By His Bootstraps

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"By His Bootstraps" is a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein that plays with some of the inherent paradoxes that would be caused by Recursion time travel. It was originally published in the October 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the pen name Anson MacDonald. It was reprinted in Heinlein's 1959 collection, The Menace From Earth. Under the title "The Time Gate", it was also included in a 1958 Crest paperback anthology, "Race to the Stars".

Plot summary

Bob Wilson locks himself in his room to finish his doctoral thesis on time travel. Someone says, "Don't bother, it's hogwash anyway." The interloper, who looks strangely familiar, calls himself "Joe" and explains that he has come from the future through a Time Gate, a circle about six feet in diameter in the air behind Joe. Joe tells Bob great opportunities await him through the Gate and thousands of years in his future. By way of demonstration, Joe tosses Bob's hat into the Gate. It disappears.

Bob is reluctant. Finally, Joe is about to manhandle Bob through the Gate when another man appears, one who looks very much like Joe. The newcomer does not want Bob to go. During the ensuing fight, Bob gets punched, sending him through the Gate.

He recovers his senses in a strange place. A white-haired, bearded man explains that he is thirty thousand years in the future. The man calling himself "Diktor" treats him to a sumptuous breakfast, waited on by beautiful women. Diktor explains that humans in the future are handsome, cultured in a primitive fashion, but have none of the spunk of their ancestors. An alien race built the Gate and refashioned humanity into compliant slaves. The aliens are gone, leaving a world where a 20th century go-getter can make himself king!

Diktor asks him to go back through the Gate and bring back the man he finds on the other side. Bob agrees. Stepping through, he finds himself back in his own room, watching himself typing his thesis. Without much memory of what happened before, he reenacts the scene, this time from the other point of view, and calling himself "Joe" so as not to confuse his earlier self. Just as he is about to shove Bob through the Gate, another version of himself shows up. The fight happens as before, and Bob goes through the Gate.

His future self claims that Diktor is just trying to tangle them up so badly that they can never get untangled, but Joe goes through and meets Diktor again. Diktor gives him a list of things to buy in his own time and bring back. A little annoyed by Diktor's manner, Bob argues with him, but eventually returns to the past, back in his room once again.

He lives through the same scene for the third time, then realizes that he is now free. He collects the items on Diktor's list, which seem to be things a 20th century man could find useful to making himself king in the future. He adjusts the Gate to send him back to the future, but ten years further back, so he can take Diktor's place. He finds two things beside the controls: his hat and a notebook containing translations between English words and the language of Diktor's slaves.

He sets himself up as Chief. He plays with the Time Gate, hoping to see its makers, but the one time he catches a glimpse of them, he is so shocked that it turns his hair white. He stays away from the Gate for a long time.

One day, idly playing with the Gate, he finds an old hat lying on the floor by the Gate. Shortly afterward, his earlier self comes through. The circle has closed. He is Diktor, which is nothing more than the word for "Chief". Now he has to orchestrate events to ensure his own future.

See also

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