And it comes out here

I listened to the time travel episode of The Incomparable today, and as the panel discussed 12 Monkeys and its “only one timeline” structure, I waited for them to mention other time travel stories with that same structure. I had three in mind. Near the end of the show, one of guests—Tony Sindelar, I think—mentioned one of them, but not in the context of the single-timeline story. I want to talk about all three.

—All You Zombies—” is the Robert Heinlein story that eventually got name-checked, but there’s an earlier Heinlein story that’s usually mentioned in the same breath: “By His Bootstraps,” in which the main character travels through time and continually runs into both earlier and later versions of himself.

Before writing this post, I went looking for the story on my Heinlein shelf and couldn’t find it. Eventually I realized that it wasn’t in any of my Heinlein books but was in Adventures in Time and Space, the classic 1946 anthology of (mostly) pre-war SF. And it wasn’t listed as a Heinlein story—the author was “Anson MacDonald,” a pen name Heinlein used on several stories. Unlike many pen names, which are used to disown lesser works or to distinguish stories written in a different style or genre, “Anson MacDonald” wrote good stuff that was clearly in the Heinlein style. The name was more an effort by Astounding Science Fiction’s editor, John W. Campbell, to hide the fact that he had bought so many Heinlein stories that he often put two in the same issue. “By His Bootstraps” was in the same issue as “Common Sense,” a followup to Heinlein’s earlier story, “Universe” (they were later combined into the novel Orphans of the Sky). Since “Universe” was already a Heinlein story, “Common Sense” had to be, too; thus, “By His Bootstraps” got the MacDonald byline.

Adventures in Time and Space has lots of good stories, but its editors, Healy and McComas, wrote some pretty bad introductions. Here’s what they say about “By His Bootstraps”:

This is literally a “whodunit.” there are four or five characters in this story (or puzzle) and most of them are the same man! the question is who—and when. Or, when is a man not himself—yesterday, today or tomorrow? It may sound like a joke, but we assure you it isn’t. It is a perfect illustration of the paradox of time travel. If the story’s problem can be solved, then (perhaps) so can time travel.


Anyway, what I like about these single-timeline stories is the plotting required to get the current self lined up to do what’s necessary to put the future self in position to help the current self do those necessary things. Like a good pun, the trick is in making the setup appear natural rather than strained. “By His Bootstraps” is more intricately plotted than most because it has so many past/current/future intersections.

“—All You Zombies—,” written 18 years later, is basically a shorter, simpler “By His Bootstraps” with sex. Because it’s Heinlein and it’s 1959, the sex is all talk—and not very good talk, either. Starting an unfortunate habit that lasted into the 70s, Heinlein tries to sound jaded and offhand about sex, but it’s clear he’s working hard to be shocking. There’s a good story here, but it needed a lighter touch than Heinlein was capable of.

The third single-timeline story I hope the panel would mention was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—particularly the movie. That they didn’t might be because of the age the panel members—too old to be Potter fans themselves but not old enough to be Potter fans through their kids. Whatever the reason, the omission is unfortunate, because the time travel parts of Azkaban are delightful. You don’t mind the convenient resolution of all problems during Harry and Hermoine’s trip at the end of the movie, because the plot points they pick up on their journey were carefully placed beforehand.

Azkaban is the first good Potter movie, partly because the kids were old enough to act without goggling their eyes and dropping their jaws every five minutes and partly because they finally had a director who knew what to do with them. The supporting cast is wonderful, as usual: Alan Rickman menacing, David Thewlis warm and sympathetic, and Emma Thompson with the funniest set piece in any of the movies.

Michael Gambon is just right in his first outing as Dumbledore, as vague as Richard Harris had been but with a darker edge. Had they thought of Azkaban, the Incomparable crew could’ve used his line as a theme for the show.

Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous.