How to LiveCharles Yu (the protagonist of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, not the author) is a time machine technician. He travels through time in his TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device fixing the time machines of people stranded in the wrong time – an unglamorous, dead-end kind of job.

Charles’ father is an engineer who, years ago, attempted to invent time machines but failed. Then his father disappeared, lost somewhere in time. As a child Charles had worked closely with his father. He saw him struggle to work on something fantastic that was doomed to fail. Charles never wants to repeat his father’s mistake. So he never tries just in case he fails. When Charles gets trapped in a time loop he’s forced to confront the sad state his life is in, prompting him to finally look for his father, and hopefully, in doing so, escape the time loop.

Straight away How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe reminded me of Super Sad True Love Story, not plot-wise, more the tone of narration. Both feature an earnest, loser narrator. Not unlike Super Sad True Love Story’s Lenny, Charles Yu is unattractive, a bit whiny, and not averse to feeling sorry for himself.

After I’d read a decent chunk, I realised nothing had actually happened. Although, I had learned that time travel is a complicated business (nothing new there). Yu’s novel jumps between the past and present, the fictional timelines and the ‘real’. Most of the writing is dedicated to showcasing that myriad permutations of reality are out there.

Charles rarely lives in the present tense. He travels to the past and the future for work, and when he’s not travelling he occupies a time space called the Present-Indefinite (an ‘in between tenses’ tense). In keeping with that the narrative doesn’t have a linear structure. There are vignettes, snippets or wisps of memories, and snatches of conversation like half-remembered dreams. Charles doesn’t always time travel back to these events, but his reminiscences both entwine with and mirror his non-linear lifestyle.

After Charles enters the time loop the story starts to resemble a computer game. There’s a quest (to find his father), and meanwhile reality is bending and shifting. One moment Charles is in a temple, he gathers information and unlocks a clue, then the next he’s suddenly transported to some sort of spaceship.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a book based on contradictions. In the time loop Charles is reading a book and writing the book at the same time, he’s his future self and his present self but his future self isn’t really him. Around and around it goes.

I am transcribing a book that I have, in a sense, not yet written, and in another sense, have always written, and in another sense, am currently writing, and in another sense, am always writing, and in another sense, will never write.

Yu writes about this same time loop conceit (as well as variations on the theme) over and over. I can only guess his writing is supposed to reflect the repetition of the time loop but it was redundant. And sometimes boring.

Then there are the simulacra of Charles – which one is real, are any? And more contradictory logic, ‘Out of all the oceans of oceans of you, there is exactly one who is perfectly you. And that’s me. And I’m telling you: you are the only you.’ Maybe if your brain is that way inclined you could have fun picking out the truth in Yu’s ideas but I’m not convinced there is any. I’m thinking it’s just a purposefully paradoxical jumble.

Yu has a conspicuous writing style – very lengthy descriptions, repetition of ideas and phrases and focus on minute details.

Where the pad was bound at the top there was a red, waxy strip, and sometimes my father would tear off the top sheet, so we could work on it without leaving impressions from our pen on the two or three or four (depending on how hard we pressed with our pencil or pen) sheets below…

Yu has some interesting insights into people. He does do a great job portraying the complexity of the father–son bond. Through flashbacks to Charles’ and his father’s relationship he shows that disappointment and pride can run both ways. Neither father nor son wants to shatter the illusion that they are perfect. But unfortunately Yu uses ten different phrases to present the one thought. Some of his wording is perfect but then he ruins it. Instead of enhancing, his lack of precision just gets in the way of the idea.

[Charles’ father] thinks that, even if you have a great idea, there have to be trials and tribulations, errors and failures, a dark night of the soul, a slog, a time in the desert, a fallow period, a period of quiet, a period of silent and earnest and frustrated toiling before emerging, victorious, into the sunshine and acclaim.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a tender, whimsical voyage through time, occasionally too sentimental for its own good. Yu’s novel came across a bit like an extended short story – an excellent premise, but really just a snapshot of story with not enough flesh on its bones. The circular logic was confused and Yu’s penchant for repetition further dulled the sheen of a great idea.