Book Review: The Man Who Turned Into Himself by David Ambrose

It’s surprising sometimes just what the popularization of certain scientific ideas can do. Certain concepts work their way into popular culture, despite the difficulty of math or science truly behind them. David Ambrose’s The Man Who Turned Into Himself indicates that even theoretical physics can actually prolong the life of and perhaps even resurrect a book.

Originally published in London in 1993, The Man Who Turned Into Himself made its U.S. appearance in 1994. In fact, I still have the first hardbound U.S. edition on my bookshelves. The book made it through a couple U.S. printings with different covers and imprints, occasionally ending up in the remainder stacks. The book reappeared in print in London about five years ago and now has returned to the U.S. in a trade paper edition with another new cover.

How does its reappearance have any thing to do with theoretical physics? Well, the plot is predicated on the “many worlds” or “parallel universes” theory that flows from quantum mechanics. When the book first appeared, the theory was receiving increasing attention in the scientific community. Over the last several years, the idea has found more mention in mainstream culture. Thus, not only are publishers dealing with an interesting novel, they’re finding new audiences for it.

It’s tough to go into too much detail about The Man Who Turned Into Himself without giving away core parts of the plot. Rick Hamilton is a publisher of small trade magazines who barely avoids serious injury or death one morning in a spill from the roof of his house and a near-collision with a large truck driving to work. Then, he runs from a business meeting several hours later, overwhelmed by a premonition of the death of his wife. He arrives at the scene of a car accident and while his young son is alive, his wife dies before his eyes. A moment later he is Richard Hamilton, a real estate developer, who was just involved in an accident with a truck and whose wife is alive and well and insistent they never had a son.

This is the launching point and framework by which the reader — and the main character — examines which of these two lives is the “real” one. Has Hamilton somehow landed in a parallel universe, has he gone mad or are was he in shock and just hallucinating? Yet that is really only one of the thought experiments at work here. The more significant ones explore larger questions of selfhood and meaning. What makes us who we are? Is the meaning we search for merely a self-construct? How would our relationships with others change if a few elements of our life or theirs changed? It is, in essence, perhaps the most core philosophical questions: who am I and why am I here?

Ambrose doesn’t rely solely on the many worlds theory as the vehicle for this exploration. There are plot twists and stylistic approaches aplenty. And perhaps an indication of his success of his story telling rests on one simple fact. Unlike most popular novels published 15 years ago, even in republication today The Man Who Turned Into Himself has a scientific framework that remains topical and, more important, still contemporary writing and ideas.

I can tell you with some authority that no man is a hero to anyone who knows what he’s thinking.

David Ambrose, The Man Who Turned Into Himself

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