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 When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.

Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.

Charles Yu, time machine repairman, lives a weary, faintly disappointing existence in Minor Universe 31. His mother is trapped in an hour's time loop of her own choosing. His father, an inventor of time travel, has vanished into some point or another, and his only companions are a neurotic computer system, TAMMY, his computerized boss who thinks he's a human, Phil, and an ontologically invalid dog named Ed.

One day, Charles is startled out of his ordinary, timeless routine when he sees himself come out of a time machine. So he shoots himself, as per the rules of paradoxes. But the future Yu passes on a book that he himself has written--a book called How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe. Knowing his hours are numbered from this point forward, Charles decides to use the book and what little clues he's been given in the hopes of finding his father.

Yeah, it's that kind of book. But while the book deals with majorly mind-screwy elements such as the concepts of time travel and the stories within metafictional universes, at its heart the book is a bittersweet, surprisingly tender story of a son's search for his father.

This book contains examples of:

  • A Boy and His X: A time-machine repairman, his neurotic robot and his time-erased dog.
  • All the Myriad Ways: It's mentioned that there are special projectors that show you how your life could have gone. Charles and all his better and worse versions of himself also count.
  • Alternate Self: Charles meets a few.
  • Alternate Universe: Charles visits a few, and encounters other versions of himself, but ultimately is stuck in his own universe.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: Underneath it all, there's a very brutal look into the Asian-American psyche.
  • Author Avatar: Both in and out of the text - the book is written by Charles Yu. Both books. The real world book and the book inside the real world book.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Charles does manage to find his father. They reconcile and he finds purpose to himself and understands their relationship a bit more, and Ed becomes ontologically valid...but his dad has aged in the years he's been trapped in time, he eventually replaces TAMMY with a TIM unit, and the fate of his mother is unknown. And there's the whole 'getting shot' thing.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The advertisement for the Chrono-Adventurer Survival Kit.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose In Life: Charles.
  • Disappeared Dad: Played with. Charles' father is missing by the time the book starts, but he was present and quite close to his son during Charles' childhood. The last part of the book focuses on finding him.
  • Evil Me Scares Me: Charles states at one point that he has looked in at a bunch of alternate versions of himself, and they were all assholes. He then mentions that if most of the alternate versions of yourself are jerks, you're probably not hot stuff either.
  • Future Badass: Charles sees one version of himself as this...
  • Homemade Inventions: The prototype time machine Charles and his father makes.
  • Hurting Hero
  • I Coulda Been a Contender: Charles's father couldn't get the time machine working right on the day he was to present it to the government, and someone else with the same idea got all the credit.
  • Intangible Time Travel
  • Mind Screw
  • My Greatest Failure: Charles's father failing to patent the time machine.
  • New Neo City: New Angeles/Lost Tokyo 2.
  • No Antagonist: Minor Universe 31 has an extreme lack of heroes and no villains to speak of.
  • No Fair Cheating: Charles tries to skip to the last page of the book to see how the story will end, and ends up unstuck in time and space. The last page was intentionally left blank.
  • Parents as People
  • Recursive Reality
  • Retroactive Preparation: At the end of the book, Charles engages in this.
  • Screw Yourself: In a way, Charles' relationship with TAMMY is ultimately this, as she's programmed to reflect his own personality. Also, The Ace version of himself kissing him. Both times he is rather squicked.
  • Sex Bot: Different from the norm in that they're free-thinking; lonely ones are left to pleasure themselves.
  • Spear Counterpart: TAMMY has a male counterpart unit, TIM.
  • Stable Time Loop: Most of the book consists of one.
  • Techno Babble: Quite a few passages delve into this, though it doesn't have to be understood to comprehend the story.
  • Temporal Paradox: Charles's job is preventing these.
  • Time Travel
  • Trapped in the Past: Charles's father is this due to his time machine breaking down when visiting the past.
  • Unstuck in Time: Charles, after trying to get to the end of the book.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Charles' life to a T. He lives in a non-temporal time pocket and enters temporal dimension of Minor Universe-31 about once a biological year, whereas on temporal space, only a day has passed.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Eventually, Charles knows he will have to return to the time he was shot.
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