Time Travel Short Story Review

By His Bootstraps
by Robert A. Heinlein
writing as Anson McDonald
© 1941


First published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, “By His Bootstraps” was written by a young Robert Heinlein under the pseudonym Anson McDonald. This tightly woven story about time travel paradoxes focuses on Bob Wilson and a number of visits from different versions of himself.


While completing his college thesis “An Investigation into Certain Mathematical Aspects of Rigor of Metaphysics” an oddly familiar visitor mysteriously appears in his room.

“There was something familiar about the face; he felt that he should recognize it, that he had seen it many time before under different circumstances”

Joe, as the stranger, introduces himself to Bob. The first “stranger” tries to convince Bob to enter the time gate and join him in the distant future, but he’s soon interrupted by a second stranger. The second man is intent on preventing Bob from entering the time gate. After a brief struggle Bob is knocked unconscious and flung through the gate. When he regains consciousness he finds himself in a very strange land.

It’s here he meets Diktor and gets to learn a bit more about the land its people. Diktor makes a bargain with Bob. Bob will be allowed to live like a King in Diktor’s world if he returns through the gate and persuades the man he finds there to return.

As Bob returns through the time gate he realizes the man he was sent to retrieve is himself and that his now “playing” the role of Joe from the first encounter. Heinlein replays the earlier scene from a different perspective to great effect.

“Wilson watched his younger self scrutinizing him with the confused and almost insupportable emotions. Couldn’t the stupid fool recognize his own face when he saw it in front of him? If he could not see what the situation was, how in the world was he ever going to make it clear to him?

He failed to take into account that a person does not look at his own face, even in mirrors, in the same frame of mind with which he regard’s another’s face. No sane person ever expects to see his own face hanging on another.”

The story continues to follow the same Bob through multiple trips as he experiences the same scene from different points of view as the first second, third and finally a fourth Bob. During Bob’s final trip to his present he retrieves the odd collection of items that Diktor requested including a number of musical records and text books. The books include such a diverse array of titles as “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie and the ever popular “History of Musical Instruments”.

Upon Bob’s final return to the distant future, and the great hall, he manipulates the controls of the time gate and manages find a place ten years previous to Diktor’s “now”. Before he can be discovered he passes through the gate and into a world without Diktor where he sets about establishing himself as “Diktor”. It’s not until after 10 years pass and there is no sign of the real Diktor showing up that he realizes what has transpired.

He has managed to create what is known as a predestination paradox. Essentially a causality loop, a predestination paradox ensures that history is not changed by the time traveller’s actions and that whatever has happened was meant to happen. Or to look at it another way if a time traveller’s attempts to alter his past will only result in him fulfilling his destiny and not changing it as was his original intention. All of Bob’s actions intentional or unintentional end up fulfilling his destiny of becoming Diktor. For example, when “Joe” and the third visitor get in a fight in Bob’s room they manage to accidentally knock the original Bob into the time gate and delivering him into the hands of Diktor.

Often associated with the predestination paradox is an ontological paradox. Probably the most confusing and the one most guranteed to cause head scratching in time travel novels. It's sometimes referred to as a “bootstrap paradox” in honor of Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps. Essentially it’s a closed loop that logically doesn’t make sense. The ontological paradox in By His Bootstraps raises the question, if Bob Wilson becomes Diktor and opens the time gate to lure Bob Wilson into the future which came first?

Personally I found the story the most enganging when Heinlein is retelling the same scene from different presepectives. The latter half of the story feels a little too much like an homage to H.G. Wells The Time Machine and its depecition of the Eloi society. All in all though the story still holds its own after more than sixty years and is well worth the read and is available online see the links below.

©2005 - A. Taylor

Review Posted 2005-08-19

R E L A T E D   L I N K S

By His Bootstraps - Robert A. Heinlein
The full text of the short story By His Bootstraps is available online here at Martin Pot's website. It's available in HTML, PDF and .TXT format you just have to scroll down the page a bit.


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