Time travel! One of those slippery, wonderful, insane ideas! One of the biggest story making machines that churns out plot after convoluted plot, letting us understand history and human life in ways totally alien to our linear, progressive, intuitive understanding of reality. One of the bold concepts that gives us great stories, many of which are my favourite stories ever told, like Back to the Future, The Time Machine,LOST, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Groundhog Day, and the fifty years of Doctor Who. As Jasper Fforde has noted, the more you use time travel, the more insane and convoluted a story becomes, forcing you to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of logical coherence (So why didn’t Hermione and Harry use the time turner to just solve every problem ever? Uhhhh… I don’t know… let’s smash all the time turners in book five so we don’t have to deal with this again!). For the fifth book in Fforde’s own time travel-heavy series Thursday Next, he decides to do the exact same thing and render time travel impossible in-universe: “I was getting slightly browned off with the whole time travel idea, and like you do with less popular characters, I wanted to kill it off.”
David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself seems committed to plumbing out all the possibilities of time travel that most other time-travel books seem eager to avoid. In Doctor Who, The Doctor constantly insists that he can’t cross his own time-stream (except for in anniversary specials, obviously) or else the universe itself will implode (timey wimey… just go with it, please?). The point of The Man Who Folded Himself is that if you got a time machine you would instantly have three goals:
1. Let’s Kill Hitler!
2. Let’s take Gray’s Sports Almanac to a pastself and make millions.
3. Let’s all have an orgy… it’s just like masturbation, right?
Dan Eakins, the eponymous hero who folds himself across his timeline and quite graphically across the many versions of his own body, tries out all three over the course of this slim volume’s 115 pages. Not only is he Dan, but he’s also Don (from tomorrow, his top) and Danny (from yesterday, his bottom) and eventually Diane (from a variant alternate universe; the specifics of time travel are extremely well-crafted in this book, where Dan doesn’t so much time travel as create an infinite number of alternate universes with every jump) and Donna and Diana. In fact, by the end of the book, I found that every single character (except for one random tertiary character) was a version of Dan. Dan ends up impregnating himself, giving birth to himself, raising himself, and attending his own funeral. He kills Hitler and unkills Hitler and does the same to Jesus and JFK and Julius Caesar. And he surrounds himself with himself, indulging in the most decadent, obscenenarcissism possible.
What The Man Who Folded Himself really gets right is Dan’s incredible sense of loneliness. The book starts out by sounding like a YA adventure tale, with immature Dan receiving his timebelt from his Uncle Jim and immediately setting out to achieve goal #2. But in short order (or in a very very long time, considering how you look at things) Dan is transformed not only into thousands of alternate versions, but into a sad, lonely, isolated person. If you wanted to read this book as an allegory, you could see Dan’s constant interaction with all his multitudinous versions as a metaphor for our futile attempts to come to know ourselves, and our ultimate inability to connect with our own selves, let alone other people. But on its own, the chronicle of Dan’s one life and many lifetimes is a fascinating, engaging story which basically exists to test the concept of time travel to its limits.
The book contains an interesting afterword by David Gerrold, discussing his process writing it and his life as a queer author. The edition I read was reissued in 2003 (originally published in 1973), and the author makes reference to the availability of science fiction in the 1970’s to queer ideas and themes that otherwise weren’t being addressed in fiction. It’s a really cool statement to read after having finished the book, because while the lurking idea of goal #3 is present in most time-travel stories (and I’m sure in some Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor/Doctor slashfic), not to mention our own lurid fantasies, apparently it wasn’t ever depicted or discussed in a mainstream publication until Dan Eakins folded himself.
Like time travel? Want to hear me talk more about it and make reference to your favourite TV show (Doctor Who!) and movie (Groundhog Day!) and book (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!). Well, lucky you! Because my next two books are forming what I’m referring to as the Bruce Bookstravaganza Time Travelganza Extraordinaire Trilogy of Readings: Volume Two, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Volume Three, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.