One of the books I read at the tail end of 2010 was Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. I first heard of it from Slog or the Boston Bibliophile or Rumpus.net. It came up a few times in feeds I subscribe to. Then it was mentioned again in this year end post from Library Alchemy.
Charles Yu (author) gives us the first person story of Charles Yu (character) who has spent almost a decade of his time in a telephone booth-sized time machine, a technology pioneered, rather unsuccessfully, by his father. The universe in this book’s universe is multiple–minor universes split off based on events and in the novel’s main minor universe, parts of New York, LA and Tokyo have formed one massive city. Yu prefers to stay in his time machine with the company of TAMMY, the machine’s operating system, and Ed, his “nonexistent but ontologically valid” dog. Yu meets himself, shoots himself and gets stuck in a time loop. Time travel is effectuated by thought–the brain is the real time machine and Yu’s father traveled away from his original time stream just by the strength of his own disappointment spurred by his failure to invent a working time machine.
Yu meeting himself in the time machine warehouse is the turning point in the narrative; when Yu meets his future self, future Yu hands present Yu a silver book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and from that point, what’s printed in the book is what Yu is simultaneously reading and dictating to himself. The actual physical book is bound in silver, nice to see the designers working with the author in that way. And though the book is rather short, it finds plenty of space to delve into the father-son relationship, in beautifully elegiac prose. I thoroughly valued and enjoyed reading it.
Genre, however, is what inspired this post. This book is cataloged in my library’s science fiction section, and I’m not sure it belongs there. It’s not because sci-fi can’t be great or literary, because it certainly can, but because there just isn’t enough science-y stuff in there. Time travel in this universe doesn’t happen because of black holes or crazy wires in space or a TARDIS, but because of the power of human thought. I also think of sci-fi as a plot-driven genre and this book is postmodern character study through and through. The title makes it hard to put it elsewhere, perhaps.
Library patrons will sometimes ask me why a particular book is shelved in the section it’s in, and I have no good answers. I’ve seen Diana Gabaldon in Fiction, Mystery and Romance. Nora Roberts is in all 3 of those as well, so catalogers are not necessarily trying to keep authors’ works all together. The literary v. genre fiction debate has been well hashed out elsewhere and it’s not my intention to recreate that debate, I think it takes all kinds of books to make the world go round. It’s just that this book has more in common with (someone fragmented narrative-y who I’d name if I’d read more stuff) than with Orson Scott Card or Robert Jordan. Dividing up genres in the library or bookstore makes for easier browsing, in this case I think the book is ill served by being hidden in genre fiction. If you liked House of Leaves (which I didn’t) or Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, you’d enjoy this book but you might never see it.