Robert Heinlein’s “—All you Zombies—“ and “ By His Bootstraps” are considered classic works of time travel fiction. Simplistic to say the least, Heinlein drew some looping lines on a board, twisted and tweaked a little here, waved a hand there, and converted the result into stories. Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity is likewise considered a classic of having the power to move through time. More complex line-drawing games with a humanist agenda, it nevertheless remains a feature of its era while attempting to grasp beyond. It’s David Gerrold’s 1973 The Man Who Folded Himself that tops them. An immensely humane and literary work of time travel, how it is not a classic alongside Asimov and Heinlein is a testament to the legacy of science fiction that has prevented it from being viewed with legitimacy from without.
Rather than producing a mere paper exercise, David Gerrold takes all the aspects of time travel—grandfather paradoxes, multiple selves, alternate realities, beginnings and ends of time, redoing regrettable decisions—and expands them into a revelatory experience that begins with the personal and ends with the universal. Part bildingsroman and part recognition of the human condition, The Man Who Folded Himself is a fine example of when the genre is on point it can do things and say things that achieve literary fiction.
Daniel Eakins is a student in university when his uncle contacts him to reveal a surprise: Daniel is worth millions. A $2,000 a week allowance immediately allotted him on the condition he start keeping a personal diary, it’s an even bigger surprise a few weeks later to learn his uncle is dead and that he’d lied. There is no money. The few thousands he’d spent is the last of the inheritance. The one thing his uncle does bequeath him though, is a time traveling belt. Complete with instructions for any sort of travel Daniel could desire (time skimming, time stoppage, moving forward, backward, and a myriad other functions), Daniel soon finds himself playing the age-old genre game of snag a future newspaper and use it to bet on horse racing in an attempt to fulfill the millions he’d thought he’d inherited from his uncle but didn’t. But a strange thing happens in the process: Daniel meets a future version of himself. Calling him Don, the two collude on the scheme and seem to get rich. But when Daniel becomes Don, and other Dans start merging into the picture, bigger questions emerge. Can Daniel find himself amongst the multiple versions and parallel realities that emerge?
A Golden Age conceit (the timebelt is as classic as science fiction can be) transmogriphied into a strong work of post-modern fiction, The Man Who Folded Himself transcends genre to achieve humanist status. Multiple selves and parallel realities the palette with which Gerrold paints his story of “personal development and acceptance” as From Couch to Moon words it, the narrative is a deeply revelatory experience of one man feeling out his orientation to others, what he desires from life, and how he copes with aging. Gerrold in fact baring his soul in the book, the result is an emotionally powerful story that on one hand gives the reader a feeling of complete satisfaction upon completion, while on the other makes them ask and answer significant questions regarding relationships, love, family, old age, and homosexuality.
The meaning of the title can thus be interepreted a couple different ways. Folding an activity that can be done once to create two halves, Daniel’s discovering his homosexuality creates two men where there was only one. Folding an activity that can be done more than once, for example origami, Daniel’s exploration of his inner selves creates a jewel of self that must be seen reckoned with to achieve understanding. But that the Man is the agent of folding, not an outside force, is where the title takes its fullest meaning. Daniel may begin the narrative dependent on others, but he moves and ascertains, observes and adapts to find the life most suitable and desirable for himself—the orchestrator of his own fate as much as is possible. Not an island battered by ocean, rather a fish swimming in it, the overall movement of the story is captured in its title is just superb.
Excluding the predictably pompous introduction from the ever self-promoting Robert J. Sawyer, the other issue with the 2003 reissue of The Man Who Folded Himself is that certain parts were revised to meet with modern times. For example, at one point Daniel invests in corporations which didn’t exist in 1973, begging the question: will the novel be updated again in a couple of decades to meet the times, and then again in a couple more, and a couple more? Serving no purpose, the original dates, events, and business situations would have been equally as effective. The afterword to the edition, however, supplied by Gerrold himself, is stunning. Fully complimenting the text, it adds a plea that should be heard amongst a wider audience.*
In the end, The Man Who Folded Himself is a powerful, personal narrative of one man searching for self and meaning in life, and finding it. The answers are not always concrete, but on balance satisfy his needs, and enable moving forward with grace and gratification for what he does have. Speaking to a wider variety of topics, it is a politicized text aiming at the realities of homosexuality, as idealistic and painful as they are. The impasse Daniel finds himself in (wanting children but unable to have them naturally), for example, really digs at the conscience. Never playing the pity card, however, Gerrold presents a story that is more convincing for it. Time travel the perfect symbolism for the main character’s journeys, it leaves one wondering why stories which use the trope for more superficial purposes are championed instead…
*That plea: certainly homosexuality and gay marriage are contentious subjects, particularly in the enclaves of traditionalism in the US. Adoption by gay couples an even more troublesome topic, conservatives cling to their aged notions of what constitutes family while liberals are open to the idea. Gerrold is not as bold as me in making such statements, but he does touch upon the idea that gay couples have a lot of love to give, yet are legally not allowed to adopt in most places. Innumerable children waiting for years and years in foster care and orphanages for new homes, Gerrold asks: why not let homosexuals adopt? They can’t be any worse than most of such children's straight parents.