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Monday, October 21, 2013

Analysis of "By His Bootstraps" by Robert A. Heinlein

This first appeared in Astounding, reprinted a dozen times or so by many famous editors in their day:  Kingsley Amis, Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Terry Carr, Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg, Robert Conquest, Raymond J. Healy, J. Francis McComas, Leo Margulies, Oscar J. Friend.  It is available in a double-collection ebook (pictured below).

Too clever by half--but thank goodness for such cleverness.  When I'd first read this, I'd already Heinlein's "All You Zombies," so I half of this was expected.  I read it too hastily then.  In fact, this has a lot of charm.

After locking himself alone in his apartment, Bob Wilson works on his doctoral thesis the night before it's due.  He anticipates finishing.  However, a familiar-looking stranger in the room tells him it's all hogwash.  The stranger tries to convince Bob to go through the gate.  Despite getting liquored up, Bob remains unconvinced until another stranger tries to stop him from going through.  A fistfight ensues, and Bob plunges through the portal...

30,000 years into the future.  And a lovely future it seems, with beautiful women aplenty, but before Bob can enjoy this new future, he must go back through the portal and convince the man on the other side to enter. The man on the other side--you guessed it--is himself from earlier.  Here's where the charm comes:  Bob (or Joe, as he now calls himself so as to confuse his first self) is annoyed with arrogant, stubborn self.  Who of us has not been annoyed with ourselves?  But what a zinger of self-recrimination.

The second return is repetitious, but thankfully shorter.  Although the charm here is the new introspection:

"His first response was the illogical but quite human and common feeling of look-what-you-made-me-do. 'Now you've done it!' he said angrily."  
Who had done it?  Humans are quick to shift blame, but who's guilty?

Finally (or maybe not finally), Bob remains in the future to chase down this mysterious Diktor [Dictator?  The books he retrieves--Mein Kampf and The Prince--suggest that this interpretation may be viable.]  However, Diktor remains illusive

The title and conclusion may be ambiguous.  "By His Bootstraps" alludes to pulling one's self up by one's bootstraps--i.e. your success depends only on you.  One could say that Bob helps himself, on the one hand; on the other, he has the help of other individuals.  The ending sounds clearly hopefully:
" 'There is a great future in store for you and me, my boy--a great future!' 
"A great future."
Why does the narrator (possibly we are in the mind of the protagonist) or author repeat the phrase, and why is it not as emphasized with an exclamation?  It may be the narrator does not believe this.

The key or the ending may come nearer to the beginning when Bob's girlfriend calls and natters to him about his proposal of marriage, which he rejects immediately, especially after he meets the exceptionally beautiful future women. But it sounds like the mature Bob returns for the present girlfriend as opposed to the mindless of the future.  In fact, the future sounds like a kind of bland if grand and wonderful prison.  Diktor's perspective does sound more mature toward the end of his time in the future, suggesting perhaps that we need to find ourselves before we are ready for the next step.

Heinlein introduces two impossible paradoxes, which he brushes off with a philosophical, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?":  How did the first self get to the future initially and who first taught him the language?

Interestingly, in the collection The Menace from Earth, this is paired with "The Year of a Jackpot"--a tale of Armageddon, which this tale alludes to as well, including the name of the woman who serves Bob in the future.  Following this tale is "Columbus Was a Dope", a pro-exploration tale.  The frictional energy this tale gains with that might be a comparison of explorer types:  Some should stay home, some move on, some move on only because they were told they shouldn't.  Sometimes you have to walk away from a thing to appreciate what you have (this also comes up in "The Menace from Earth").

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