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The Man Who Folded Himself

| 17.1.03
The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold

I've been reviewing books for quite awhile --reading them for far longer-- but this is the first time I can actually say I've read a book based on a review. Someone else's blog recommended this book as the quintessential time-travel story, a classic in the genre that should be read even if you read no other. The Man Who Folded Himself did not disappoint. I think it goes beyond the genre of science fiction and speaks to both the existential angst of the modern age, as well as 1970s style sexual liberation and stereotypes.

The premise of The Man Who Folded Himself is simple. The main (and sole) character, Daniel Eakins, gets a time travel belt. What does he do with it? Well --pretty much what we've all fantasized about at one time or another if you're an avid reader of science fiction! Go back in time, bet on the horses, invest in the stock market, get rich, change history, be master of the universe and in control of all one sees!

But what starts as a simple premise soon becomes very complicated as the various time-travel paradoxes get introduced to the story. Anyone who's read a lot of time travel fiction has probably run into all of these already, but nowhere have I seen all of them treated so well in such a short space. Utilizing the metaphor of an artist painting over sections of an oil painting to describe the effects of changing one's own past, Gerrold explains that even when the past is changed through time travel, the original time-line is still preserved in the memory of the time traveler --like layers in an oil painting-- and is not really destroyed. Anticipating Fredrick Pohl's The Coming of the Quantum Cats by at least 10-15 years, Gerrold describes time travel as not moving linearly back and forth in a single time-line, but as jumping to alternative universes that are created by the act of trying to change the past.

The implications of meeting one's past and future selves are explored in detail. Daniel Eakins is portrayed as somewhat introverted and narcissistic --personality flaws that are amplified by his use of time travel. He'd rather talk with and travel with the various versions of himself than establish relationships or become part of a real community rooted in one time and place. Through the course of the novel Daniel discovers how much he actually is historically and culturally bound to the few thin centuries surrounding 1970s America, and how if he changes the past too much he will no longer be at home in the future that he has created. In one interesting example, Daniel kills Jesus of Nazareth only to find that the resulting future world is so altered in its language and culture that he no longer recognizes it. Little as he cares for Christianity, he has to go back and talk himself out of the idea.

While Daniel does feel the tug of culture and community, the general theme of the novel is one that holds the individual, or the self, as the highest value. Looking back on a life spread out through centuries, erasing history to suit himself, Daniel finds meaning in the knowledge that he's lived every possible combination of reality tailored to suit his fancy. His narcissism reaches its height, however, in his sexual relationships. Seeing it as a creative form of masturbation, Daniel eschews relationships with others, instead preferring trysts with versions of his past and future self. His juvenile and often sexist views of women often make Daniel seem like a shallow character, but it fits well with his character when you consider the way his time-traveling ability has isolated him from the rest of humanity.

Altogether, The Man Who Folded Himself was an easy read that raised some old questions in new and interesting ways, as well as raised a few new ones. Gerrold sums up the major paradoxes in a light and entertaining way, and his exploration of the sexual aspects of time travel opened up ground I had not seen covered before.

PUBLISHER: Aeonian Press, Inc. New York. 1973.

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