Time travel stories have long been a staple of the science fiction genre. In fact, they are older
than the genre itself. Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), about a man who falls
asleep and wakes up twenty years in the future is simply a time travel story under a different
guise. A host of later nineteenth century works—for example Edward Bellamy’s
Looking
Backward
(1888) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)—
built on this same notion that time travel requires no advanced technology to work its magic. In
Twain’s tale, all that’s needed is a blow to the head.

And then six years later, H.G. Wells published
The Time Machine,
and reduced all this commotion to a handy gadget you could keep
in your garage or basement. I note that the first automobile
manufacturer set up in England around the same time Wells
published this breakthrough story. He simply took the notion of
the modern transportation device and adapted it to traveling
through a different dimension. Think of it as a kind of super-
duper Tesla for Victorian gentlemen of leisure.

But these stories tend to avoid the prickly issues.  What happens
when you go back in time and kill your ancestors?  Or what
happens if you go back just a single day and destroy your own
time machine? The very notion of time travel involves unsolvable
paradoxes, and the genre persists only because authors pretend
these contradictions don’t exist.

Unless the author is Charles Yu. In his quirky novel
How to Live
Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
, Yu confronts the paradoxes.
Even more, he loves the paradoxes.  He builds his entire story around them. You might even
consider this book as a guide to dealing with the incongruities of genre fiction—or, in other
words, an advice book that earns the title
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

One of the first pieces of advice given by our narrator, a genial fellow named Charles Yu, is very
simple and to-the-point: “If you ever see yourself coming out of a time machine, run. Run away
as fast as you can.  Don’t stop. Don’t try to talk. Nothing good can come from it.”

Yu is an expert on such paradoxes. He works repairing time machines. His rule about running
away from yourself was part of his own training, the first thing he got taught on the job. And it’s a
useful rule, because people use these machines for the worst possible reason.  Consumers are
supposed to view time travel as recreation, but they always have other plans—which usually
involve going back to change their own lives. In fact, a market research survey of science fiction
characters shows that the most popular destination in time travel is (can you guess it?): the
worst day of your life.

Alas, Yu doesn’t take his own advice. One day he sees himself coming out of a time machine.
Does he run? Does he hide? No, not all. He is so irritated at this interloper from the future, that
he takes out his gun and shoots his future self.

Okay, this isn’t exactly like killing your ancestors. Even so, this hasty move creates many
complications from the standpoint of chronology and narrative. But I will give Charles Yu (both
the author and the character) credit for one thing: they have delivered a plot twist I haven’t
encountered before. What you do after the narrator gets killed in the middle of the story? Well,
we are fortunate that the narrator’s earlier self is still alive, and is able to escape from the crime
scene on his own time machine.

Our hero has now entered a deadly time loop. When he emerges from his time machine, he will
encounter his younger self and get shot again, starting the whole cycle one more time—a
pattern destined to repeat forever. This doesn’t sound like a promising storyline (although—
attention Hollywood!—it offers infinite possibilities for sequels and prequels). Yu is not left
without help in extricating himself from his time loop. In particular, he can rely on (1) a virtual
reality dog named Ed, (2) a sympathetic computer operating system named TAMMY, (3) his
manager Phil, a software construct that believes it’s actually a human being, (4) a mysterious
gift, still wrapped up in paper, from the narrator’s Mom; and (5) a copy of the book
How to Live
Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
.

Our story is now like one of the locked mystery
tales, but with all the usual ingredients turned
upside down: the murder only happens after
you leave the locked room, and the victim/
narrator needs to find a way of prevent it—
although it’s already happened. Even Sherlock
Holmes and Hercule Poirot combined might
struggle to work out the meaning of all this, let
alone, solve the problem. But the scenario is
perfect for the application of postmodern literary
techniques, from metanarratives to unreliable narrators.

Yu tries to insert a coming-of-age story into this conundrum of a tale, and provides detailed
flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood. Yu (the character, not the author) wants to find his
missing father, who disappeared years ago, running away from a life of failure and
disappointment.  This subplot is the least compelling part of
How to Live Safely in a Science
Fictional Universe
. At a key juncture in the novel, Yu inserts twenty pages of backstory about
the father’s career disappointments—a rambling interlude that is out of character with the tightly-
constructed, quasi-experimental writing that propels the rest of the book. This lengthy excursion
provides an emotional framework that helps guide the story out of its cursed time loop, but
family drama is not Yu’s specialty (I am talking about the author now).

But the occasional soap opera distractions can’t undermine this fresh, exciting book. I can’t
really claim that this novel represents the future of time travel narratives, but Yu has done, at a
minimum, something that may be even harder. He has brought time travel into the present
moment, both in his storyline and his mastery of the full array of today’s highbrow literary
techniques.

Yu is not a prolific writer—and I fear he might be lured away from writing novels because of
more lucrative opportunities in TV and film. But he is a major talent. And if the next phase in sci-
fi is more complete integration into mainstream and experimental literary fiction, Yu has
potential to play a decisive role as visionary and trendsetter. Only time will tell.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most
recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: June 5, 2018
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.
Fledgling

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gardner, John
Grendel

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady
Horrorstör

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Embassytown

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan
Hav

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Yamada, Taichi
Strangers

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

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“If you ever see yourself
coming out of a time
machine, run. Run away
as fast as you can. Don’t
stop. Don’t try to talk.
Nothing good can come
from it.”