Geek-gasm: Charles Yu's How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe

on Monday, November 29, 2010
Hoorah for the nerds!

My end of year reading slump is over and it is all thanks to the most outlandishly geektastic novel I think I've ever read. Imagine The Big Bang Theory scripted by the love child of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller (which, in this book's universe isn't altogether impossible) and you might get just a smidgeon of a sense of Charles Yu's debut novel, How To Live Safely in A Science Fictional Universe.

Set in Minor Universe 31, which is an awful lot like our universe except that the laws of physics were only 93% installed (the universe is a program, geddit??), it follows the absurd, mind-bending loops in space and time of one Charles Yu (got to love this current trend of naming one's protagonist after oneself), Time Machine Repairman and nostalgic loser. Most of his friends exist either as hypotheses or computer programs, except for his parents, who probably did exist at some point and his future self, who is destined to kill him, ad infinitum. How To Live Safely... is absolutely riotous, even for those of us who flunked tenth grade science and don't understand the first thing about physics. The techno stuff is just brilliant, especially given that Yu made the majority of it up, but the real paradoxes he confronts are handled so lightly that the grognards out there can be eased into the vortex. Even I, whose entire left side of the brain is non-functional, found myself pondering the nature of time loops and multiverses.

Those of you who I have managed to scare off thus far should crawl, nay sprint, back without caution. For what makes this book really shoot beyond the stratosphere (sorry, this nerd thing is infectious) is its tender exploration of a child's need to live up to the expectation of his parents. At heart, How to Live Safely... is about the ever changing nature of the relationship between father and son, particularly as the son attains adulthood and comes to understand his father as a man rather than a god. Yu's recognition and ultimate forgiving of his father's failings has a universal resonance beyond the laughs and scientific gimmickry that permeate the rest of the novel.

The fact that I have chosen to review this, after having eschewed the proper 'review' on this blog for so long ought to tell you something. But if you still need it spelled out, here you go. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, whether you are the sort of person who hangs out in comic shops fantasising about banging a Martian babe, or a lover of deep, lyrical yet funny literature. Or anything in between. Or either side. Whatever. Just read it!

Meanwhile, I'm off to find where I put my Pocket Hadron Super Collider...


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