I’ve enjoyed science fiction since I was a girl, so when I saw How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu in the New Books section of the library, it didn’t take me long at all to decide to check it out.
It’s an unusual book, kind of hard to categorize although it’s obviously science fiction. When asked how he would like to see it characterized, Yu answers, “In terms of genre, I would be happy for it to be shelved in both fiction and in science fiction. Or maybe under a new category, where they would put books that resist either classification. A lot of my favorite books would be in that category.”
Like the best science fiction novels, it’s more about real life than it is about science fiction. It’s about time travel, but it’s not time travel to go sightseeing in the future or the past, or to rewrite history or to prevent history from being rewritten.
Charles Yu (the protagonist, who happens to share a name with the author) is a time travel repairman. He responds to service calls from people who have caused their time machines to malfunction in their efforts to change their own past – which they can’t do.
Of course, he can’t change his own past either, but he spends a lot of time thinking about it. (Not real time, since he lives outside of time, but his own subjective time.) His father is lost somewhere/somewhen, and he hopes to somehow eventually find him. His mother lives in a repeating one-hour time loop of her choosing. (Or is it?)
Author Yu explains that he started out wanting to write a story about family, but it didn’t come together until he got the time travel idea. So it’s serious sometimes, sad sometimes – but also often humorous in a quirky way. There’s an operating system with a low self-esteem problem, a boss who is a computer program but thinks he is human, a dog who is mostly hypothetical, and a whole universe that was not quite finished by the manufacturer.
The book isn’t for everyone. My younger son started it enthusiastically but lost interest after a while. Not his soft of time travel book. It’s not really a page-turner, and it doesn’t follow any kind of normal plotline (the protagonist gets stuck in a time loop after shooting his future self), but it’s worth reading if you like that sort of book. Of course, the only way to find out if you do is to try reading it…
Much more traditional are a set of young adult time travel books I read earlier this year. I was trying to find a downloadable MP3 to play on my iPod while riding the exercise bike, and the selection from the library is rather limited. But this one turned out to be a good choice.
The Ruby Red trilogy by Kerstin Gier is all about time travel, but unlike most time travel novels, it employs no time travel machine. There is a Chronograph, but its function is not to cause travel but simply to control the timing of it. Time travelers are born with the ability, though it does not manifest until about age sixteen, and the person has no control over it except by using the Chronograph.
Those who control the Chronograph, therefore, have all the power, and over the centuries have built up a secret society. It’s not surprising they would want to keep time travel a secret (since only twelve time travelers will ever be born, and most people would consider the whole idea lunacy), but it turns out there are some very dark secrets being hidden.
These are hardly dark books, however. Gwen is very much the modern teenager (British, as it happens, though I discovered with surprise that author Kerstin Gier is German, and what I read is the English translation), and more concerned with clothes, boys, and TV and movies than all the dull history and etiquette she is expected to learn in order to blend in when she visits older centuries.
She is annoyingly emotional and self-absorbed sometimes, but also gutsy, loyal to her friends, and determined to find out the truth behind all the secrets — which turns out to have a great deal to do with her personally. One of the big secrets is fairly obvious to the reader long before Gwen overhears it, but the identity of the villain remains a surprise at the ending.