Man in the empty suit

Man in the empty suit / Sean Ferrell. First published 2013.

Man in the empty suit is a Vonnegutesque book about time travel, identity, and some other things.


It’s also a murder mystery, kind of.

It’s kind of confusing.

Brief plot description

Every (subjective) year Hiro Protagonist a time traveler attends his birthday celebration, held in an abandoned hotel in the year 2071. While en route to “The Convention”, the 39 year-old version of the time traveler discovers something shocking: the murdered corpse of the 40 year-old version of himself. Encouraged to solve the mystery by his older versions, the time traveler has one (subjective) year to solve the mystery of his own murder, or else he will become the victim.

So how is it?

It’s a more intellectual sf novel than many of the ones I’ve reviewed here. It’s a novel with a cast of hundreds, all of whom are the same person (with one exception). I described it as Vonnegutesque above largely because the sf genre trappings are simply there to facilitate Ferrell’s themes. Ferrell also blends humor and serious drama in similar ways. It takes itself a little more seriously than Vonnegut, with much less sentimentality and scatological humor.

The time traveler is not a particularly likeable character. His younger selves (called “Brats”) are alcoholic fratboy pranksters, while the elderly versions  (“Grumps”) are withdrawn, self-destructive alcoholics. As is probably evident from the fact that he is the only guest at his own birthday party, he’s something of a narcissist as well.

Man in the empty suit plays with questions of fate and free will that are practically mandatory in any work that even tangentially involves time travel. The time traveler has to address these issues explicitly, since they are pretty important to his continued survival:

Since the time traveler has seen the corpse of his 40 year-old self, doesn’t that mean it is impossible for him to solve the mystery?

If the time traveler is murdered at 40, why are there so many elderly versions of himself?

These questions are answered in the narrative, though obliquely, and in a fairly interesting manner.

In addition to tackling the standard time travel story tropes Man in the empty suit also examines the nature of self-knowledge, the impact of our experiences on our self-development, and other similarly introspective questions. It’s an interesting take although somewhat hampered by how confusing the whole thing is.

It’s a book that requires an engaged reader. It’s certainly not light relaxing reading, and attempting to read it that way will almost certainly end in disappointment. It requires actual effort to unpack what is going on and by the end it’s still not exactly clear what is actually going on.

It’s not your standard sf book, and it’s about as far away as its possible to get from planetary romance or space opera. It’s good, but demanding and for me it required a short break from similarly exhausting novels. C.J. Cherryh, Ursula K. Le Guin, and to a lesser extent John Scalzi and Lois McMaster Bujold all manage to weave deep thematic elements into a story that can still be read as an escapist adventure. Ferrell’s Man in the empty suit can’t be read that way, and whether that’s a strength or a weakness is an open question.

Bottom line is, Man in the empty suit is a book with its head firmly planted up its own ass, but as long as you are willing to deal with that it can be a rewarding experience.


Man in the empty suit is a tough one to recommend – it’s too demanding for most of the sf readers that asked me for recommendations while I was working public services, but it’s also a little out there for readers of Capital L Literature. It’s good, but in a very specific way. I’ve recommended it to a couple of people, none of whom have actually read it yet.

It’s the lovechild of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys both authors, and I’d consider recommending it to someone who only enjoyed one of them depending on what I knew.

I think my recommendations below might give a better sense of what I mean. All of these are on my list of titles to review, I’ll probably fast-track them so that all of these mind-altering sf novels end up together.

These are all books that demand more active engagement with the text, on a rising scale of how much effort they take:
The world of the end / Ofir Touché Gafla– not actually all that demanding but shares some thematic connections with this one.
Annihilation / Jeff VanderMeer
A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world / Rachel Cantor
The quantum thief / Hannu Rajaniemi – It wasn’t until I was finishing the second book in this series that I figured out some important things that were kind of key to understanding it.
Self-reference ENGINE / Toh EnJoe

Man in the empty suit is about equivalent to A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world on this scale.

I also have to recommend these two:
Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The children’s crusade : a duty-dance with death / Kurt Vonnegut
Martian time-slip / Philip K. Dick

So coming up expect reviews of all of the above. After that I’m planning on doing some YA reviews to balance that out. Those’ll focus more on contemporary and historical fiction than sf or fantasy.


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