How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

December 18, 2011

If you could go back in time, you'd be the same schmuck you've always been, only younger.

How to Live Safely takes place in a world where time travel is recreational, something as easy and inexpensive as a drive down the shore. If this were our world, where would you go? Would you risk death to go see dinosaurs? Pack some antibiotics and go hang with civilizations past? What about exploring your own past? Maybe go back and stop yourself from making some colossal mistake? What would you say? Would you believe yourself?

It’s one of time travel’s greatest appeals that we might go back and tell our then-selves something that our now-selves know, get him or her to do things differently. Except that’s not really possible, at least not in a single universe. Even if you could go back in time, you wouldn’t be able to get your past self to make any different choices, because if you did, then your past self would become a different person, and you’d be a different person, and so you’d no longer be the person who went back in time in the first place. About to watch his past self do something terrible, Charles Yu’s present self realizes: “there’s nothing I can do about it because there’s nothing I did do about it.”

We have no choice, then, but to embrace our pasts. Nietzsche knew this. He’s an interesting one to bring in because How to Live Safely takes place in a time loop not unlike Nietzsche’s “eternal return.” To summarize, Nietzsche asks what you’d think if a god or demon came to you in a dream and said that the life you’re living right now you’d have to live over and over again for all time, every situation and choice the same as you’d initially made it. Would you rejoice at the infinite deferral of death, or would you feel horror at the thought of having to make and re-make all your painful and awkward moments for all time?

Yu’s mother–and I’m referring to the mother of protagonist Charles Yu, who shares a name with the author–answers “no.” She’s chosen to spend her life in a bizarre kind of time-machine-home where she can live a single happy, hypothetical hour of her life–in which she’s preparing dinner for her family–over and over again. It’s an affirmation of one hour of life but an absolute negation of all the rest. This is pessimism at its purest: implicit in her choice is the assumption that the future has nothing to offer her. It’s an interesting exercise to think about which hour of your life you’d want to relive for the rest of it–but our answer should always be “the next one,” shouldn’t it?

While Yu’s mother spends all of her time reliving the past, Yu’s father is literally trapped in the future. Working out of his garage, he was a pioneer of time-travel technology who, after a professional failure, disappeared into the future he’d been pursuing his entire career. Whether his disappearance is accidental or deliberate hangs over the story.

With a mother living in the past and a father pressing heedlessly into the future, it’s appropriate how Charles himself spends his time, as illustrated by the book’s final line:

Enjoy the elastic present, which can accommodate as little or as much as you want to put in there. Stretch it out, live inside of it. (233)

It sounds grandiose, but the actual details are less inspiring. Before the story gets moving, Yu claims a fondness for parking his time machine outside of space-time and just sitting there in the emptiness, occasionally chatting up the machine’s operating system, an artificial intelligence with a woman’s voice, on which he has a crush. For him, living safely means pretty much not living at all. Lamenting how he got stuck in the time machine repair business, Yu says

You know how it goes. At first it’s just for the time being, until you can get your own story together, be the hero in some thing of your own. (30)

Now, it quickly becomes clear that How to Live Safely isn’t about time travel literally. As the narrator explains, not nuclear reactors or flux capacitors but simply “memory and regret, when taken together, are the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.” And what such a time machine allows is “free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.” In other words, stories are time machines. In this light, the narrator’s mother, for instance, only wants to live through a story in which she’s a dutiful mother providing for a perfect family. His father is dissatisfied with all the stories he’s lived through as a failed inventor and is constantly seeking out new ones. And Charles himself doesn’t know what kind of story he wants to live through, so he prefers to sit on the sideline of space-time.

The book’s narrative arc, then, is about Charles finding his story, a point that’s hard to miss in one awkwardly metafictional section where book’s narration consists entirely of the narrator/author writing the very book itself, word for word. But the point is the same one Nietzsche would make: that the story we choose to live through should be the one we actually do live through, with life as a creative act of simultaneous reading and writing.

Finally, while I didn’t find this book especially engaging, the parts that made me smile the most were when the author describes emotions like alienation in technical, science-fictional terms. For example,

In order to qualify as a protagonist, a human must be able to demonstrate an attachment coefficient of at least 0.75. A coefficient of 1.00 or above is required in order to be a hero.

Factors used in calculating the coefficient include

  • ability to believe
  • fervency of that belief
  • humility
  • willingness to look stupid
  • willingness to have heart broken
  • willingness to see our universe as nonboring or, better yet, to see it as interesting, and maybe even emportant, and despite its deeply defective nature possibly even worth saving

Any inhabitant with a negative attachment coefficient (in which case it is referred to as a coefficient of ironic detachment) will be placed on probation pending review of the individual’s suitability for continued inclusion within the universe. (32)