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"By His Bootstraps" by Robert Heinlein

Have I mentioned that I don't like time travel stories? Of course I have! That probably explains why I had never read this famous time travel story by Robert Heinlein before. As famous time travel stories by Robert Heinlein go, I'd say this one isn't as good as "--All You Zombies--". I can see why it's famous, however, because (like "--All You Zombies--") it lovingly embraces the causal paradoxes inherent in time travel stories. The neatest paradox is a notebook that has no apparent source or beginning. It's a thing without a cause, and how can such a thing exist? It's a conundrum that's inherent in the sub-genre.

As a story, however, I found it just as annoying as most time travel stories. The protagonist stumbles through the paradoxes several steps behind the reader, because if he actually had a brain he wouldn't follow the script that predestination requires. Or to put it another way, Heinlein isn't really able to justify the protagonist's ignorance in narrative terms, so it just makes him look stupid. Even though he's trying to change the script, he's too dumb to remember how the script goes, so he follows it despite himself. My disbelief was not suspended, I can tell you that much, and by the end I wanted to shake him by the throat and yell, "You're obviously Diktor, you fucking moron!"

There, I just had to get that out of my system. I feel better now. Heinlein might have been better off to posit that something about time travel prevents the formation of memories. He does speculate reasonably enough that memory is the only way we're able to perceive time. As it is, he works through the idea of time travel in an intelligent fashion, but he can't solve the narrative problems created by the causal paradoxes.

On a different tangent, there's a bit where a woman willingly becomes the protagonist's slave that's just nauseating. Now, as it turns out, we later learn that the woman isn't alone in her willing embrace of slavery, and the protagonist talks about how the people of the far future have lost all will power and love of freedom. He wants to inspire them to stand up on their own two feet again. In the meantime, however, he uses them as slaves, and he suffers no apparent qualms about this. It's the people's lack of gumption that's the problem, not his exploitation of their labor. It's implied that his desire to install a spine in them makes him a good master. This is a very American belief, isn't it? We enslaved people so we could instill our love of freedom into their servile natures.

I've now read something like ten of Heinlein's short stories of the '40s as part of my survey of the Asimov & Greenberg Best Stories of the Golden Age series. When I was younger I disliked Heinlein's didacticism (I felt the same about Le Guin), and now I dislike his conservatism. Of course, it's difficult now to see how innovative his stories were, because his ideas have been become part of the warp and woof of the genre. It's entirely possible that the narrative logic of "By His Bootstraps" seems so clunky because he was working out the implications of time travel for the first time and hadn't figured it all out yet. Still, over all he has a way of working through the logic of his ideas that's very compelling. Two stories have particularly stood out -- "Coventry" for the complex and unusual political scenario (which almost anticipates Delany's Triton with the doofus protagonist who doesn't fit into the tolerant utopia) and "Solution Unsatisfactory" for its exploration of the logic of empire created by weapons of mass destruction. That latter is also a story of American exceptionalism, and Heinlein strikes me as a writer of the American Century. I'm ideologically indisposed toward him, but he's definitely still worth reading. He's deft at articulating and exploring his own ideology.

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