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Friday, March 22, 2013

What I'm Reading: Man In The Empty Suit

Last month I had so much fun reading Man in the Empty Suit that I could hardly talk to anyone, about anything, without mentioning the book in every conversation.

This novel is the best episode of Doctor Who you haven't seen.

Intrigued yet?

The plot and the story's frame are very simple.  Instead of a TARDIS (like Dr. Who) our nameless hero in this novel has a craft in which he spends his life floating through time.  Each year on the 100th Anniversary of his birthday (2071), all of his selves gather at a dilapidated hotel in what has become a dystopian NYC to drink scotch and have a party.

All of his life, our hero has been waiting to be the version of himself that comes in wearing this awesome white suit.  Finally, the year of his 39th birthday, the traveler finds himself in the suit and entering the party, but what he thought would be the best birthday of his life, goes down hill quickly as one of his selves is murdered.

What follows is part murder mystery, part love story, and part contemplation of "the self."

The novel is book ended by his 39th and 40th years at the party, with the year in between lived with a girl named Lilly in 2071 NYC.

Seeing everything unfold from two different perspectives of our hero at the same party is very cool. As the traveler begins to change history, the present of the party is altered and he begins to supposed that some of his selves are becoming  "unteathered" from each other.  It makes for great plot twists, as our hero doesn't know which of his selves he can trust or which even share his future.  This will drive purists (like Dr. Who himself) crazy, but Ferrell isn't professing to have a true time travel novel.  What SF fans might see as inconsistency simply added to the intrigue of the mystery part of the story for me.

This "unteathering" story arc also underscored what I think Ferrell was really trying to do with this book.  I think this is a novel that contemplates what the self really is.  By placing so many versions of the traveller's self in one place at one time, we are forced to look at this contradiction and think about our own selves over time.  He is asking us to think about who we are, who we were, and who we will become.  Are we all one and the same?

I have to mention here how the traveller gives his selves other than his current self great nicknames like "the nose," "screwdriver," and "seventy," among others. This is humorous but also feeds in nicely to the whole "what is the self" questions in the novel.

Man in the Empty Suit is also a coming of age tale, as the traveller learns what really matters in life and chooses to let his love go so she can have a happier life, which will ultimately make him happier-- both the unteathered self and his current self.

The dystopian NYC setting was not thoroughly explained, but things in 2071 are pretty bad.  Our hero gets involved with some good people and makes some friends, but we don't get too much detail.  The setting is there more as a backdrop to help set the mood and tone.  It underscores the urgency of our hero's quest and the dark, philosophical and thought provoking nature of the story line.

Overall the book was off beat, engaging, introspective and just plain fun.  Although the time travel is at the heart of the story, it is just as much a psychological suspense tale as a science fiction one. This is underscored by the fact that if you are reading it for an accurate resolution to the unteathering of selves issues, you will be disappointed with how the novel ends.  But, if you are in a philosophical mood, you will love it-- like I did.

Three Words That Describe This Book: time travel, thought provoking, off beat

Readalikes: I have so many suggestions bursting from me that I had to take notes on paper before writing this post.

Again, as I said above, this novel made me think it would be a crazy awesome episode of Dr. Who.

First, I mentioned how much fun I had reading this book.  I have not felt that way since I read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Both are light SF, set in a broadly drawn near future dystopia.  The dystopias are there to propel the story.  Both have a coming of age theme with a compelling protagonist, and although both novels are thought provoking, neither takes themselves too seriously.

This story also reminded me of the Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon (read pre-blog).  Here you again have a light SF tale, but the SF comes from alternative history.  Click through to see more details, but the titles share a though provoking story line, a flawed but lovable hero, and a mystery at their center.

Last year, I read (and loved) the time travel novel 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  King's novel is more true to the time travel science, but I did think of 11/22/63 while reading Man in the Empty Suit.

Two other accessible and fun SF titles that I would also suggest here are How To Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu and Red Shirts by John Scalzi.

If you are looking for more time travel stories check out Connie Willis, or the list of suggestions I gave here.

1 comment:

Jeanie Kenkel said...

Ever since I saw this post I've been looking for this one at the library, and it was finally checked in today. It's only a 7-day loan, so I hope I'll finish it.