The Man Who Folded Himself
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|LC Class||PZ4.G3765 Man PS3557.E69|
The Man Who Folded Himself is a 1973 science fiction novel by American writer David Gerrold, dealing with time travel. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1974 and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1974. The book explores the psychological, physical, and personal challenges that manifest when time travel is possible for a single individual at the touch of a button. References to both the American Airlines Flight 191 crash and the destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers, events which did not occur until 6 years and 28 years respectively after initial publication, were added in the 2003 edition.
In 1975, Daniel Eakins, a young college student, is visited by his "Uncle Jim". Uncle Jim offers to increase Daniel's monthly allowance for living expenses as long as Daniel promises to keep a diary. Shortly after, Uncle Jim dies, and Daniel inherits a "Timebelt" from him that allows the wearer to travel through time. Daniel quickly learns how to use the Timebelt and makes a few short jumps into his own future. He meets an alternate version of himself, who accompanies him to a race-track where the pair make a fortune betting on horse-racing. The following day, Daniel realises that it is his turn to guide his younger self through the previous day at the races; through this and other events the time-travelling Daniel learns more about the belt, about the nature of the 'timestream', and about his personal identity.
Daniel repeatedly encounters alternate versions of himself and enjoys his own company, ultimately having sex with himself and beginning a relationship with himself. He learns that the changes he has made to his timeline have erased all traces of his childhood and early life. Though he has been able to become closer to himself than he has in any other relationship, at some point he comes to find that he no longer meets other versions of himself. Lonely and hoping to correct the situation, he jumps many millennia backwards in time, where his jumps have not altered the timeline, and there he meets a female version of himself called Diane. Diane's future is a mirror of Daniel's - she was given the Timebelt by her Aunt Jane, and she had also begun a relationship with her other selves, called Donna. Daniel begins a relationship with Diane. Diane becomes pregnant. Daniel and Diane secretly desire a son and a daughter, respectively, and unbeknownst to each other jump and use future technology to make their own changes to ensure that Diane gives birth to the desired child. Shortly after the birth of their child, Daniel and Diane separate.
Daniel raises his son in 1950s America. As Daniel ages, he misses the relationship he had with Diane, but the interference of an obsessive version of himself has erased the point in the past where the two can meet. He spends much of his time at a house party set in 1999, enjoying the company of dozens of versions of himself at different ages. At one point late in the party an elderly Daniel dies after a jump, and Daniel is consumed with the thought of his own inevitable death.
Daniel eventually realises that he has now become his Uncle Jim, and that his son will grow up to be the young version of himself who will inherit the Timebelt, and that his life has 'come full circle'. He makes preparations for after his death to ensure that the young Daniel experiences the same events that he did when he was the same age and have his own experience with time travel. The book ends with the young Daniel, who has read the now-complete diary, having to decide whether he will use the Timebelt.
Almost all of the different characters in the story are, in fact, alternate versions of Daniel from another point in time. When Daniel first meets his future self from one day into the future, the future version identifies himself as "Don," ostensibly Daniel's twin brother. The next day, when it becomes Dan's turn to meet a version of himself from yesterday, he adopts the role of Don. (When a third Daniel appears, he is sometimes identified as Don II, or ultra-Don.) The female version of Danny has a similar relationship with alternate versions of herself; she is Diane when she meets a version of herself from the future, but when she plays the role of the future traveler, she adopts the name Donna. (Diane has an Aunt Jane, who is the elderly version of herself, and the female equivalent of Uncle Jim.) After they find out about Diane's pregnancy, Daniel and Diane respectively desire a son and a daughter who are exactly like them. Unbeknownst to each other they both use future technology to make their own changes to ensure that Diane gives birth to the desired child, creating timelines in which they have a son and daughter, and after their separation take the child of their own sex back to their future, creating the loops of the man and woman. The only named character who is not some version of Daniel is the lawyer who calls him on the phone to tell him of his Uncle Jim's death, and is identified only as "Biggs-or-Briggs-or-something."
Though the novel makes it clear that temporal paradoxes are impossible, many of the events of Daniel's life are a "loop" with no beginning or end from a subjective viewpoint. His Uncle Jim gives him the Time-belt, which Daniel in turn passes on to himself as a teen when he becomes old enough to play the role of Uncle Jim. The Time-belt's origins are unknown. Also, the fact that an older version of Danny and a female version of him have a child together ensures that Danny is essentially his own parents; the child is identical and becomes Danny, living Danny's life while Danny, in turn, adopts the surrogate role of Uncle Jim.
A possible explanation for the Time-Belts' origins as well as the other "loops" would be that the original Uncle Jim (at some point at the beginning of the loops) was from a timeline where he was not his own son and was simply in the possession of a time-traveling machine which he decided to use in a way that led, inevitably, to a loop due to the narcissistic nature of a teenager with such powers at his disposal. This would also suggest that at some iteration, his teenage version (at the end of the book) chooses not to use the Time-Belt in such a fashion as to create said loops - while other versions of him continue creating loops for themselves which support their own continuity.
- "By His Bootstraps" (1941) and "'—All You Zombies—'" (1959), both short stories by Robert A. Heinlein with contorted and finally close-looped timelines. The latter one also deals, like Gerrold's novel, with the notion of being one's own parents. The 2014 film Predestination was an adaptation of "'—All You Zombies—'".
- There Will Be Time, a 1972 novel by Poul Anderson with similar concepts, also nominated for awards.
- List of time travel works of fiction