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13 pages, ebook
First published March 1, 1959
Heinlein presents one of the most mind boggling paradoxes presented by, or rather resulted from, time travel. All time travel stories are complicated, they survive on a merry go round of events and a dramatic sequence of effect and consequence. But in “All You Zombies”, Heinlein goes a step farther and designs a story line of an infinite loop, where the interchange of cause and effect lands the reader into a ‘chicken and egg’ situation.
You ask who came first. Thematically the story says what does it matter? Yes, it is a time travel story. And the sheer imaginative droppings of that part are brilliant in itself. But the story also illustrates a pretty heavy picture of the alienation that surrounds individuals who not conform. The protagonist is introduced in the story with the name ‘Unmarried Mother’ and he is a man who writes confession columns. That idea evokes hilarity towards a lonely and evidently bitter man who makes a living by pretending to be women, but at the same time the name ‘Unmarried Mother’ throws a shade on the darkness of the individual. As the story delves deeper, and we as readers are acquainted more and more closely with the character, this segregation, this alienation and prejudice becomes more and more apparent.
Heinlein closes the story with an open ending, although there was really no way around it, what with the story resembling the snake that eats its own tail. And the closing is a cry, a wail for the things lost, for the time that is lost.
The paradox contained in this short marvel isn’t just limited to temporal shift, but is also contained in the name of the story. In the end, too. Heinlein declares the world in the story and broadly us, the readers to be Zombies i.e., mindless creatures. Therein lies the question that be true, what was the purpose of the protagonist who attempts to save lives via time travel? Is saving souls that are doomed, glorifying the saver or is just, for once, conforming him to crowd and acting the saviour?
This is a dark story and I am told it is in the same vein as “By His Bootstraps’, although I am yet to read that, but it is one of the best of what I have read. I have been reading a lot of short stories lately, and I am amazed at the punch a few pages can pack. And as far as “All You Zombies” is concerned, don’t be daunted by its size! ;)