“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.” – Lao Tzu
An Analysis on Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
With a perfect blend of eon bridging, space dogs, and transcendental futurism, Charles Yu’s novel, titled to sound like a post-modern survival guide to a sci-fi enthusiast’s dream world, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, is about a time machine repairman, Yu himself, trying to reconnect with his father, the creator of time travel. The novel attempts to solve problems that are the very foundation of the existential anxieties that pang the modern soul expressed through the experiences of time travel.
More specifically, the world this survival guide was written for is called Minor Universe 31 or MU31 for short. The world was unfinished and only 93 percent complete because it “was slightly damaged during its construction and, as a result, the builder-developer who owns the rights abandoned the original plans for the space.” Despite of the bit of unpredictability in some places, the universe seemed completely safe. Yu expresses fragmentation in the modern souls of the people on MU31 as he explains that the technology left behind by the engineering team is first-rate despite it only being partially developed but contrariwise “the same can’t be said of its human inhabitants, who seem to have been left with a lingering sense of incompleteness” (Yu, 11).
Charles has been isolated with nothing but a depressive operating system, TAMMY and a “nonexistent but ontologically valid dog,” Ed as his only company for a decade within a time machine. His job as a repairman was to assist users who have gotten themselves in unfortunate situations. Time machine owners have a tendency of falling into such situations by always trying to travel to their worst days of their personal history. They travel to those negative times in their past in attempts to try to fix their current problems. The only issue with this is that there exists the principles of Novikovian self-consistency that reveals the impossibility of time paradoxes through stating that a past event cannot be changed. The narrator describes his most common repair calls as unnecessary because of the fact that “a lot of the time, the machine isn’t even broken. I just have to explain to the customer the basics of Novikovian self-consistency, which no one wants to hear about. No one wants to hear that they went to all this trouble for nothing. For some people, that’s the only reason they rented the thing, to go back and fix their broken lives… No matter how hard you try, you can’t change the past” (Yu, 13-14).
The self, however, is not important enough for time to allow one to alter it at their own will and perhaps any past unfavorable events that may have left a temponaut’s soul fragmented is just an inevitable part of life. It is true that “the universe just doesn’t put up with that. We aren’t important enough. No one is. Even in our own lives. We’re not strong enough, willful enough, skilled enough in chronodiegetic manipulation to be able to just accidentally change the entire course of anything, even ourselves… There are too many factors,too many variables. Time isn’t an orderly stream. Time isn’t a placid lake recording each of our ripples.Time is viscous. Time is a massive flow…” All of our human actions may affect the universe “on the surface, but that doesn’t even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us.” It is this delusional importance on the self that gives Charles his job. “Human nature is what keeps me employed” (Yu, 14-15).
Charles Yu avoids this fatalistic nature of the universe by voluntarily giving up his chronological living since he decided that it is “kind of a lie… Existence doesn’t have more meaning in one direction that it does in any other. Completing the days of your life in strict calendar order can feel forced. Arbitrary. Especially after you’ve seen what I’ve seen. Most people I know live their lives moving in constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.” He calls living in the present a lie because those not living in a time machine are mostly dwelling on their pasts anyways. His escape from reality also gives him a sense of security since life encoded in a box is a “life without chances… Without danger…without the risk of Now” (Yu, 22). He purposely filled his need for a sense of comfort and security by choosing to remain “in a quiet, nameless, dateless day found tucked into a hidden cul-de-sac of space time… The most uneventful piece of time… Same exact thing every night, night after night. Total silence. Absolute nothing.” “That’s why I chose it,” said Charles, “I know for a fact that nothing bad can happen to me in here” (Yu, 15).
His mother, whom he gifted a state-of-the-art time machine to, is similarly fulfilling her addiction to escapism by reliving the same sixty minute dinner with her son and vanished husband over and over again when she felt happy as a mother and wife. The time-loop fails to satisfy her loneliness and hologram Yu and his father did not deliver the familial comforts and security she was seeking. Ironically, Yu’s mother is a Buddhist in the novel and Buddhism holds a strongly convicted emphasis on living in the present-moment (Babauta).
According to Yu, one chooses to relive these moments in their time machine because they cannot handle the idea that they only get one chance at life. His father who spent most of his life working on time travel not appreciating other aspects of life “spent the better part of four decades trying to come to terms with just how screwed up and unfair it is that we only get to do this all once, with the intractability and general awfulness of trying to parse the idea of once, trying to get any kind of handle on it, trying to put into the equations, isolate into a variable the slippery concept of onceness.” Yu describes his father’s unconsciousness of the now as “years of his life, my life, his life with my mom, years and years and years, down in that garage, near us, but not with us… He spent all the time he had with us thinking about how he wished he had more time, if he could only have more time” (Yu, 18). By creating these analogies, Yu tries to makes the reader conscious enough to awaken their own ability to enjoy each and every present-moment before it is faded into one’s memories.
Yu expresses how time can be an opponent against one’s dearest memories as he expresses his inability to miss his father after not seeing him for so long; “Unfortunately, it’s true: time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience… The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, pre-processed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter” (Yu, 54).
Coincidentally, Yu fails to take his own advice avoiding moving forward as he obsesses over his own memories with his father. He incidentally gets caught into the same existential anxieties of his fellow time-travelers as he attempts to dissect every past interaction to find what might have gone in his life and in his father’s life. Charles fell into the same predicament as his father who wanted to use time travel “for sadness, to investigate the source of his own,of his father’s, and om and on, to the ultimate origin, some dark radiating body, trapped in its own severe curvature, cut off from the rest of the universe” (Yu, 48).
How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe serves as a warning to the reader not to get caught in the allure of not living and appreciating the present moment because of the tragedy and dangers that it may result in. One of these tragedies is when Yu, in a natural reaction of shock, shoots a future version of himself in the stomach and tried to avert the situation by jumping into the same time machine his future self came out of. Inside the time machine he finds a package, the survival guide written by his future self that TAMMY reveals to be some sort of key solution to all his problems toward the end as he finds himself consequentially stuck in a time loop “hovering over scenes from (his) own life as a detached observer… Lurching around from moment to random moment and never even learning about those moments.” Being aware of his time loop’s preset length he expresses the inability to change his fate by claiming, “it already happened, and it happened the way it happened, and any moment now, I’m going to find myself going back to a Hangar 157 to get myself shot in the stomach.” Tammy says, “that’s it… When you shot yourself in the stomach, he was trying to tell you something” and Yu comes to the realization, “it’s all in the book. The book is the key” (Yu, 200).
It turns out, that at the end everything happened exactly the same way. Yu shot himself in the stomach and jumped into the time machine again but upon opening the package he has realized that he is in a time loop. Upon this realization he makes the choice to “step out into the world of time and risk and loss again” and he plans out how he will approach his father when he finally finds him but the novel abruptly ends before Yu’s real father is revealed to the reader (Yu, 233).
Charles realizes the significant decision he has to make to get out of the time machine and “face what is coming.” He expresses, “instead of just passively allowing the events of my life to continue to happen to me, I could see what it might be like to be the main character in my own story” (Yu, 217). They key is to become the protagonist of your own story by living in the present moment and not constantly dwelling in existential angst about the past or future. Through experiencing his past in third person in his time-loop, Yu realizes how easily one can lose one’s self by not being in the present-moment. Yu imparts this wisdom on the reader: “Maybe we go through life never actually being ourselves, mostly never being ourselves. Maybe we spend most of our decades being someone else, avoiding ourselves, maybe a man is only himself, his true self, for a few days in his entire life” (Yu, 176).
Babauta, Leo. 5 Inspirations for Being in the Moment. July 12, 2007, zenhabits.net, web.
Yu, Charles. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. 2010, Pub. Vintage Books, New York.