Sunday, August 6, 2017

Bootstrapped out of Zombiehood

"I might
And you might
But neither of us do though
And neither of us will"

Modest Mouse - Might

I flipped through Robert Heinlein's By His Bootstraps years ago and didn't think much of it. Before I get to spoiling the ending for you, let me say despite being one of his weaker scribbles, it's worth reading if you like time travel stories.

Upon re-reading it now, I find myself mostly comparing it to Heinlein's later re-hash of the same theme, All You Zombies. Unfavorably. Can't figure out why so many Heinlein book covers advertise "by the author of such-and-such and By His Bootstraps" when its writing is both less expressive and more repetitive, its themes less daring, its characters less memorable and its action more disjointed than most of the master's tales. Sure I could resign myself to saying that Bootstraps was one of his earlier works and in the seventeen intervening years he'd learned a few tricks so of course All You Zombies was better... but then what kind of fanboyish old geek would I be if I didn't over-analyze it?

Zombies is better, but why is it better? Technical flaws aside, there's also a glaring discrepancy between the two protagonists. While the Unmarried Mother comes across as angry and bitter, this is justified by life experience. Bob the university student, on the other hand, is a thoroughly unlikeable sort of sniveling, two-faced, overentitled, drunken faux-intellectual, nearly the last person deserving of a far-future kingdom of eloi to lord over. Maybe Heinlein only wrote him in keeping with the story's title as appropriately Munchausen-ish, an undependable blowhard.

However, why did Bootstraps necessitate a screw-up as main character? Zombies, as I declared in my last post about it, is a very Heinlein-ish tale of self-determination: somewhat darkly humorous, uncompromising and unapologetic in its grim individualism. Bob's future adventures with Diktor deliver almost the exact opposite amidst all that aimless blundering into inadvertent rulership over meek degenerate humanoids. Whether the young Heinlein himself thought this might sell better or he delivered it to publisher specifications, I'm going to guess the story he was writing might've grated against his personal idealism. Enough at least that he took a creator's vengeance on his creation, turning him into the only type of man who would be king: a bumbling charlatan.

Then again once again and again, maybe Bootstraps really did wind up as a mix of The Man Who Would Be King and of The Time Machine because its author simply hadn't sufficiently developed his own style quite yet and was still rehashing the literature of his youth. His greatness was yet to come. I find this interpretation particularly encouraging, as Heinlein was exactly my age when he published it.

Of course, he could actually manage to get published at my age.
Less encouraging.

Of course, he probably sent a manuscript out now and then too.
All I'm saying is, I find myself uncomfortably Boostrappy and insufficiently post-Zombic for my own tastes.
At least I've never wanted to be king.

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