The Man Who Folded Himself
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This novel was originally published in 1973 and was nominated for both a Hugo and Nebula, although it won neither. In 2003, Gerrold reissued the book with a few revisions. I recently reread the original version for the first time in forty years, and followed that up with a first look at the later text. There weren't that many changes, although there should have been at least one more. He moved the date of the opening chapters from 1985 to 2005, made some adjustments to dollar amounts mentioned to account for inflation, and I know there were a few new sentences and paragraphs along the way to give a bit more detail. However, there was a scene in Dan's car when they were still talking about playing cassette tapes. He should have changed that to CDs; not sure why he didn't.
Time travel can be confusing for both the reader and the writer. Gerrold's dedication was: "For Larry Niven, a good friend who believes time travel is impossible. He's probably right." But what if it is possible? What about paradoxes? If you go to the past and you alter something, how does that reshape the events that come (came?) later? If paradoxes are possible, wouldn't the one responsible be the only one aware of the change? At least in Gerrold's imagination it seems paradoxes are possible, but they cancel out because his "time-traveller" comes to the conclusion that he's not really traveling in time at all, he's creating alternate timelines.
Young college student Daniel Eakins is bequeathed an unusual item from his mysterious and reclusive Uncle Jim. Inside a plain box is a belt and a diary. But it's not an ordinarly belt, it's a "timebelt," and anyone who wears it can go forward or backward in time. On his first venture into the future, just twenty-four hours, he meets an older version of himself who says to think of him as Don and that they need to pretend to be twin brothers. Thus begins a long string of adventures in the past and the future, as Dan encounters even more versions of himself. Some have gone mad thinking they must be God to have such power, others are content to relive certain enjoyable experiences. Dan and Don are perfect companions because they naturally have the same tastes and interests, but after a while Dan feels the need for something more.
This has been hailed as one of the best time travel books ever, and I originally thought so too, but on the second (and third) reading I've downgraded it a bit. It's still good, and recommended, but it falls a bit short due to some inconsistencies and contradictions, as well as being entirely too short. My original mass market paperback is barely 150 pages with large print; the current paperback from BenBella Books is just 144 and Amazon says the Kindle version is 146. At most it's a long novella, but it could have been, and should have been, much longer. There is one section in which Dan lists many different historical events he witnessed...all described in just one sentence each. No details about whether those events are recorded correctly in history books, and no emotional connection to the events. Maybe one exception to that. He does say the assassination of Lincoln was not exciting, but rather boring.
And the contradictions? On several occasions he keeps repeating that alternate timelines are created, that there are times when he makes a correction to something he did in the past which causes an alternate variant of himself to disappear, to be "excised." He talks about the alternate timelines as being in essence alternate universes, and never the twain shall meet. Then why does he keep running into multiple variations of himself? He even goes far into the past and meets a female version of him (Diane), and that would never have happened if the way he describes the alternate timelines is correct. I suppose the argument could be made that he's wrong about the timelines, and that those two versions of the character had to meet for other things to fall into place. Several other things don't add up either. With no explanation as to how, Dan is able to take a car back to the past with him, and Diane a large gazebo. Together they go even further into the past and take an entire house. Again, Gerrold doesn't attempt to explain how that was possible. When they do set up house somewhere around 2000 BC, it is in approximately the same area of Southern California they lived in the "present," and yet he talks as if it is an unihabited region. We know the North American continent has been occupied for at least 15,000 years, probably more, but no one disturbs their idyllic life. There's not even any mention of having to fend off wild animals. Unrealistic.
I suppose no time travel story makes sense on close examination. Nor should it. It's just one of the many "What if...?" scenarios that have been utilized by many writers over the years in order to tell a particular story. If you can suspend your disbelief as far as accepting a timebelt that works, the rest is just an investigation into what happens to a man with that ability, what changes he goes through, what lessons he learns. In the end, Dan comes to believe that the purpose of life is simply to live it, to learn from mistakes but not dwell on them, and if possible, find a bit of love along the way. If you're lucky, you can hold on to it, but if your mistakes are too big you will probably lose it. In the end, it may be enough just to learn to live with yourself.
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