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Literature / How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

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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:

  • Alternate Self: Charles spies on other universes to see how things might have turned out. He's disheartened to realize most versions of him are jerks. On the extranarrative space bus, he also directly meets a character who claims to be an alternate version of him, even though they don't look or act at all alike.
  • 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, sort of. It's less that he is looking, and more that he's already given up. He no longer expects his Life to contain anything more glamorous than his mundane, boring job as a repairman. Theoretically, he's looking for his father. But mostly he just wedges the time machine's gear shift into the present indefinite and cruises through life on day-to-day routine.
  • Disappeared Dad: Played with. Charles's father is missing by the time the book starts, but he was present and quite close to his son during Charles's childhood Except when he wasn't, as Charles gives contrasting descriptions of his father throughout their lives. We find out is part of the nature of time travel and paradox. 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...
  • Future Loser: ...and another as this.
  • Homemade Inventions: The prototype time machine Charles and his father make.
  • 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: Time travel in the book may or may not be just a metaphor for remembering memories and imagining What Could Have Been. It definitely doesn't allow changing the past.
  • Literal Metaphor: The book practically runs on these. Charles is "cruising through life on autopilot", his father is "trapped in the past", his mother is "reliving the good old days", etc. etc., all in both very fantastic and very mundane ways.
  • Mind Screw: Let's just say that the book is very metaphorical, and very, very, very meta, and leave it at that.
  • Mundane Fantastic: Charles may have a laser gun, but he's ultimately essentially a traffic cop. The universe itself may be an artificial narrative construct, but it still took zoning permits and investors and developers to build it. And so on. Even the doomsday clock ticking down to the end of the universe gets nary more than a passing mention.
  • My Greatest Failure: Charles's father failing to patent the time machine.
  • New Neo City: New Angeles/Lost Tokyo 2. Formed by the condensation of New York and Los Angeles into a single entity (much to the consternation of everyone in between), and then wrapped in half of the city formerly known as Tokyo (where the other half wandered off to no one's entirely sure). The merger was not pretty.
  • 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: Neither Charles' father or mother were exactly great, but they are sympathetic.
  • Recursive Reality: The book the reader is holding is the same one that Charles' is holding is the one that Charles' is writing (both In-Universe and out) via the act of reading it.
  • Retroactive Preparation: At the end of the book, Charles engages in this.
  • Screw Yourself: In a way, Charles's 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.
  • Sexbot: Different from the norm in that they're free-thinking; lonely ones are left to pleasure themselves (and have to pay money for it!).
  • Spear Counterpart:
    • TAMMY has a male counterpart unit, TIM.
    • Later we find out she also mirrors Charles' own personality.
  • Stable Time Loop: Most of the book consists of one. Charles shot himself, then stole his own time machine and bolted. He's going to have to come back sometime...
  • Starfish Alien: Charles reminisces on one of his ex-girlfriends. While details are sketchy, she definitely was not human.
  • Techno Babble: Quite a few passages delve into this, though it doesn't have to be understood to comprehend the story.
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: Played a bit differently than usual, as not only are tropes and story-beats part of the physics of the universe (eg: there are scientific theories on what exactly it takes to be a hero), but also grammatical rules (eg: grammatical tenses appear to be actual physical states or modes of being, that can be shifted between, and serve as the basis of time travel).
  • Temporal Paradox: Charles's job is preventing these.
  • Time Travel: One of the central themes of the book. Notably time travel itself takes time to perform, and "past", "present", and "future" are not the only options. Various definitions of time travel are presented throughout the book, some of which are surprisingly mundane.
  • Trapped in the Past: Charles's father is this, since his time machine broke down when he was visiting the past.
  • Unstuck in Time: Charles, after trying to skip to the end of the book.
  • We Are as Mayflies: Charles notes to himself that, due to his abuse of time travel, his entire existence's effect on real-space is probably going to amount to about a month's pay to his landlord.
  • What If?: 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.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Charles's life to a T. He lives in a non-temporal time pocket and enters temporal dimension of Minor Universe-31 about once a biological decade, whereas on temporal space, only a day has passed. In the second half of the book Charles travels back on his own timeline and observes his childhood and father, and it all takes place over only a few seconds from his point of view.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Eventually, Charles knows he will have to return to the time he was shot. Turns out you can survive getting shot.