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Paradox and Time Travel as Constructs for the Meaning of Life in “All You Zombies— ” - REVIEW

Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies—” (1959) is a science fiction masterpiece dealing with deterministic time travel and a tight existentialist paradox. It follows a young man (“Unmarried Mother”) telling a Bartender (the narrator) his life story— which includes him being born as a girl (Jane), raised at an orphanage, later abandoned by a man who impregnated her, her baby-girl getting kidnapped, and becoming a man since she had both reproductive organs. The incredulous tale entangles even more once the Bartender takes Unmarried Mother in the past to meet Jane, thus revealing all four characters in the story to be different versions of each other. It is the epitome of narrative self-sufficiency, the story posing essential questions concerning a person’s identity and purpose in life.

“All You Zombies—” unpacks a load of existentialism in just a few pages of witty dialogue and snappy paragraphs, never showing its sleight of hand until the reader gets fully entangled in the monumental paradox. Toward the end, it adds a depressing note of loneliness since the Bartender calls out to somebody outside the loop, who might not even exist: “You aren’t really there at all. There isn’t anybody but me—Jane—here alone in the dark.” As the last lines sink in, the narrative seems to continue ad infinitum, just like the snake eating its tail (ouroboros) on the Bartender’s ring. This symbol rules over the story, the tragedy stemming from the inescapable circle of fate and life, of how things are predestined to remain the same. While everything centers narratively around one character, existentialism, however, concerns every living person. Subsequently, Jane’s final outcry at her unfair destiny (“I know where I came from—but where did all you zombies come from?”) shifts the focus on the readers and adds uncertainty to their perception of identity: do we know who we are? What truly enables Heinlein to express these rhetorical notions is his story’s infallible structure of retrocausality; it would seem that the only purpose in anyone’s life should be to exist— even if that means to always be alone.

The ludicrous question “What if you were your own parents?” used as a plot in Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies—” makes it into a memorable reading experience, one that uses the machinations of time travel to access a space of rhetorical existentialism which will also affect the readers. With all of its ironic humor and masterful structuring, I could hardly stop reworking each angle in my head; definitely my favorite take on paradoxes.


“Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few.” - R. A. Heinlein

My Rating: ★★★★★



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