Sunday, 1 September 2013

David Gerrold - The Man Who Folded Himself (1972)

"I went back and talked myself out of eliminating Jesus Christ."

Not as cool as the original cover.
   Since H. G. Wells' 'The Time Machine', time travel has been an essential part of SF, but it's rarely thought through to any great extent, not even by TV shows that have time travel as part of the central conceit. Frequently little more than lip service is given to the mechanics of the process, the paradoxes that can result from it or the practical applications that it provides to those using it. I like to point to 'Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure' as a good example of time travel used well, as not only is the time travel in that film internally consistent, the heroes, for all their apparent idiocy, realise that because they can travel through time, there's no reason why they shouldn't make life easier for themselves by coming back later and leaving useful items in convenient places. Leaving aside the blatant missed opportunities, Michael Bishop points out in 'No Enemy But Time' that the problem with travelling back in time, say, to the Pleistocene era to make out with some hot Homo habilis, (read the book, this is exactly what happens), is not just the temporal difference - the Earth, Solar System and Milky Way itself have been moving for all those millions of years, winding up in a completely different relative position. 'The Man Who Folded Himself' by David Gerrold is one of the fullest, most complete explorations of time travel and its implications the genre has ever produced.
   In 'The Man Who Folded Himself', Daniel Eakins is left a belt and a document by his recently departed Uncle Jim. The document purports to be from an alternate version of himself, who received this belt in turn when his Uncle Jim died. The belt is a timebelt which allows him to travel to any set point in the past or future. Daniel proceeds to use this new found ability to cheat at the horse races to make money, see great historical events, and interact with past and future versions of himself, including having sex with both male and female versions of himself. In short, all the things you would probably do if you discovered you could travel through time.
Would that this belt were a timebelt!
   The time travel in 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is thought out to the last detail. Daniel sensibly does some experiments to determine how it works, to find out if he can change the past or not. He likens time travel to painting, and changing the past to going back and painting over a previous mistake - the artist knows the original mistake is there but just covered up, but no one else does. Ultimately he realises that each time he travels through time he is jumping to an alternate universe. This allows him to change events in this universe without affecting his origin in a different universe - he can go back in time and kill his great grandfather, but his great grandfather still existed in the universe that spawned him. It also provides a sensible rational for why someone would invent such a potentially dangerous device - all the malcontents who would wish to rewrite time to their advantage can cheerfully go and do so in some alternate universe, preserving the original. Daniel can always go back in time and stop himself from making some change by appearing to his past self before he makes the change and talking himself out of it. This transports both versions into new variant universes, and so means he can make changes like this without the fear of erasing this variant of himself from history.
   David Gerrold is probably most well known to SF fandom for writing one of the most iconic episodes of the original Star Trek, 'The Trouble With Tribbles'. After reading 'The Man Who Folded Himself', I think the most quintessentially Gerrold-ish part of the episode is where, after the fight breaks out between the crew of the Enterprise and the Klingons on Space Station K-7, Kirk interrogates his crew to find out what happened. What could be unspeakably tedious as we hear described exactly what we just witnessed instead becomes a deft piece of comedy as Kirk ekes out the truth from Scotty that the fight broke out not because the Klingons insulted Kirk but because they insulted his precious Enterprise. Gerrold here gets similar comic mileage through describing events from different perspectives, as Daniel interacts with his past and future selves, but at the same time he uses it to make serious points about the nature of perspective and the difficulty of communication between people. Even between different versions of himself, there is a gap between the intention and how it is received, as he finds different versions of himself naive or cocky.
   As well as being about time travel, 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is about individual people and what it means to be one. Daniel welcomes the opportunity to interact with another version of himself because he finds the strains of interacting with other people exhausting. I think we can all relate to this on some level. When he is with another version of himself, Daniel no longer has to worry about impressing the other person whether or not they like him, if what he says or does will be misinterpreted. However as the different versions of Daniel diverge and undergo different experiences, even though they started out as the same person they become different people. In effect, it's the things we experience and the things we do that make us who we are. Change this and you change the person. In this way, 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is a tribute to the almost infinite potential within each person.
   The book also explores just how complicated human sexuality is. 'The Man Who Folded Himself' was notable for its frank depiction of both homosexual and heterosexual sex, something the genre still to this day is not exactly well known for. It is not accurate to define Daniel as either purely straight or purely gay. As the different time-variants of Daniel branch out, some of them find happiness in relationships with other Daniels while some of them are ashamed by their attraction to other versions of themselves. The version of Daniel we follow through the main narrative finds sexual satisfaction both with the male Daniels and with a female time variant of himself, with whom he has a child.
   This child ultimately grows up to become Daniel, while Daniel himself becomes his own Uncle Jim, leaving the timebelt to himself as his own inheritance. Thus the circle is completed, Daniel's life is like the worm Ouroboros eating its own tale, with no beginning and no end.

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