Undefined behavior can result in time travel (among other things, but time travel is the funkiest)

Raymond Chen


The C and C++ languages are notorious for the very large section
of the map labeled

here be dragons
more formally,
undefined behavior.

When undefined behavior is invoked, anything is possible.
For example,

a variable can be both true and false
John Regehr has

a list of interesting examples
as well as some

of the ensuing contest.

Consider the following function:

int table[4];
bool exists_in_table(int v)
    for (int i = 0; i <= 4; i++) {
        if (table[i] == v) return true;
    return false;

What does this have to do with time travel
, you ask?
Hang on, impatient one.

First of all, you might notice the off-by-one error
in the loop control.
The result is that the function reads one past the end
of the table array before giving up.
A classical compiler wouldn’t particularly care.
It would just generate the code to read the out-of-bounds
array element (despite the fact that doing so is a violation
of the language rules),
and it would return true if the
memory one past the end of the array happened to match.

A post-classical compiler, on the other hand, might perform
the following analysis:

  • The first four times through the loop,
    the function might return true.

  • When i is 4, the code performs
    undefined behavior.
    Since undefined behavior lets me do anything I want,
    I can totally ignore that case and
    proceed on the assumption that
    i is never 4.
    (If the assumption is violated, then something
    unpredictable happens, but that’s okay,
    because undefined behavior grants me permission
    to be unpredictable.)

  • The case where i is 5 never occurs,
    because in order to get there,
    I first have to get through the case where
    i is 4, which I have already assumed
    cannot happen.

  • Therefore, all legal code paths return true.

As a result, a post-classical compiler can optimize the function to

bool exists_in_table(int v)
    return true;

Okay, so that’s already kind of weird.
A function got optimized to basically nothing
due to undefined behavior.
Note that even if the value isn’t in the table
(not even in the illegal-to-access

fifth element
the function will still return true.

Now we can take this post-classical behavior one step further:
Since the compiler can assume that undefined behavior never occurs
(because if it did, then the compiler is allowed to do
anything it wants),
the compiler can use undefined behavior to guide optimizations.

int value_or_fallback(int *p)
 return p ? *p : 42;

The above function accepts a pointer to an integer and either
returns the pointed-to value or (if the pointer is null)
returns the fallback value 42.
So far so good.

Let’s add a line of debugging to the function.

int value_or_fallback(int *p)
 printf("The value of *p is %d\n", *p);
 return p ? *p : 42;

This new line introduces a bug: It dereferences the pointer p
without checking if it is null.
This tiny bug actually has wide-ranging consequences.
A post-classical compiler will optimize the function to

int value_or_fallback(int *p)
 printf("The value of *p is %d\n", *p);
 return *p;

because it observes that the null pointer check is no longer
If the pointer were null, then the printf already
engaged in undefined behavior,
so the compiler is allowed to do anything in the case the pointer
is null (including acting as if it weren’t).

Okay, so that’s not too surprising.
That may even be an optimization you expect from a compiler.
(For example, if the ternary operator was hidden inside a macro,
you would have expected the compiler to remove the test that is
provably false.)

But a post-classical compiler can now use this buggy function
to start doing time travel.

void unwitting(bool door_is_open)
 if (door_is_open) {
 } else {
  // wait for the door to open using the fallback value
  fallback = value_or_fallback(nullptr);

A post-classical compiler can optimize this entire function to

void unwitting(bool door_is_open)


The compiler observed that the call
invokes undefined behavior on all code paths.
Propagating this analysis backward,
the compiler then observes that if
door_is_open is false,
then the else branch invokes undefined
behavior on all code paths.
Therefore, the entire else branch can be treated
as unreachable

Okay, now here comes the time travel:

void keep_checking_door()
 for (;;) {
  printf("Is the door open? ");
  char response;
  if (scanf("%c", &response) != 1) return;
  bool door_is_open = response == 'Y';

A post-modern compiler may propagate the analysis that
“if door_is_open is false,
then the behavior is undefined”
and rewrite this function to

void keep_checking_door()
 for (;;) {
  printf("Is the door open? ");
  char response;
  if (scanf("%c", &response) != 1) return;
  bool door_is_open = response == 'Y';
  if (!door_is_open) abort();

Observe that even though the original code rang the bell
before crashing,
the rewritten function skips over ringing the bell
and just crashes immediately.
You might say that the compiler
went back in time and unrung the bell.

This “going back in time” is possible even for
objects with external visibility like files,
because the standard allows for anything at all
to happen when undefined behavior is encountered.
And that includes hopping in a time machine and
pretending you never called fwrite.

Even if you claim that the compiler is not allowed
to perform time travel,¹
it’s still possible to see earlier operations become undone.
For example,
it’s possible that the undefined operation resulted
in the file buffers being corrupted,
so the data never actually got written.
Even if the buffers were flushed, the undefined operation
may have resulted in a call to
ftruncate to logically remove the data
you just wrote.
Or it may have resulted in a Delete­File
to delete the file you thought you had created.

All of these behaviors have the same observable effect,
namely that the earlier action appears not to have occurred.
Whether they actually occurred and
were reversed or never occurred at all is moot
from a compiler-theoretic point of view.

The compiler may as well have propagated the effect of the
undefined operation backward in time.

¹ For the record, the standard explicitly permits time travel
in the face of undefined behavior:

However, if any such execution contains an undefined operation,
this International Standard places no requirement on the
implementation executing that program with that input
(not even with regard to operations preceding the
first undefined operation

(Emphasis mine.)

Another way of looking at this transformation is that the
compiler saw that the else branch invokes
undefined behavior on all code paths, so it rewrote
the code as

void unwitting(bool door_is_open)
 if (door_is_open) {
 } else {

taking advantage of the rule that undefined behavior
allows anything to happen,
so in this case, it decided that “anything” was
“calling walk_on_in by mistake.”

Bonus chatter:
Note that there are some categories of undefined behavior
which may not be obvious.
For example,
dereferencing a null pointer is undefined behavior
even if you try to counteract the dereference before
it does anything dangerous

int *p = nullptr;
int& i = *p;
foo(&i); // undefined

You might think that the &
and the *
cancel out and the result is as if you had written
but the fact that you created a reference to a nonexistent object,
even if you never carried through on it,
invokes undefined behavior (§8.5.3(1)).

Related reading:
What Every C Programmer Should Know About Undefined

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Broke the &* into two lines
because it is the lone * that is the problem.

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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