Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’d stay as far away from it as possible.


Anyone who knows me even remotely well knows that I’m a total sucker for time-travel fiction. From books to movies to TV shows to anything in between, I love stories that involve a major time-travel element. I’ve even written my own share of time-travel short stories, with grandiose plans to someday, years down the line, write the “Ultimate Time Travel Novel”—a novel that would explore all the heavier but inevitable consequences that most time-travel stories don’t come close to touching upon.

Like the idea that, if time-travel could change the past, then a time-traveler could go a thousand years into the past, look around for a few minutes, and then return back to their original time… But because of a thousand years of butterfly effect, the “home” they return to would be completely different and unintelligible to them. History would be different. Country borders would be different. Even the languages would be different.

Like the idea that, if a time-traveler went back even as recently as a single year before they were born, they probably wouldn’t be born in that new timeline. At most, their parents might still have a baby around the same time, and might even give them the same name, but the baby would be a genetic sibling to our time-traveler—and our time-traveler would be trapped in a world which could no longer explain their existence.

Like the idea that, amidst such changes in history, our time-traveler would never have a way to return to their original timeline. Just as we in the real world can’t return to the past, the time-traveler would never be able to return to their own past. And any further time-traveling they do would just bring them further away from the home, friends, and family they left behind.

And so—despite many years of idle daydreaming about what I would do with a time machine—I eventually decided on a rule that I would follow without exception: I would never use it to time-travel to a point before I had gained the time machine. The future was fair game, but the past was sacred. Surely, that restriction would be enough to keep me safe from the existential horror of complete self-inflicted alienation.


I recently stumbled upon a book recommendation: The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold. I wasn’t particularly looking for anything science fiction at the time, but then I found out this book is widely claimed to be the “ultimate time-travel novel.” And hey, that’s exactly what I’ve been calling MY book-in-planning for the last few years!

Could it really be that another author beat me to the punch by over 50 years? After all the disappointing time-travel stories I’ve read and seen over the last decade in pursuit of one that fully explores the depths of what the concept has to offer, could this be the one? Could The Man Who Folded Himself REALLY be the “ultimate time-travel novel” of my dreams?

And the short answer is… Yes.

I just finished reading it, and I can confidently say that this is one of my favorite novels of all time.

The Man Who Folded Himself is a masterpiece of science fiction, a harrowing and deeply introspective look through one man’s journey as he comes to possess a time machine and how he, ultimately, completely isolates himself from the rest of the world—by retreating into a world that consists only of himself. Future versions of himself and past versions of himself.

Protagonist Daniel Eakins begins the novel by narrating to us about how emotionally disconnected he is from his same-age peers. He doesn’t relate to them or their problems; he doesn’t know how to be emotionally vulnerable with other people; he doesn’t really have any friends. Then he receives the “Time-belt”—and his loneliness and insecurities are solved! Because while he doesn’t trust other people, he does trust himself. He knows how to be comfortable with himself. He can spend a day hanging out with his one-day-older future-self, and then the next day, go back and become that future-self. (Or at least, become the next iteration of that future-self, because this time-travel rewrites history, so every iteration will be slightly different at minimum.)

But the great thing about TMWFH isn’t all the time-travel hijinks and the elaborate explorations of the capabilities of this flavor of time-travel. The really great thing about it is the humanity. No matter how time-tangled the story gets, it never loses sight of Daniel’s emotional journey.

This is the most existentially lonely novel I’ve ever read. Daniel ends up spending his entire life almost exclusively in the company of other versions of himself, and only when he’s nearing the end of his life does he begin to realize how empty his world has been for so long. How could he come to this point? How could he do that to himself? Was the power of the Time-belt really worth everything it ultimately cost?


Have you ever lost interest in a video game because you found a way to cheat in it?

Maybe it was a browser game that stored important data in your cookies, which, once you found them, you had complete access to edit. Or maybe an old school game with a built in cheat codes mode that unlocked all sorts of special powers and effectively turned the game into a sandbox where you could do anything. Maybe just a good old game-breaking glitch that allowed item duplication, so now you’re rich, so none of those side quests really matter anymore.

And maybe you realized afterward that the game wasn’t so fun anymore, now that you could break it so easily. Now that none of its internal rules mattered anymore. Now that it’s just a sandbox you can do whatever you want in.

A time machine is a cheat code for real life. As soon as you have the ability to erase any mistake you make, your actions don’t really matter anymore. And why would they? You can just undo them, again and again, as many times as you want. And even after settling on a path forward, you’d know in the back of your mind that you don’t have to commit to it forever. You don’t have to commit to anything, ever.

The more you use a time-machine, the less anything will matter to you at all.

But that’s not how human beings work. For better or worse, we need things to matter. Life needs to be about the journey, not the destination. Time machines, like cheat codes in video games, allow you to skip the journey and head straight to the destination. And then once you get there with no effort or expense involved on your part… Why would you care? And so, one time-jump at a time, you become a little more detached from the real world and the normal experiences of everyday people.


I think I read The Man Who Folded Himself at either the perfect time, or the worst time.

I read it at a point in my life that I really don’t have that many people in my life, maybe the fewest I’ve ever had. It’s the result of a long series of losing touch with old hometown friends after moving, losing touch with other people after moving other times, distancing myself from people I realized were affecting me more negatively than positively… And all throughout that, I hadn’t really replaced any of the people I’ve “lost,” and so my social circles have just been getting progressively smaller for a while now.

It’s enough to make me wonder, in my most pessimistic moments, if that trend is going to continue until I’m the only one I have left—and whether I could truly tolerate living like that.

For my entire life, I’ve felt like I’m alone. I’ve always had trouble connecting with other people, opening up to other people, being actively vocal in the company of strangers, and so on. I’ve got a hefty load of social anxiety, and in all likelihood a solid helping of undiagnosed autism too.

Protagonist Daniel Eakins didn’t read to me as being either of those things, so when he started the novel talking about how he just didn’t “get” other people, I didn’t think to relate to him yet. That didn’t come until much later, when he had already spent half a lifetime with only himself, and I realized his reflections on his own journey were echoing the thoughts I had been thinking about myself earlier this very week.

I don’t know how other readers interpret The Man Who Folded Himself, but to me, it’s a profoundly tragic and deeply personal story that speaks to me and my own life experience. It’s a cautionary tale against a lonely future I was already coming close to giving up fighting against. And as much as I’ve spent most of my life fantasizing about how I’d use a device like Daniel’s Time-belt, now I’m more sure than ever that I would never use it at all.