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Literature / —All You Zombies—

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"I know where I came from, but where did all you zombies come from?"

"—All You Zombies—" (1959) is a short story by Robert A. Heinlein that presents to the reader an interesting time paradox. "The Unwed Mother", as a bar patron calls himself, unloads his life story onto a willing barman. The barman, however, knows more about The Unwed Mother than he could ever guess.

At roughly a dozen pages, "—All You Zombies—" provides a provocative story and incorporates many of Heinlein's favorite themes.

A film adaptation called Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, was released in 2014.

As the story contains a twist ending, it is recommended you read it for yourself before reading the associated tropes.

This short story provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: As with all Heinlein's works. The latest date given in the story is 1993.
  • Ambiguously Human: The Reveal that everyone in the story is the same time-displaced person calls into question just how human certain characters are. While they look completely ordinary, they have no genetic connection to the rest of humanity, and no intersex condition that occurs in humans reaches the level of true hermaphroditism that would allow procreating with one's time-displaced self.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Downplayed. One the one hand, an intersex condition that would allow for someone to impregnate themselves is not a thing in real life. On the other hand, since he's essentially a self-generated being with no direct connection to the rest of humanity (per modern cladistics, someone with no ancestral connection to anything else wouldn't strictly be considered part of the human species or, for that matter, of Earth's family of organic life), the protagonist is not strictly bound to the rules of human biology.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The narrator is only referred to as "the barman" until the end of the story when he reveals his real name: Jane.
  • Foreshadowing: The barman becomes very annoyed at the song "My Own Grandpa."
  • Fun with Acronyms: The same "elite military service corps" is referred to at various points in history as the Women's Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section, the "Space Angels" or Auxiliary Nursing Group, Extraterrestrial Legions, and the Women's Hospitality Order Refortifying & Encouraging Spacemen. No doubt inspired by the Real Life Women Airforce Service Pilots and their naval counterparts, Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service.
  • Future Self Reveal: The Unmarried Mother, her child, and the child's father are the same person at different stages of life due to time travel (and a forced sex reassignment). The final twist is that the Bartender who the Unmarried Mother has been speaking with is the future version of the same person, having begun a career as a temporal agent.
  • Ghostwriter: The "Unmarried Mother" has that nickname because he churns out stories for confession magazines, presumably by pseudonymous unmarried women.
  • Hermaphrodite: The protagonist starts out as an intersex female gets complicated. She's more of a true hermaphrodite than is biologically possible for humans, but of course the protagonist isn't related to any other humans.
  • My Own Grandpa: In possibly the most convoluted, mind screwing way possible.
  • Noodle Incident: The Mistake of '72.
  • One Degree of Separation: The various characters are connected by zero degrees of separation.
  • Ouroboros: The bartender wears an Ouroboros ring, representing how the story's narrative is a single convoluted time loop whose end sets up its beginning.
  • Parental Incest: Again, all part of the story's Timey-Wimey Ball.
  • Screw Yourself: After the protagonist has his one night stand with his female past self, the barman comments that the idea of seducing yourself is irresistible.
  • Spoiler Title: Defied. While the title does come from the last line of the story, it is taken from the middle, thus removing the context.
  • Stable Time Loop: The barman already knows the recruitment will work. After all, he remembers the other side of it.
  • Tangled Family Tree: It's a very tangled family tree, considering that there's only one person in it.
  • Time-Travel Tense Trouble: "The By-Laws Of Time" read as such:
    Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow.
    If at Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again.
    A Stitch in Time Saves Nine Billion.
    A Paradox May be Paradoctored.
    It is Earlier When You Think.
    Ancestors Are Just People.
    Even Jove Nods.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: Don't think too hard on the paradox of the story. You will start bleeding from the nose.
  • You Already Changed the Past: The barman remembers all the parts of the story from when they happened to him in his original timeline. He's just acting out his part now to complete the loop.