“Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.”
― Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
There is a very strong contingent of sci-fi fans who take issue with Charles Yu’s time travel novel being true science fiction. Well, how about if we all just take a deep breath and relax and just call it fiction. Does that work for you? To get caught up in the sci-fi is not the right approach. Take, for instance, Stephen King’s “11/22/63.” The sci-fi in that book amounts to a very simple “portal,” you walk through a door and that’s it. For the hardcore crowd, well, one of the greatest, if not the greatest work on time travel, Jack Finney’s “Time and Again,” also employs a simple process to get on with the time travelin’. That’s not to say Yu is happy to settle for a magic door because, in fact, he goes all quantum physics on you in his own way. So, let’s revisit “How to Live,” which was recently reissued in print and is also now an e-book.
Consider Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, “Her,” a story set in the future about a lonely writer (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who develops a relationship with his computer’s operating system (played by Scarlett Johansson). That gives you just a taste of what’s going on in Charles Yu’s “How to Live,” first published in 2011. In his story, the character develops a relationship with his operating system, TAMMY, but that’s just part of the story. To get a sense of what has influenced Charles Yu, consider George Saunders. Check out his “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” recently reissued as an e-book. Saunders has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and so has Yu. It’s quirky, brainy fiction with sci-fi elements and social satire. We’re not calling this straight-up-sci-fi. It’s “science fictional.”
What actually takes place in “How to Live” is an exploration of self and at one of the deepest and most unusual levels. Our main character, also named Charles Yu, is a rather banal character, which is fine, and part of the point of the whole story. It would be a mistake to equate banal with boring. No, banal is just banal, more of an everyday mellow sort, our default for contemporary anti-hero. So, this guy is a time machine repairman, which is also fine. Very symbolic and intriguing. He’s there to catch clients when they push or pull their way beyond their time travel contract agreement. It’s the near future. People engage in time travel often, too often. Charles is there to clean up mess after mess.
Time travel, as a genre, has continued to grow since this book’s first printing. Like dystopias and zombies, people get it and consume it regularly. Yu’s book, already a contemporary classic, will dazzle countless new readers. At its heart, it has been said by many a reviewer, the book has a big heart. Yu manages to bring in a number a very moving passages about family without ever getting heavy-handed about it. There’s a specific sadness that he’s working with. As the main character is quick to point out, the first mistake that time travel clients make is that they want to change the past. Of course, regret can be a fascinating problem and can lead to some of the best fiction. When you get down to it, a good time travel story has less to do with space-time and more to do with Proust.