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The Man Who Folded Himself

The Man Who Folded Himself, David Gerrold, Copyright 1972, revised 2003. BenBella Bookds, ISBN 1-932100-04-0n (pbk).


Time travel is a common theme in science fiction, albeit one that is not quite as common as it is reputed as being. There are a handful of stories that are classic time travel stories. There is H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine" that, in effect, invented the concept. Robert Heinlein wrote a pair of classic stories, "By his bootstraps", and "All you zombies." Foodlebob wrote "As never was". The story, however, the one that turned time travel inside out and upside down, is David Gerrold's "The Man Who Folded Himself." (TMWFH)

TMWFH is the life story (stories?) of Daniel Eakin, aka Danny, aka Don, aka Dean, Dino, Dion, Dana, Dianne, Donna, ..., and, of course, Uncle Jim and Aunt Jane.

The story opens with a young man named Daniel Eakins being left a "time belt" by his "Uncle Jim". At first he doesn't know what he has; however he quickly discovers that he can go back and forth in time. He also discovers that he can interact with his past and future self (selves), editing and altering reality in the process. It isn't long before there are many copies of himself floating about; these multiple copies are his only real social reality. For most of his life he is an autoerotic homosexual, making love to future/past versions of himself.

In the universe of TMWFH the possessor of the time belt can revise history indefinitely. Daniel isn't always happy with the results so he keeps fiddling with reality to make more comfortable and interesting to himself and his avatars. His avatars do the same, which fiddling with reality much more complicated.

At one point he loses contact with himself by making some change in which his avatars no longer exist. In turn he finds a female version of himself, sires a child with her, loses contact with her, and returns to his autoerotic homosexual heaven. The child in turn becomes him/her, depending on which fold of reality he/she is in. He ages, and in the fullness of time a version of him becomes "Uncle Jim" who raises the infant Daniel.

In short, this is a tale of chronoplastic solipsism.

TMWFH is by far the most ambitious stab at a time travel story in which reality is malleable. In it the time traveller goes back in time, changes reality, and thereby alters the entire future. Once altered the future that the time traveller came from no long exists.

The new edition is graced with an introduction by Robert Sawyer and an afterword by Geoffrey Klempner. Neither is an improvement on the original. Sawyer burbles. Klempner unfortunately treats the problems of time travel as seriously as he can. He cops out with "alternate time tracks". In that interpretation the "time traveller" doesn't change reality, he just moves from one time track to another.

TMWFH doesn't give an explicit resolution of how time travel with a plastic reality might work. Daniel Eakins is not a profound thinker; he is shallow and self centered. He uses a technology that he did not create, could not create, and doesn't understand.

Oddly enough there is an implication in the story that the time belt is an artifact left over from a reality in which time travel is a military technology that eliminated itself. This may be a bow to Larry Niven, who wrote a famous essay arguing that time travel would inevitably eliminate itself.

One way of thinking about TMWFH is to take the title literally. On this reading each of us has his/her own reality. Most of live in a linear reality. The story explores what it would be like to live within a folded reality. Gerrold's answer is that it leads to psychological solipsism - a psychological reality in which you are the only real person. Some, perhaps myself, feel that Daniel Eakins is an unpleasant character, effectively psychopathic, because he does not acknowledge the reality of anyone beyond himself.

This may be the best interpretation because TMWFH never really comes to terms with providing a theory of time that permits time travel combined with a plastic reality.


This page was last updated December 1, 2004.

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