Fiction Reviews

How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe

(2010) Charles Yu , Corvus, £7.99, pbk, 239pp, ISBN 978-1-848-87682-8


The oft-cited traditional time travel paradox is 'the grandfather paradox': that is the one in which you go back in time and kill your grandfather which means that your father and you are not born. Yet if you are not born how could you have gone back in time to kill your own grandfather? This means that you are alive and so can go back in time to kill your grandfather. Which means, etc., etc… This paradox is the key argument that physicists evoke to demonstrate that time travel is not possible. Of course there are get-out clauses. SF2 Concatenation had one of these in a recent selection of the best of the one-page 'Futures' short stories: 'Grandfather Paradox' by Ian Stewart. Then there is David Deutsch's variation on Hugh Everett's Multiverse idea. Such get-outs preserve cause-and-effect but at the expense of single universe time travel: the purest form of time travel.

What Charles Yu has given us in his debut novel, How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe, is an exploration of what do you do as a time traveller when you realise that you have just shot your future self? (Something – I gently venture – not to be recommended irrespective of time travel considerations.)

From such a simple premise Charles Yu has crafted an absolutely delightful SF novel that simply oozes charm in both being human and delightfully geeky in his treatment of time travel and the telling of a story. References to science fiction as a genre are very few (though the universe in which our protagonist is trapped is called Minor Universe 31 which is a science fictional universe since chronodiegetics is a branch of science fictional science), but there are a number of genre allusions, such as the use of SF authors – for example Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin – as expletives. Meanwhile, along with the protagonist for the ride is TAMMY, the onboard computer, and the protagonist's dog.

As for the protagonist himself, well he is Charles Yu, the novel's author. As for the novel, well it is a book that Charles Yu wrote to himself so as to help get him out of the time paradox he created… All of which delightfully blurs the reality of the novel's reading experience with that of the science fictional universe in which the story is nominally set.

I do have to say that I wish that this book came to me some months earlier: alas Concatenation only got the mass market UK edition in 2011. Had I seen it last year then I would certainly have thrown it into Concatenation's hat for consideration as one of the best SF books of 2010. Indeed, along with Wells' The Time Machine (1895), Silverberg's Up the Line (1969), Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself (1973), Roberson's Here, There and Everywhere (2005), Charles Yu's How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe joins these as being among my favourite time travel novels.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Robert's take on How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe.

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