How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe (2010) is a seriously metatextual novel, packed with physics and logical puzzles, and cunningly decorated with references to inventions we have never imagined. It’s very post-modern (which is not my usual choice) because it leaps about through the conventions of story-telling and novel-writing. I don’t know, but I surmise that Charles Yu studied Eng literature, and possibly also passed Creative Writing for Pros while doing a Master of Fine Arts, but the blight of the latter doesn’t show up too much. The novel is sharp, neat, beautifully constructed, has way too much invented science thrown in our eyes to wow us, but the story has heart and wit as well. It deals with danger (for weeks I was convinced that its title was How to Survive in a …) because there are many potential disasters waiting for a man who routinely travels in and out of time, and might meet himself coming out of a door at any moment.
The narrator is also called Charles Yu, and he fixes time machines. He has a dog he rescued (he has no idea when from), his father is lost in time somewhere, and his mother is living the same half hour over and over again. The inventions are dazzlingly clever: newsclouds and music clouds that you walk in or through when you need a dose. Sexbots wait sadly for clients so they save up enough to buy themselves. Software wants to get married. The elderly can buy themselves time loops to live in instead of care homes. This is not a dark and cynical gloomy hipfest, this is a charming and well written novel about loyalty and caring and the many things we should not do with a time machine, not even with a simple domestic model. There is no romance, but there is steadfast friendship and reliable support without drama, the kind of values that went out of fashion when dystopias came in. I began reading this nervously, and ended it with a big satisfied smile on my face. What a happy read that was.