titled How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

In How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the protagonist, also named Charles Yu, is a time machine repairman, Yu seeks to contact his father, who is lost somewhere in time. As the novel progresses, Yu finds himself caught in a time loop in which he is destined to shoot himself. How he resolves the paradox and reconciles with his and his father’s past takes up the bulk of the book.

Like Douglas Adams, whom Yu lists as an important influence, How to Live Safely is deliberately ridiculous on the surface. Charles Yu the time-machine repairman lives inside his time machine box with an overemotional computer named TAMMY and a nonexistent dog. The universe Yu inhabits is unfinished, slightly damaged, and undeniably minor. The pages of the book are littered with entertaining diagrams in the style of a technical manual.

All these antics sweeten the emotional heart of the novel, which could otherwise be either overly sentimental or heart-rendingly bleak. Yu’s father, it turns out, invented the very first time machine when Yu was a child, but failed to make it work for corporation bigwigs during a crucial test. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared. The family crumbled.

There are layers of play and layers of seriousness so thin and knit together that they’re impossible to pull apart. The autobiographical elements meld with the technical language Yu uses to describe, paradoxically, charged emotional states. The highly literary conceit is fleshed out with science fictional flights of fancy. Existential questions bump up against the science fictional furniture. Yu deliberately plays with these juxtapositions, which give extra depth to the non-linear progression of the story and particularly the poignancy of the protagonists’ childhood memories. The result is a book that satisfies readers both in and out of genre.

Yu is Taiwanese-American and a Los Angeles native. He was proclaimed one of the National Book Awards “Five Writers Under 35″ back in 2007, when he had only a short story collection to his name. Like his novel, the collection Third Class Superhero incorporates elements of both genre and mainstream literature, suggesting once again that we’re all living in a science fictional universe, right now, this very moment. Safely or otherwise.

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