HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu

How to live safelyKind of an odd, quirky novel.  Science fiction, but not quite.  A tale of a relationship between father and son, well, OK, yeah, that.  A musing upon life, liberty, free will, memories, and time. Definitely that.

I snagged this book mainly on the basis of the title, without delving much into the plot, because I thought, hey, sci fi, how to live in a sci fi universe.  But although there are plenty of sci fi elements — we have time travel, space, and lots of nifty gadgetry,  a closer reading of the title reveals it to be a science fictional universe.  I confess to having a bit of a problem understanding just what was going on.

The basic story is this:  the father of a young boy — our protagonist — is an engineer, and is working on inventing a time travel machine.  Then spends the rest of his life trying to get it to work.  He finally does, and one evening, he just disappears, never to be seen again.

The son then spends his life trying to find his father.  A large corporation has bought up the rights to the machine and has gotten it to work.   Our boy gets a job as a time repairman.  He travels in a TM-31, and tells us that

transport through some amount of space-time  is a physical process.  Even if it has metaphysical and fictional implications, it is still a physical process.  Time travel takes time.

It is well established within the field of diegetic engineering that a science fictional space must have an energy density at least equal to the unit average level of a Dirac box, multiplied by pi.

He travels around, fixing rents in the space time.  People experience these as double vision, hallucinations, etc., and are terribly grateful when he shows up.

Well, turns out the universe where he lives is some kind of alternate universe, one of many.  It is a grammatical universe and that

Weinberg and Takayama each working independently and without any knowledge of the other, set forth the proposition that a universe, in order to sustain the conditions necessary for the development of narrational sustainability, can be no bigger than a certain maximum size.

Yeah, I don’t understand it either.

Well, he gets himself involved in a infinite loop where he sees himself getting out of his TM-31 and himself shoots him, and he rushes past himself to get into the ship, and then becomes involved in this loop thing and decides to write a book that has already been written about what happens to him in the future and that is already happened and the book is already written and…..

He does tell us that when engaging in time travel, you can’t get to the past and change any of it. Then there is a lot of mulling about time, how it is a massive flow, a self-healing substance,  that nostalgia is just an underlying cosmological explanation for Weak but detectable interaction between two neighboring universes that are otherwise not causally connected.  It manifests itself in humans as a feeling of missing a place one has never been, and can never know.

He has a dog which is not real.  In fact, it does not actually exist, except it does.  It travels with him on his repair jobs.

Ed [the dog] sighs.  Dog sighs are some form of distilled truth.  What does he know?  What do dogs know?  Ed sighs like he knows the truth about me and loved me anyway.

Ed wants to see the meson-boson show, so we cross the street and stand outside for a while, watching a replay of the Big Bang.  At the top of the hour, they open a box and every color in the universe comes pouring out, refracted and reflected, bouncing around inside the window display.

If you have come for the plot, it is kind of fragile and disappears from time to time.  But if you have come for the philosophical ruminations, you have come to the right place.

We are all time machines.  We are all perfectly engineered time machines, technologically equipped to allow the inside user, the traveler riding inside each of us, to experience time travel, and loss, and understanding.  We are universal time machines manufactured to the most exacting specifications possible.  Every single one of us.

I think I will leave it at this point.  It is the kind of book you will either like, or hate.  Or something in between.  I am on the ‘like’ side of the equation.  I have gotten comfortable over the decades with not fully understanding things.

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