A Nice Pair… of Book Reviews: “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” and “Among Others”

Posted: January 17, 2012 in Uncategorized
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I have a couple of book reviews for you today, books that I just finished and wanted to share with you guys when I was done. They are: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, and Among Others, by Jo Walton.



Written by Charles Yu, this book is about a man named Charles Yu who is a time machine repairman. One day, he sees himself coming out of a time machine, and, knowing that coming in contact with a future version of yourself is the WORST THING that can happen to a time traveler, Charles Yu shoots his future self and steals his time machine. Once in the time machine, he comes across a copy of a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a book written by his future self. Because of the nature of causality, he decides that he needs to write this book, so that his past self can find in in the time machine when his future self dies.

Oh, and there’s a lot of stuff going on with Charles Yu’s father, the inventor of time travel, and a large portion of the book is dedicated to Charles’ quest to find his dad, who went off in a time machine and never came back.

This book is ambitious, to say the least. It’s a metanovel that has quite a lot of science fictional elements (sexbots, computers with emotions, time travel, etc.). But even though it’s well-written, it feels like the book is trying to be too many things at once– sf comedy, a time travel story, post-modern experimental fiction, a coming-of-age story about a boy and his dad. Because the novel is relatively short, it feels like it’s stretched in too many directions. The core of the story– how will Charles Yu escape the time loop that he’s trapped in?– takes a backseat to various other adventures, which are only semi-explained in the context of the story, like the time when Charles Yu ends up in a Buddhist monastery and is attacked by a creepy alternate version of his mother. Because of this, the novel seems a bit forced.

What’s more, even though Charles Yu is obviously trying to do something new with sf storytelling here, it doesn’t really succeed. Instead of feeling fresh and original and strange, it feels incoherent and dull. Not that I’m opposed to people doing something different with the medium (I read Anathem when it came out in high school, and loved it), it’s just that while I was reading HtLSiaSFU, I kept thinking, “Stephen Moffat told this story way better in “Blink”.

So yeah. That’s How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Good ideas, but falls a little bit short on the execution.

Final Score: 2 out of 5 temporal anomalies

Next, there’s Among Others:


This is a beautiful book. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. The language, the story, the descriptions… wow. I was hugely impressed.

I’d first heard of Jo Walton from her very well-done rereads of Patrick Rothfuss on Tor.com. Because of this, when I came across this book in the SFF section of Bookshop Santa Cruz this weekend, I was curious. I picked it off the shelf and bought it.

I didn’t regret it. Among Others is the story of Mori Phelps, a fifteen-year-old crippled Welsh girl who loves sf and Lord of the Rings and can talk to fairies. There’s not a lot of action in the book– most of the excitement happens in the backstory. But it’s made up for by Walton’s incredible characterization of Mori, who is the kind of girl who I would have loved to know when I was fourteen or fifteen.

Mori’s characterization is deep and well-thought out. She feels like a real person, and the story of Among Others is mainly told by her diary entries between September 1979 and February 1980, as she goes to boarding school in England. I have to credit Walton– reading Mori’s diary entries felt like I was looking straight into the mind of a real person.

I’m not going to go deeply into detail about Among Others, because it’s a book that I want you to read if you love fantasy. But I’ll just summarize it quickly here: it’s a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl that manages to be neither melodramatic nor sentimental (a hard feat to achieve), and also a story about sf and fantasy and how it changes your life when you’re young. Read this book.

(One minor spoiler: Walton manages to create fairies that are completely non-cliché. In fact, they’re some of the most alien examples of the fey folk I’ve ever encountered in a fantasy novel.)

Final score: 4 out of 5 yellow-spined Gollancz paperbacks

That’s all there is from me for now. Happy Tuesday, and I hope you find something interesting to read, wherever you are.

~ Ian

  1. […] faeries, and a lots and lots of SF… PURE CANDY. (For those of you who want it, here’s a link to my review of Among […]

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