The Short Version: Charles Yu is a time-travel technician… but he’s sort of feeling a bit listless of late. His father sort of invented time travel but lost out on fame and then disappeared in time, his mother is in an old-age time loop, his dog doesn’t actually exist, and he just shot a future version of himself in the chest. The answer, apparently, lies in a copy of a book called “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” that also may or may not be a paradox.
The Review: I really wanted to love this book but instead I only liked it. It’s not at all what I expected, that’s to be sure. I was thinking something more Douglas Adams, something quirky and screwball. And there are those elements, to be sure: the book is darkly comedic at times and has plenty of winks to the legends of the sci-fi genre. But it’s also quite somber, quite moving, and quite… sad, I guess.
At its heart, it isn’t a sci-fi book – it’s a book about a father and son and the strange gap between fathers and sons in general. The protagonist (Charles Yu, making me wonder how much of his own life is manifest in this book…) was not the best son to his father. His father wasn’t the best father, either, but isn’t that how it goes? Our dads want us to do certain things and we want our dads to be supermen and in the end there’s always going to be a disconnect. It’s how we deal with that, of course, that defines our relationship. When Yu’s dad fails to make a splash with his time machine prototype and spirals into anger and sadness and then finally disappears in said time machine, Charles is upset. Angry. But also confused. And as he gets older and softens out (literally and emotionally), he begins to see his past in a new light. I mean, literally: he goes back and sees himself go through these things and comes out with more understanding.
The plot itself is a bit hazy – Yu is trying to find his father but is also stuck in a time loop and there’s quite a bit of sci-fi heady jargon flying around. The plot itself doesn’t really kick in until about a third of the way into the book, too. The first third is mostly world-building… but it’s sort of almost a little too much. We get to see Luke Skywalker’s son, we get to see the combined city that is New Angeles / Lost Tokyo 2, beautiful descriptions of things like newsclouds (made me think of Transmetropolitan) and other various technological advancements… but it all felt a little lacking in cohesion. I suppose that’s part of the point, as Yu is safely outside of time – coasting in the Present-Indefinite drive – and so the whole thing lacks a sense of forward movement. Coupled with the fact that my copy was rather poorly bound (the final set of pages wasn’t glued into the spine correctly so it’s offset and nearly falling out of my book) and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was all just a meta-meta thing to further the idea of Minor Universe 31 and the slight lack of finished construction on said universe.
But then the book DOES go meta – incredibly so – and that’s really the joy of reading this book: seeing how freaking smart Charles Yu (the author) is. Because MAN does he have some chops to’ve pulled this off. It’s quite impressive and truly a fantastic ride. The only problem is, it came a bit too late… and there was a bit too much maudlin parent/child drama and I found myself keeping the book at arm’s length sometimes.
This could be a personal reaction – coupled with the release of the new John Mayer album, there’s some soul-searching going on about my place in the universe, as one does. And this book has a hero who is literally without a place in the universe – he is outside of time and space in a way that bends the mind to try and understand. But mostly, I found it a bit too melancholic for my taste, as though a gray shroud was dropped over the whole novel.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I really enjoyed the meta aspects of the novel, the heavy hard sci-fi that didn’t pander to people who don’t usually read sci-fi, even the broad scope of the plot. But I just couldn’t really enjoy the novel. I’m not sure if it was the feeling of sadness that pervaded it or that it was a bit too disjoint at times for its own good (even with the context of it being disjoint on purpose). I felt sad after reading it, for reasons I can’t entirely articulate – even though the ending is a positive one. Just one of those things, I guess.