Book Talk: "The Man Who Folded Himself" by David Gerrold - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: "The Man Who Folded Himself" by David Gerrold

Alexander Wallace practices origami.
In the alternate history circles that I frequent, it’s not uncommon to ask the question “what would you do if you had a time machine?” Since we are, after all, alternate historians, we inevitably pontificate about what empire we’d save and what historical figure we’d protect from an assassin’s bullet.

But we are history buffs, with the sort of large-scale interest that defines such people. For most, the more obvious option is to change some factor in their own life or their immediate surroundings. They’d bet on the stock market, or salvage a lost relationship, or any other number of small events that are nevertheless deeply significant on a personal level. Most people, as much as we may regret that, are not as historically minded as some of us are.

It is the personal that concerns David Gerrold in his book The Man Who Folded Himself, originally published in 1973 with a revised version published in 2003 (it is the latter that I read). This book is another example of the benefits of a short book; I read it one night in a single sitting, partially because of how well it is written. Unlike many time-travel stories focused heavily on how history is changed, this book is very intimate, focusing on its main character, Danny. As much as I love things like the 1632 series spearheaded by Eric Flint or The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter, this book is very much a breath of fresh air in contrast to the usual portrayal of the subject.
Danny is in some ways an everyman; he is a normal person who receives his particular gift after being given a box by his uncle. In that box is a device that can give him powers over time, being able to view it from a detachment and to jump along its myriad pathways. He starts off with the commonplace: using time travel to make a killing at horse races. From there, he tries to alter the past that he had already experienced; he wants to play God, as many of us would.

From there, he sometimes adopts a more passive role sometimes, simply watching history unfold. He sees the universe be created and the solar system form itself out of the primordial mists. He sees so many historical events, as some of the history buffs among us would doubtlessly do. One of these events stands out as being from the revised edition: Danny here views the September 11th attacks. As someone who grew up near the Pentagon (but has no memory of that bloody day) it is something that made it feel a bit more real.

But that sort of exploration is merely window dressing to what Gerrold is really doing in this short book; he probes quite deeply the human psyche. Once more, I am hampered by my rule to avoid spoilers, but I can absolutely say that this slim volume contains some of the best characterization I have ever seen in science fiction. Not only is it deep; Gerrold did something extraordinarily clever in this book, but to even hint at it would ruin the effect.

The Man Who Folded Himself is ultimately why we, as a species, want to alter the course of human events. It is about power, and what we can do to alter our environment; time is the ultimate insurmountable obstacle. Why we would ever want to do this, naturally, will reveal much about us; Gerrold cannot interrogate any person, but he can interrogate Danny. It is the sort of introspection that many of us ought to do.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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