“All You Zombies” by Robert A. Heinlein
Reviewed by David Wright ©2004
This short time travel story of Heinlein’s appeared some 18 years later than “By His Bootstraps” with which it bears much in common. It is considered by many to be the ultimate in time travel stories.
A young man who appears to be feeling very sorry for himself tells his life history to a bartender. He started out life as a homely girl, (yes I said girl), growing up in an orphanage and vowing never to have children out of wedlock and abandon them as she apparently had been. In spite of her good intentions when she grows up she succumbs to seduction by a young man waving around $100 dollar bills and who promptly leaves her behind afterwards. Unfortunately, she has become pregnant and in due course gives birth to a baby girl. The baby is kidnapped and disappears forever or so she thinks. To compound her problems, the doctors who delivered her baby finds out that she has both sets of reproductive equipment, the female parts of which have been pretty well ruined by the pregnancy and so they remove these and turn her into a man. The man becomes a writer of women’s confession stories and some years later finds himself in the bar where he tells his story.
The bartender is more than he appears to be. He is an agent of a time traveling service and is there to recruit this young man into the same service. He baits him by offering to find for him the man who had been the cause of his/her “ruination”. He gives the man money, and takes him back in time leaving him there to find his quarry. The bartender then goes ahead a number of months and kidnaps that same month-old baby. He takes her back 19 or so years and leaves her on the doorstep of an orphanage. The baby, of course, subsequently grows up to be the girl/man of the later story. The bartender then returns to where he left the young man and finds him to pick him up. The young man is in a state of shock basically since he now knows that not only that “he” was the man who had seduced himself when he was a girl, but that the bartender is also a much later version of himself. The bartender then takes him into the future where he is left to be recruited into the organization. The bartender returns to his own base and reflects on all of the events in his life.
As in a number of Heinlein’s works, he toys with the idea of solipsism and ends the story with the thoughts of the bartender in what I think is one of the most poignant passages that he ever wrote:
“I know where I came from, but where did all you zombies come from?
“I felt a headache coming on, but a headache powder is one thing I
don’t take. I did it once– and you all went away.
“So I crawled into bed and whistled out the light.
“You aren’t really there at all. There isn’t anyone but me — Jane —
here alone in the dark.
I miss you terribly.”
This story along with “Bootstraps” and “The Door Into Summer” are examples of what are called “deterministic” or “unchangeable timeline” stories. In other words, All of the events take place on time loops, but there is no change in what happens each time through the loop. Events are “fixed”. One philosophical problem associated with this kind of story is obvious. What happens to “free will”? Heinlein doesn’t attempt to answer that question in this story. I expect that he avoids it because it is unanswerable, and in this story neither does he try to give any “scientific” basis for his time traveling.
Such “fixed events” are not the norm in most of his later works, where he gets into all sorts of variations, multiple timelines, the changing of events through time travel and even the changing of events through direct author interaction with the story as in the “erasing” of Marshall Sam Beaux in “Cat”