|Not as cool as the original cover.|
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!|
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.