Tethering means you are in a cause/effect relationship with your former and future selves. To be untethered would mean you are no longer connected to former or future selves. In effect, you have become a separate person from your other selves. You are Reproducing through Time separately. Events that affect you do not affect your other selves, and events that affect them do not affect you.
The man in the empty suit becomes untethered the first time he takes a ride in a Time Machine. At this point, there are two separate versions of him: his Pastself and his Travelself. Each is connected to a different Timeline. Pastself’s Extension in Time reaches from birth to a moment in the Past just short of the Present. He has never Traveled in a Time Machine and never reaches the Present inhabited by Travelself. He never exists concurrently with Travelself unless Travelself comes back in Time to visit him.
Travelself has no Extension in the Past previous to his first Trip in a Time Machine (but he can visit the Past). His Timeline begins at his first Trip in Time and Extends to his Present.
Pastself cannot Travel in Time because he has no Time Machine. Once Travelself takes the Time Machine, it is no longer available for Pastself to use [unless events unfold as in my short short “Time Travelers are a Dime a Dozen,” available for free at this web site]. But there is no reason Pastself can’t build another Time Machine. This would not lead to Pastself Traveling in Time but instead to the creation of Travelself #2.
Travelself #2 is a separate person, untethered to Pastself or Travelself #1. Pastself never reaches the Present of Travelself #2. Travelself #2 never reaches the Present of Travelself #1 unless he Travels there in a Time Machine. His Extension in Time reaches from his Trip in Time to his Present, which is in the Past from Travelself #1’s perspective.
The past vs. the Past
Time vs. time
The past is time, an abstraction based on our memories. It does not actually Exist. It is an idea, not a place that can be visited or something that can be Travelled through. The past can never be changed. To do so would cause impossible paradoxes that are proof that the past is immutable.
The Past is a physical replica of the past, left behind as the Four-Dimensional Timesolid Reproduces itself through the Fourth Dimension. The Past is a place. It is like a fossil record of the past made of space and matter. Space can be Travelled through. Matter can be visited. Like any matter, the Past can be changed. If the Past is tethered to the Present, you can also change the Present by changing the Past. No paradox is involved because you have not changed the past. Your change in the Past is part of the past. It has not changed the past, just added to it.
Travelself #1 inhabits the Present. All the other Travelselves inhabit the Past except when they Travel forward in Time. From the perspective of other Travelselves, however, Travelself #1 inhabits the Future. The party is located in the Past. For the man in the suit, however, the party is in his Future. He is not Travelself #1. The oldest of his elders is Travelself #1 (Pastself is not at the party and could not be at the party).
The party guests are untethered to each other. They have to be. Otherwise, every guest would be privy to the thoughts and actions of every guest younger than himself. That would be chaotic. And even if this knowledge were delayed or low-level, how would the murderer be able to commit his crime and get away with it? His intentions would be known prior to the crime (unless he’s Travelself #1) and his identity a certainty afterwards.
At first it may seem to the man in the suit that there are as many as 100 different selves in attendance at the party (in which case he would be Self 49). As the party progresses, he breaks his nose and becomes Self 50. He realizes that Selves 49, 50, and 51 are all the same person, tethered and chronologically connected. There are really only, say, 33 party guests, not 100 as he first suspected. Thus, he is actually Guest 17. At minimum he is Travelself #17 (depending on how many Time Machines he has built and how many separate Trips he has taken through Time), though he is likely younger than that if some of his elder Travelselves have not shown up for the party (perhaps he is Travelself #19 or #23).
Half of the guests are older than the man in the suit, half younger. They are all separate people untethered to each other, but of course Self 49 is tethered to Selves 50 and 51. They are all Guest 17. But the protagonist in the suit (formerly Self 51) remembers the party. He has been here before in a previous Iteration in Time. That means he is visiting the party a second (or third) time. He is not Guest 17. He is Guest 34. He is not the man in the suit that he remembers, though other guests mistake him for that person.
Guest 34 is able to show up at the party in the suit, but he is not the man in the suit (Guest 17). The man in the suit predates him. Thinking him the man in the suit, about to be murdered, the elders approach him, thinking him tethered to the murder victim, but he is not tethered to Self 49, 50, or 51 because he is self 101. The death of Self 51 does not affect him because he just came out of a Time Machine and thus, he is untethered.
His broken nose should not propagate to anyone else at the party unless they are visitors come later like him and this narrative takes place in Guest 34’s Future. Let’s say he is mistaken in seeing broken noses, or the broken nose happened during some earlier Iteration in Time. As depicted in the novel, it would seem that the protagonist’s various selves can re-tether between Time Machine rides. I will reserve this possibility till the end of my discussion since it seems impossible to me.
The Man in the Empty Suit Reimagined as a Murder Mystery
Since the murder of the man in the suit is a new turn of events and did not happen in earlier Iterations of the party, that means Guest 34 is not the only new visitor to the party. Guest 35, an elder, has come from after the last Iteration to inform the other elders of an impending murder.
Who is the murderer? It cannot be any of the usual Guests, number 1 through 33, because they committed no murder in earlier Iterations. It can’t be Lily for the same reason. She gets murdered too. And she does not make a good suspect since she has no motive and lacks the character for the act. So I think we can be confident that some version of the man in the empty suit is to blame for the crime. But which one? And what was his motive?
Guests 34 and 35 are not the only new visitors to the party. New visitors easily blend in since they too are the man in the empty suit. Guest 10 seems to have returned as Guest 36 with a pack of young selves who have never attended the party previously (I will skip over how he was able to remove them from the Past). Apparently, he has brought them as backups to leverage his power in this situation. They could be the perpetrators except they lack any motive.
So who did commit the murder? Guest 37, of course. He arrives secretly in his own Time Machine. He is apparently the Drunk, come back to the Party after a binge in Time. His motive is jealousy. He murders Guest 17 because Lily has abandoned the Drunk for a younger self. In his alcoholic haze he cannot keep straight all the shifts of bullets and guns, and when he points his revolver at Lily and pulls the trigger, he expects it to be empty—but it is not.
Guest 37 is an inveterate Time Traveler, addicted to his Machine. He goes on drinking binges through Time rather than having character building experiences such as the one with Phil and Lily that changes Guest 34, who upon his return to the party is now Guest 38, the detective.
Guest 38 succeeds in his interference with the crime this time, and the murder of Lily is averted. His motive for later giving up Time Travel becomes clear. But first he and the elders sort out the crime, track down the Drunk (Guest 37) and punish him. They can execute him because he is untethered to all other selves.
Other Mysteries Solved
The biggest mystery left is the motive for the party itself. Curiosity? None of the selves seems interested in the others. They don’t particularly like each other, either. So why do they come? For Lily? No—many of them don’t even know about her. They seem to come simply because they have nothing better to do. The pointlessness of the party is the culmination of the protagonist’s pointless alcoholism and self absorption. Nothing is left for him but his own undesired company.
What happened to New York City? What caused its downfall? Time Travel, of course. All the Traveling of all the various selves has undermined the financial health and vigor of the city. The selfishness of the protagonist has taken its toll on the city itself. He has paid for his Time Machines and Time Traveling by leeching on city funds throughout recent years, leading to its downfall. Millions upon millions of dollars. Time Travel is not cheap. Components are expensive. Fuel is expensive. Distances are vast. Think of all the Time Machines he has built. Think of all the separate Trips made by all those separate selves. It would cost enough to bankrupt a city, not even including the damage resulting from his own recklessness. In a timeline without Travel and alcoholism, his genius would have contributed to the city’s prosperity. Instead, he has created a void where he was needed and sucked away at the city’s prosperity like a vampire.
Is he a genius? He can seem quite stupid at times. But Edgar Allan Poe and other alcoholic geniuses have shown us that alcoholism and drug addiction can make any genius isolated and self destructive. And Time Machine addition is worst of all.
The Crime Reconsidered and as Written
Am I changing the rules or plot of Ferrell’s story too much? His characters seem to become re-tethered between rides in their Time Machines. I don’t see how that could be possible, but let’s consider the consequences if it is. It would mean that for the length of the party, Guests 1 through 33 are tethered. When Self 50 breaks his nose, all the elders (Guests 18 through 33) should show evidence of a broken nose. So should Guests 34 and 35. Guests 1 through 16 predate Guest 17, who is the one who breaks his nose, so they have no nose break. Neither does Guest 36 (formerly Guest 10) or the youngsters he has brought with him, who also predate Guest 17.
And neither does Guest 37 show any nose break evidence even though he is an elder. He was off on a drinking binge in his Time Machine when the broken nose occurred. His lack of a broken nose is the damning clue that points to him as the murderer.
The elders all know the thoughts and actions of their younger selves because they’re tethered, but the knowledge is like a low-level hum at the back of their minds and arrives just after the fact. They have no knowledge of Guest 37’s actions or intentions because he is not tethered to them. When he arrives, the re-tethering slowly begins. He intends to leave the party before it is complete, but he is apprehended prior to his departure because Guest 38—the detective—has understood the damning clue and solved the crime.
Guest 38 explains it all later at a dinner party of elders in the drawing room of the Boltzmann Hotel, a party where no alcohol is served.
Guest 38 stands at the end of a long banquet table with elders on either side, finishing their dinner. This is the gist of what he tells them:
If all the Guests are tethered and Guest 17 was murdered, why haven’t Guests 18 through 33 died? They must die—they are tethered. The only answer is that Self 51 was not tethered when he died, and that could only happen if he was murdered while in a Time Machine. That is how he was untethered at the time of his murder. Guest 37 took him to the roof at gunpoint, murdered him while Traveling in Time, returned, and put the body in the elevator to divert suspicion by making it look like Self 51 was killed there. The elevator was not the scene of the crime, as had been assumed. None of the other Guests were physically affected by the murder because they were untethered as a result of Guest 17’s Travel.
Guest 37 must have been plotting rather than drinking while on his binge in Time, for his plan is remarkably well conceived and executed. However, he makes up for his abstention by drinking heavily after the murder, leading to his confusion that causes the murder of Lily. Or maybe it isn’t an accident. Having murdered one person for thwarting his romantic intentions, why not take revenge on the other as well? Guest 34 is not tethered to Guest 17 and thus does not die and is alive and well so he can have the experience with Phil and Lily that follows the murders. As a result of those experiences, he becomes Guest 38.
Guest 38 averts the last crime and identifies the perpetrator due to the damning clue. Guest 37 has no broken nose. He is a late-comer to the party, and that is why his actions and intentions have not been detected. He has snuck into the party and has no alibi. As a result of Guest 38’s deductions, Guest 37 is apprehended by the elders and punished. And the wise elders give up their addition to alcohol and also to their Time Machines.
My own Denouement
The Man in the Empty Suit is a gloomier tale than I prefer to write, (I would have added more humor and made the protagonist, Phil, and Lily more likable), but as conceived, this is how it could have been a science fiction mystery rather than a surrealistic character study. You can’t have it both ways, so I can’t fault Sean Ferrell for choosing to write the tale to suit his own taste and fulfill his own vision. The Man in the Empty Suit is the book he wanted and intended to write, and he has executed it well. I enjoyed it. I just couldn’t get over the disappointment I felt at being deprived of the ultimate science fiction whodoneit in which the protagonist is not only the victim and murderer but also the detective who solves the crime. This last part is the element that is missing from Ferrell’s novel. It has to be.
Looking closer, however, you will note that all of the elements necessary to a solution of the crime are present in Ferrell’s novel: the tethering, the motive, the opportunity, the careless suspect, the weapon, the damning clue, the Time Machine on the roof. Nostradamus-like he seems to have anticipated every detail of my re-construction of the crime. I doubt if he consciously had all of the details worked out, but he can claim he did because he had them unconsciously at hand. There is a genius to what he has created.
A work of surrealism can have no solution, no explanation. But the mysteries of a whodoneit must be solved. And now that they have been solved, I can award Ferrell’s novel four stars instead of three, because I enjoyed his work of surrealism, learned from it, and have not in the end been deprived the pleasure of my science fiction whodoneit after all. Now Ferrell is free to reimagine my own novels in his light.
My hat is off to you, Ferrell.
The Man in the Empty Suit Reimagined as
a Science Fiction Mystery
with apologies to Sean Ferrell