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Literature / By His Bootstraps

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This Science Fiction Novella, written by Robert A. Heinlein, was first published in 1941. It deals with Bob, a student and all-round terrible person, who suddenly finds himself faced with the idea of a time portal and several strange men in his bedroom. At the other end, 30000 years into the future, lies an Arcadia ripe for the taking, and a man named Diktor is willing to give him half of the future land.

The story became the Trope Codifier for the Stable Time Loop idea, and is where the phrase "bootstrap paradox" comes from.

This short story provides examples of:

  • Alien Geometry: The rooms of the High Ones in the palace are so unusual that Bob quickly decides not to enter them again.
  • Brown Note: Bob gets one brief glimpse of the aliens who ruled Earth in a bygone age, and is so badly shaken by it that he thereafter appears to have aged considerably.
  • Chronoscope: The Time Gate can be used to look backward and forward in time as well as to travel to the time shown.
  • Conqueror from the Future: Inverted. Bob is brought from the present to the far future and becomes the world's "Diktor" (dictator). Apparently, the people from the future have become too soft, following a massive alien invasion.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The High Ones are implied to be this.
  • Future Self Reveal: As the result of Time Travel shenanigans involving a Time Machine and a Stable Time Loop, Bob meets three different men and eventually realizes that each of them is one of his future selves.
  • Have We Met Yet?: Bob and Arma.
  • I Hate Past Me: Bob is not impressed when he sees himself from the outside.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: The Time Gate.
  • Karma Houdini: Bob is generally a mean guy; he starts a nasty (few) fight(s) during the story, displays an abusive relation with women, and even goes so far as to enslave the entire human population of the future in preparation for a clash with "Diktor", the man who had ruled the Earth prior to Bob's jumping 10 years in the past of that time. The central irony of this being that in doing so, Bob himself becomes "Diktor" and sets out to prepare his past self to do the same. Somewhat subverted considering that the most important people he slights during the story are actually just versions of himself from varying timeframes.
  • Meaningful Name: Diktor, short for "Dictator."
  • My Future Self and Me: A man's future selves go back and meet his past self for various reasons.
  • One Degree of Separation: The story's main draw.
  • Other Me Annoys Me: The first half of the story consists of the interaction between Bob Wilson and some of his past and future selves, due to a very convoluted Time Travel plot. The scene is retold several times, each from the point of view of a different version of Bob — who consistently thinks his past selves are idiots and his future selves are arrogant pricks. It comes to blows eventually. And this would be the man who rules the Earth in the future? Diktor, the future dictator Bob considers a jerk and tries to double-cross, is Bob himself.
  • Portal Cut: The time gate has an unusual form of this. The edge of the portal has no physical solidity, so if an object won't fit through the gate, the part that fits through the time gate does so, while the rest of it just keeps on moving in its original space-time and gets left behind. The result is something like being sheared with an infinitely sharp knife. Fortunately, nothing more important than a printing of Adolf Hitler's autobiography Mein Kampf is destroyed due to this.
  • San Dimas Time: Diktor apparently tried to invoke San Dimas Time on his predecessor self, but was rebuffed by with the line "How can we waste time when we have this?", so he smoothed it over with fast talk and invocation of authority. It was worth a shot, since the protagonist is essentially every single important character in the story — his own personal clock keeps ticking, meaning things need to happen precisely when they did/will/must happen.
  • Stable Time Loop: Also known as the "Bootstrap Paradox" because of this story.
  • Temporal Duplication: Because of time travel, there are three different versions of the same person (at different points in their lifespans) in the same place at the same time.
  • Temporal Paradox: Among other hijinks, the main character gets a book from the future, which he copies into another one (the same one, when it's new?) when it becomes too old and falling apart. A good way to avoid an object-based ontological paradox.
  • These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: Bob Wilson sees one of the High Ones through a time viewer and almost loses his mind. It was the emotion of seeing something so powerful and advanced that caused his discomfort — an overwhelming mixture of sadness, tragedy, grief and weariness.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: The protagonist exploits a time machine to move himself forward in time. Simple enough. The Mind Screw comes in when he does this by his future self sending back his intermediate self to persuade his past self to enter the machine's portal. When the past self becomes the intermediate self, he attempts to double cross the future self, but that double cross naturally results in him becoming the future self. Follow all that?
  • Tongue Twister: Bob Wilson demonstrates that he is drunk by reciting "Peter Piper", and having it come out "Peter Piper pepped a pick of pippered peckles".
  • You Already Changed the Past: Bob is introduced to time travel by a man from the future, and shortly finds himself meeting himself twice, and each self gets trapped into saying and doing the same things he saw and heard said before. Eventually, he gets the drop on the man who introduced him to time travel by traveling into that man's past 10 years, only to find out he's waiting for himself.