The narrator of Charles Yu's debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe never completed his master's in Applied Science Fiction. Instead, he took a job repairing time machines in Minor Universe 31, a smallish, self-contained pocket of reality that's "not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it." MU31, we learn, was abandoned by its original builder/writer midway through its construction, leaving its physics only 93 percent installed.
It doesn't take long for our narrator (named, in what is only the first of the book's many meta-fictional feints, Charles Yu), to run smack into what is, for a time machine engineer, a particularly knotty occupational hazard: Yu accidentally encounters his future self and, in a panic, shoots and kills him. He then takes off in his future self's time machine to try to figure some way out of his now inevitable, albeit temporally displaced, suicide.
If How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe contented itself with exploring that classic chestnut of speculative fiction, the time paradox, it would likely make for an enjoyable sci-fi yarn. But Yu's novel is a good deal more ambitious, and ultimately more satisfying, than that. It's about time travel and cosmology, yes, but it's also about language and narrative — the more we learn about Minor Universe 31, the more it resembles the story space of the novel we're reading, which is full of diagrams, footnotes, pages left intentionally (and meaningfully) blank and brief chapters from the owner's manual of our narrator's time machine.
This playfulness won't surprise anyone who read Yu's short story collection, Third Class Superhero, in which, for example, one story took the form of a series of word problems, and another, an extended meditation on the statistical meaning of the word "maybe."
Some of those stories read more like thought-experiments than fiction enfleshed enough to make us care about it. Here, however, Yu imbues his enthusiasm for formal inventiveness with emotional weight and is careful to instill narrative meaning into his clever jokes: As the novel opens, our narrator has spent the last 10 years living beyond time, with the gearshift of his "chronogrammatical" time machine set to Present-Indefinite. He prefers this directionless, ambitionless existence, he says, because "Chronological living is kind of a lie.... Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward."
He has purchased a retirement package for his mother, which takes the form of a time loop: she lives the same, happy hour of her life over and over forever — or until he can no longer afford the payments. His father mysteriously disappeared from the space-time continuum soon after discovering time-travel, leaving a hole in his son's life that launched him into his current mode of indefinite living, free of risk, where the laws of cause-and-effect can't touch him.
If these metaphors seem obvious and overdetermined, that's part of the fun: Yu grafts the laws of theoretical physics onto the yearnings of the human heart so thoroughly and deftly that the book's technical language and mathematical proofs take on a sense of urgency. And because How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is ultimately a book about the universe-wide emotional gap separating father from son, they also take on a haunting, melancholic air.