FICTION: Sean Ferrell’s futuristic world blends the familiar with the surreal.
One of the myriad lessons we can learn from science fiction is this: Meetings with your future self rarely end well. In Charles Yu’s novel, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” the protagonist anticipates his death at his own hands. The Rian Johnson film “Looper” featured one character who acted as both protagonist and shellshocked antagonist.
It isn’t hard to see why writers have been attracted to the dramatic potentials of this storytelling device: Beyond the basic paradoxes involved in the form, it also allows characters to grapple with their past actions in a very literal way.
Sean Ferrell’s novel “Man in the Empty Suit” takes this model to its logical conclusion. The protagonist is the inventor of time travel, and most of the action is set at a gathering attended by versions of him from different moments in time.
Shortly after the novel opens, he discovers the body of an older version of himself — leaving him tasked with preventing his own murder.
Ferrell’s narrator is never named; instead, he refers to himself (and his iterations) by certain characteristics: the Suit, the Drunk, Nose, Seventy. When “Man in the Empty Suit” opens, he has arrived in 2071 New York City, its human population dwindling, its buildings abounding with wild parrots. He ponders his good fortune: He’s just turned 39, he can move anywhere in time, and he’s wearing an excellent suit.
Soon enough, he’ll be dodging conspiracies of his elders, seeking the identity of a woman named Lily, and carefully studying broken noses and the patterns of tattoos. His investigation will also lead him into the surrounding city, where he haltingly begins to interact with the world around him for the first time in years. Ferrell’s setup of a future society is solid; he manages to balance the familiar with surreal touches: interviews to join the clans that populate parts of New York, strange devices capable of extracting memories.
That last piece of futuristic technology might be a case of Ferrell tipping his hat a bit too noticeably. Though his narrator is out to solve his own future murder, Ferrell’s vision of time travel has a subtler system of cause and effect. “Tethering,” the characters call it — a kind of localized system for winnowing down paradoxes.
It’s that system that creates factions among the guests at the party, and that allows versions of the protagonist to slowly and wrenchingly realize that their histories may not be the same. “You would know” is a constant refrain at the party, even as it begins to take on progressively more ominous connotations.
“Man in the Empty Suit” is a wise meditation on our own fixation on the past. One set piece at the party finds the narrator’s past and future selves gathered to watch films of their past exploits. There’s a theme of connectedness here, both the narrator’s fraught relationships with his past and future selves, and a later plot line involving a kind of grand-scale role-playing.
Ultimately, Ferrell’s novel satisfies as both a tale of a four-dimensional conspiracy and as a stark meditation on solitude.