The man best known for giving us tribble troubles also gave us this fun but disquieting 1973 Hugo-nominated story about the technicalities and repercussions of time travel. In the space of 100 pages, The Man Who Folded Himself explores every nuance and angle of time travel, both amusing and troubling at times. I imagine Gerrold had to sit on the cover just to get the pages to close from all that he stuffed in, but the moment it’s unlatched– WHOOSH! Springy snakes everywhere.
It’s like no other time travel novel you’ve read– the ultimate Pandora’s box of time travel fiction. And it just may make you reevaluate that childhood wish for a time machine.
“In the box was a belt…”
When Daniel Eakins’ uncle dies, he is bequeathed a belt that allows him to travel through time. Dan studies the instruction manual, then wastes little time leaping forward and backward, in order to cash in on his new gift. He finds his future self (who he calls Don) waiting to take him to the race track, where they win loads of money until another version of himself (ultraDon) warns them to back off. Soon, Dan realizes that every leap creates an alternate timeline with an alternate Dan, but that only encourages Dan to build his own social group made entirely of alterna-Dans.
I’ve had the misfortune of reading quite a few ill-recommended time travel stories, usually romance novels thinly-veiled to look like science fiction. In The Man Who Folded Himself, there are no disappearing husbands or dashing Irish lads, and Dan does not become a superhero, (although he does act to prevent crime, but only when he gets bored). Often, the time travel plot device is employed in order to generate unique character interactions among inhabitants of different eras, but Daniel Eakins is not a normal dude, and his interactions are the most unique of all.
He doesn’t want to meet anyone else but himself.
Dan is a self-absorbed misanthrope, and an excellent case study of roiling intrapersonal conflict. Dan is insecure, self-deceptive, and reluctant to face the parts of himself that he is not ready to accept. He is different from the rest of us, who, when faced with the option of time travel, wish to witness major events, meet legendary figures, correct past mistakes, and prevent disasters. Dan’s wish is to insulate himself in a well-financed world of alterna-Dans. But just as alternate timelines produce different results, so do the alterna-Dans. Even those other-Dans are not as safe and perfect as he would like. “…I was beginning to realize that I would never be the same person twice in a row…” Gerrold is a master at exploring the contrasting perspectives of each Dan and his subsequent “Don,” allowing repeated scenes to feel fresh and enlightening.
This is a coming-of-age novel about personal growth and acceptance, which affirms that growing up is an inevitable and difficult process. Even if life isn’t lived in a chronological timeline, time travel can’t touch the strictly linear process of human maturation. As Dan time-hops, he ages, struggling against each stage of psychosocial development in perfect, disharmonious order. As a young adult, Dan plays with time, explores his sexuality, then acts the hero to a world of people who seem like mere chess pieces to him. Later, with middle-age, he seeks deeper relationships, settling down primarily in his “home year,” the year during which he received his timebelt. Then, we watch him struggle with his impending death, an event that’s not surprising or spoilery– all time travelers have seen their own deaths– but it’s traumatizing just the same. And throughout all those phases, he watches all of those alterna-Dans, living out his various stages of life in their own way. He is annoyed by the young and mystified by the old because, even though he can witness history and the future in all of its forms, he can never understand himself.
Sexuality is a key theme, and Dan explores his sexuality in ways that go beyond any Marty McFly or Philip Fry mom-sex paradox. It’s a critical piece, but it may turn off some readers as it replaces the brisk, amusing tone of the first half. Things get a bit heavier, a bit squeamish, and inspire loads of wordplay with the title. (Let’s play MadLibs!) It’s not porn in the least, but it’s emotionally raw enough to make one wonder whether Gerrold is exposing the insecurities and wishes that haunted him as he grew up among the conflicting sexual messages of the fifties and sixties. Dan asks, “But if each of us is happiest in the universe he builds for himself, does it matter?” But Dan never seems happy. When society doesn’t make sense, can you trust society to not judge you? And if you can’t trust society, wouldn’t it be better to just surround yourself with– yourself?
But Folded isn’t just a coming of age novel. It also serves as a technical manual for time travel. Gerrold spends no less than seven pages outlining and expounding the contents of the timebelt’s computerized manual, with details about options such as timeskim (slo-mo or FF the real-time universe), timestop (pause), and entropy awareness (not much detail about this one). Beyond the VCR-like technical explanations, Gerrold crams in every potential consequence and concern of time-travel. But it’s not jargony or heavy. It’s a smooth read, a page-turner, despite its jumpy and immature epistolary-style format. It’s an impressive feat for such a short novel to juggle all the technical what if’s with intrapersonal conflict, and then fold it into an interesting story.
But even the book itself has traveled time. Unfortunately, Gerrold has updated the most recent publication (as well as the eBook version) to take place in 2005. In the earlier versions, the “home year” occurs in 1975. Along with the modern date, Gerrold has inserted recent events, such as the attack on the World Trade Center and Apple’s financial success. I read the eBook, but that was before I was aware of the modern changes, and I would have preferred to read the original. The updates weaken the impact of Dan’s sexual conflicts, only because the prejudices that exist in 2005 are not the same as those in 1975, and Dan’s conflicts and decisions seem less realistic.
A good time travel story is cyclical, which makes Folded predictable from the beginning, but that predictability doesn’t steal from the momentum or lower the stakes of the story. From the 3rd page on, I knew exactly how the story would end, but it still made for some eyebrow-raising moments. The Man Who Folded Himself is the ultimate illustration of the power of time. Time changes Dan, just as it changes us all.
Should you read it? Absolutely. It’s a staple of the time travel subgenre, and can be read in a matter of hours. And it’s fun. Recommended for Whovians, McFlybians, and LGBTQ completionists.