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How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. Book review.

How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. Book review.

Time travel ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This realisation came as a bit of a shock to a lifelong Dr Who fan, particularly the latest Matt Smith iteration.

Time travel ain’t all it’s cracked up to be if you work in the time travel industry and fix time machines for a living.

More specifically, time travel ain’t all it’s cracked up to be if you are a…

…certified network technician for T-class personal use chronogrammatical vehicles, and an approved independent affiliate contractor for Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this universe as a spatio-temporal structure and entertainment complex zoned for retail, commercial and residential use.

In the science fictional universe created by Charles Yu time travel is mainstream and prosaic.

Time machine repair is a blue-collar occupation.

Time machine repair men have line managers.

My manager IMs me. We get along pretty well. His name is Phil. Phil is an old copy of Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0. His passive-aggressive is set to low. Whoever configured him did me a solid. The only thing, and this isn’t really that big a deal, is that Phil thinks he’s a real person. He likes to talk sports and tease me about the girl in Dispatch, whom I always have to remind him I’ve never met, never even seen.

Your average time machine repair man doesn’t have a TARDIS.

He has a TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device.

(Which, by the way, is a “standard-issue chronogrammatical vehicle, rated for personal, private use.”)

Unlike the TARDIS the TM-31 is slightly smaller on the inside than it is on the outside. And your average time machine repair man only has the TM-31 equivalent of Siri for company.

The TM-31’s computer UI comes in one of two personality skins: TIM or TAMMY. You can only choose once, the first time you boot up, and you’re stuck with your choice forever. I’m not going to lie. I chose the girl one. Is TAMMY’s curvilinear pixel configuration kind of sexy? Yes it is. Does she have chestnut-colored hair and dark brown eyes behind pixilated librarian glasses and a voice like a cartoon princess? Yes and yes and yes. Have I ever, in all my time in this unit, ever done you know what to a screenshot of you know who? I’m not going to answer that. All I will say is that at a certain point, you lose the capacity for embarrassment.

Is this book funny? Yes.

Is this book high on originality? Yes.

Does this book give you a regular fix of cool, sci fi (for which read scientifically baseless) geekery? Yes, yes and thrice yes.

But this book is mostly, achingly, poignant.

Don’t read it if you’re on the verge, or in the midst, of a mid-life crisis. Don’t read it if you reject the notion of mid-life crisis but you are asking yourself all the big introspective questions that are symptomatic of the same.

Definitely, definitely don’t read it if you have any regrets, doubts or shameful memories about your relationship with your father, or your son, or both.

Do read it if you answered yes to any of the above and have masochistic tendencies.

Charles Yu plays himself, or rather Charles Yu plays himself playing a time machine repair man, in this science fictional universe of his own making.

As a teenager he and his science-fictional father worked together in their garage to turn the latter’s time travel vision into DIY prototype reality. It transpires that his father was the father of time travel, but in a sad, unlucky, uncelebrated, other-bugger-gets-all-the-credit, highly embittered way.

Years later, in his TM-31, Yu gets stuck in a Groundhog time-loop that forces him to relive the most excruciating moments of this claustrophobic and unsatisfactory (for which read normal) relationship.

I am angry at myself, realizing how many hundreds or thousands of instances in which my father must have looked at me, his son, looked in my eyes to see if I believed in him, if I had any more optimism than he did, if I saw the world just as he did, or if instead he had imparted his sadness and feeling of incompleteness on me. I have let him down. I have let him down countless times. I am seventeen years old, and even then I know that seventeen years old is not very old, but it is old enough to have disappointed him, old enough to have been able to help him, and then chosen not to, it is old enough to be a coward, to not have protected him when you could have, even should have. Seventeen years old is not old, but it is old enough to have hurt your father.

Time travel ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Charles Yu cracks it up to be a nightmare.

Not a monster-propelled nightmare. No Daleks. No Weeping Angels.

A technology-propelled but very human and therefore entirely credible nightmare.

The reason I have job security is that people have no idea how to make themselves happy. Even with a time machine. I have job security because what the customer wants when you get right down to it, is to relive his very worst moment, over and over and over again. Willing to pay a lot of money to do it too.

The real nightmare if you are a father and/or a son is that the book forces you to project yourself – you the disappointing and you the disappointed – onto Yu’s dystopian vision of time travel.

It is funny, clever but very uncomfortable.

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