Fiction Review: "The Man Who Folded Himself" by David Gerrold
I imagine that's a question few books outside of David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself have had to consider.
I just reread this book on my Kindle. I first encountered it in the early 1990s, buying a copy of it from the UConn co-op as part of my early experience with "good" science fiction. I'd of course heard of David Gerrold as the author of the classic Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles and I'd followed his monthly column in Starlog magazine in the 1980s as he introduced Star Trek: The Next Generation. Rereading a book about time travel twenty years after you read it for the first time, especially a time travel book where the protagonist meets future and past versions of himself, is a rather odd feeling.
The Man Who Folded Himself is a brief book - pulling out my old paperback copy which has made its way from UConn to my parents' house to my first apartment in Massachusetts to my current house I see it clocks it in at 163 pages. It's the type of book you can read in a day or two.
It tells the story of Dan Eakin. And in a sense Dan is pretty much the only character of any importance. He inherits from his uncle a time travel device. The book then plunges headfirst into regions that most time travel stories tremble before - ideas of meeting oneself, changing history, and paradox. Dan quickly learns that he can indeed change the past. He can even change his own past. Though in so doing all he does is create another timeline and another Dan.
The Dans meet each other a lot. They usually get along pretty well. There are get-togethers where they meet up. Eternal poker games, summer parties. Over time some of the Dans become lovers with one another. Some of the Dans are very different from each other, whether in appearance, age, sanity, or other reasons. One pair falls deeply in love with each other. Another loses his mind and becomes homicidal. The book tends to follow just one of these Dans though every once in a while the narration switches to another Dan, especially done to illustrate differences between them - like when one of them loses his sanity. At one point our protagonist and narrator finds himself alone - he's still on a "normal" Earth but he's on a timeline where he can't find any other instances of himself - which makes him feel alone.
Dan experiments with changing history - he does the obligatory killing Hitler. He also experiments with eliminating Jesus of Nazareth and removes Christianity in one timeline. Dan prefers to stay near the his hometime and the resulting world is so alien to him he quickly undoes it. These are big ideas but they tend to get expressed compactly, in just a few paragraphs.
Dan isn't immortal. He's a tourist in the timeline but he tends to stay around the year he first received his time travel device. He forgets that the world around him progresses - the building under construction is always under construction. It's he that changes as he begins aging - as time travel is not a source of immortality. He still lives, just lives differently. He begins associating with older versions of himself. He is shocked to watch one of his selves die of old age.
Over time Dan seems to find more fulfillment as he decides to settle in one time and live a normal-ish life - not that he doesn't go on the occasional jaunt, but he finds a purpose in becoming a part of the world.
The Man Who Folded Himself is an unusual book. It is brief but it covers some enormous topics. Copyrighted in 1973 it deals with same-sex relationships with a boldness unusual for its time. Its protagonist wrestles with the idea of free will. He tries to find love - but what does it say about him that the person he loves the most is himself? Is that healthy or disturbing? The brief elimination of Jesus Christ and all of Christianity is handled in under a page or two.
Any of these things could really be made into an entire mammoth novel - or five-book trilogy. But Gerrold doesn't really provide answers so much as he gives you ideas to think about. Time travel is almsot a toy for all the good it can do - each jaunt creates its own universe, making the jumper the only "real" person in a sense. Time traveling in this setting is very much an act of personal vanity - the rest of people of the universe seems to be just a supporting cast for Dan.
I was about twenty when I first read The Man Who Folded Himself. I'd probably be somewhat horrified by my future self's lined face, grey hair, and middle-aged man gut (to quote Saturday Night Live - "My gut? Well, I'm working on it!”) But I'd probably also be in awe of the fact that I fell in love, got married, and had two daughters. I'm glad I got to experience the intervening years and to have lived through them.
One quick note - the version I read on Kindle is a 2003 republication which made minor changes such as changing Dan's home-time from 1975 to 2005. I'm not too crazy about this change - it only became noticeable once or twice but when it did I found it a bit jarring. I'm not certain if that would be the case were I reading it for the first time.