Back to the Future for Beginners: Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Protagonist Charles Yu (not to be confused with Author Charles Yu, who lives in Los Angeles) is a time-travel machine repairman living in Minor Universe 31, a “smallish universe… Not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it.”

Protagonist Yu spends his days patching up the damage caused by time-travel machine owners hoping to alter the circumstances of their pasts. In his off hours, he visits his mom, who inhabits “the sci-fi version of assisted living”: a closed-loop time machine in which the same hour of her life (Sunday night dinner) repeats itself on an endless cycle. P. Yu is accompanied by Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, and TAMMY, his inept and self-conscious operating system.

[More about the book and an interview with Charles Yu below]

Author Yu’s future is a melancholy one, where corporate titans buy out universes and make them into theme parks, and human beings lead isolated, empty existences, trapped in time loops of their own making.

Happily, his universes lend themselves to witty turns of phrase and snappy pokes at the real-life present (Protagonist Yu’s boss Phil “is an old copy of Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0” who talks like a high-school PE teacher and thinks he’s a real person). How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Knopf Doubleday) is a funny, funny book, and it’s a good thing, too; because at its heart it’s a book about loneliness, regret, and the all-too-human desire to change the past. The time travelers of Author Charles Yu’s universes don’t want to check out the dinosaurs or the pyramids. Instead, they want to revisit every mistake they’ve ever made and try to alter the outcome.

As the novel’s story-within-stories unfolds, we learn that Protagonist Yu has a difficult relationship with his own past: a father who’s disappeared, a self who’s already moved through time to try and find him, and a missive from the Protagonist Yu of the future which Protagonist Yu of the present must finish writing. Oh, and some well-timed gunshots to the stomach.

Author Charles Yu was kind enough to answer a few questions about HTLSIASFU via email. He’s currently on tour supporting the book; you can check out his schedule here. Don’t be late. Har, har.

The Rejectionist: There’s a subtle but well-drawn contrast in HTLSIASFU between the “traditional” sci-fi universe, where kids grow up all wanting to play Han Solo, and the science-fictional universe of being an immigrant in a new country where the rules are arcane, you don’t speak the language, and people treat you like an alien. Can you talk a little about that? Did you set out to talk about the immigrant experience, or did it work its way into protagonist-Charles’s story?

Charles Yu: I did want to touch on aspects of the immigrant experience in the story, but I initially couldn’t find a way to do it without feeling like it was forced and out of place. In hindsight, it seems somewhat obvious to me, to explore cultural foreignness through the idea of genre foreignness, of being in the wrong kind of universe, but at the time, the two ideas sitting side by side just felt weird to me, like they were incommensurate in some fundamental way.

When I came up with the idea of Minor Universe 31, I had an inkling that it might be a way into the subject of feeling alien and marginalized, but it wasn’t until I was deep into the writing that the metaphor started to line up in a way that felt natural. It’s still a bit tentative, the way it’s handled, these ideas of mixed-genre neighborhoods and socio-economic border regions. I wish I’d had the courage to dive into that a bit more.

TR: Charles Yu the protagonist didn’t grow up wanting to be a time-machine repair guy. Did you grow up wanting to be Charles Yu the writer? How do you balance your multiple full-time universes of Charles Yu the dad/lawyer/writer/promoter of first novel?

CY: I did dream of it, although it was mostly just that, dreaming. I didn’t start writing fiction until after I graduated law school, in 2001 (I wrote poetry in college). I was supposed to be studying for the bar, but all I wanted to do with all of that free time was read fiction. I did manage to pass the bar, and once I started working, I found myself wanting to write, so I started writing here and there, on legal pads, on the backs of envelopes and business cards, late at night, early in the morning, when I was supposed to be eating lunch, little bits of time here and there. When I was writing the stories that made up my first book, Third Class Superhero, I had no kids yet, so all I had to balance was work and writing, and hanging out with my then-girlfriend (now wife). Now it’s much more difficult to balance it all, with work and two little ones at home. I think in a way that’s why I’m so preoccupied with the subject of time, because I don’t have any.

TR: Your vision of time travel is pretty bleak, though it’s cushioned with humor. If you had the option of conveying messages to Charles Yu past or future, would you?

CY: Is it bleak? I guess I’m realizing it is, based on what I’m hearing from you and others. I’m sorry I’m such a bummer! I’m glad you do think there’s some humor to balance it out, though. If I could talk to my past or future self, I think I’d just say this: whatever you do, just remember that, at some point in your life, you’re going to look back at yourself now and be embarrassed.

TR: Some books you’ve read lately and loved?

CY: I really liked Tom Bissell’s book, Extra Lives, about video games. I also read the graphic novel Revolver, by Matt Kindt, and thought it was such an expertly constructed story, an idea where all the sub-ideas fit into each other just right. I got to the last page and realized, wow, he had this all mapped out so well.

TR: Special bonus optional sci-fi dork question: What was it like to meet SAMUEL DELANY!?!!??

CY: It was unreal. There’s a picture of Mr. Delany and me, side-by-side, on the panel at Comic-Con, and even though I know it actually happened, looking at it I still feel a bit like Forrest Gump, as if someone Photoshopped me into that image. I just look like an interloper, sitting there next to the legend.


The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York literary agent. She blogs at


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