empty“It is unfortunate for me that I am, by most any objective measure, a genius.”

Ah, time travel. I love it, my best friend hates it, and it’s been the backbone of the BBC’s drama department for half a century. Ever since H. G. Wells, time travel has become a popular concept in the imagination of people of all ages. We like to imagine a world before or after our time and how things may have been, or how they may be yet. We’ll accept any explanation, taking versions of the genre where time can be rewritten, and others where it’s impossible to change anything. We’ll lap up paradoxes and split timelines and enjoy the whole mess of the thing. Sean Ferrell has here taken the thing to a new, even more complicated and thrilling, level.

Man in the Empty Suit is the story of an unnamed man (the lack of a name repeats in time travel fiction, such as in both The Time Machine and Doctor Who) who has invented a raft that lets him travel forwards and backwards in time. However, as a central point, every year on his birthday, he returns to an abandoned hotel in New York City, 2071, and has a party with himself. That is, about sixty versions of himself.

He experiences the party over and over again, but each year from a different perspective, remembering what happens and performing actions simply because he already knows he does them. However, on arriving at the hotel for his 39th birthday, he finds the body of his 40-year-old self dead – shot in the head. The older versions of himself explain that it’s up to him to now prevent this because in a year’s time, that body will be his own. Thus, the race is on for the narrator to prevent his own paradoxical death, as well as try to understand how and why there is someone – a woman – at the party, despite no one but himself ever attending.

This book is cleverly constructed, knitted together in such a way that the plot tree must look more like tumbleweed than an oak. Most of it takes place in real time, although the middle third is considerably different and the pace is slower. We see different versions of the party from different points of view, as the Youngsters don’t know what’s going to happen and the Elders try not to reveal anything about their future. It’s a smart murder where the same person is the victim, investigator and suspect.

Paradoxes are frequent and explosive, such as the fact that the narrator seems to have simultaneously broken and not broken his nose, and that things are happening to his younger selves that he knows never happened to him. It’s an upside down world where he plays by rules he set down himself, which eventually hinder him when the Elders are not allowed to reveal anything.

The nature of the time travel is secondary – the story launches in that he is a time traveller, he invented the machine that lets him do it, and he lives the rest of his life at various spots throughout history. New York City, by 2071, is almost entirely abandoned, but no explanation is ever given as to why. In fact, we see very little of the world outside the hotel and the few surrounding blocks. I like this – the focus is not on the science, but merely on the character.

It’s dark, smart and perhaps prone to being a little verbose a times, but it ties up all the loose ends (as far as I could see), straightens out all the paradoxical events and ultimately shows that it’s not ever really possible to change the past and whatever happened, happened, even if not in the way you ever planned it to. If you like time travel, this is a great book to explore, but don’t dive in expecting a particularly easy read.