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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

Cover of "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe." Title is large. Man with a ray gun in the corner with a dog in a space helmet at his feet.

Science Fiction - Time Travel

Published in 2010 by Vintage Contemporaries, a division of Random House

Perfect example of holistic worldbuilding, from structure and vocabulary to style and formatting.

After inventing time travel, Charles Yu's father disappeared. Working as a time machine repair technician, Charles sets out to find him and rebuild their relationship.

Things to Emulate

Knowing your audience becomes easier the more niche your target is. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe has a very specific one in mind: sci-fi lovers, particularly those enamoured with time travel. Yu understands the specifics of this sub-genre inside and out and has fully committed to his premise of a narrative styled like a journal/instruction manual. There is no hand-holding here. Yu jumps straight into his reference-filled meta-narrative. He understands the expectations of the genre without getting pulled down by the weight of those expectations. How to Live Safely... is deeply indebted to the tropes of the genre but also manages to feel unlike anything that has come before. A big part of its originality comes from its structure.

The narrative is incredibly self-aware, intermixing Charles going about his daily life helping people repair their time machines (not as exciting as it sounds), with excerpts from the technical manual How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (not as dry as it sounds) and brief dips into alternate realities.

The macro structure of the novel is based on a technical manual or reference book. This is made clear from the first two pages. The left-hand side looks like a database log-in. The right-hand side features a flow chart that loosely maps the narrative instead of a table of contents.

The book is broken into Modules (α, β, γ, δ, ε) and the text is interspersed with formulas, footnotes and text that reads [this page intentionally left blank]. The narrative's very specific, very self-conscious, construction sets up a very clear framework that could only carry a story like this one. The structure goes beyond what is written on the page. The formatting is integral to the construction and narrative.

The word choices support the structure. The prose is full of words like chronodiegetic and quantum decoherence, terms that will have little meaning to the average person, but that are easily decipherable to anyone who has grown up watching shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who. There are simple scientific equations sprinkled throughout and terms (names, designations) like TM-31, TIM and TAMMY. The styling of these terms doubles down on the manual-like structure as does the periodic use of small caps.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe understands its audience and its genre and has built a unique narrative structure to support the very specific story it is telling. What makes it so effective is that this structure and format couldn't work for any other narrative. Every detail has been honed to support Charles Yu's science fictional world and bring the reader along for the ride.

This is what it looks like when an author understands his narrative and audience and gives them everything they are asking for.


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