12 votes

I made a 2,000-word analysis of Robert Heinlein’s "All You Zombies" (with visuals!)

15 comments

  1. [15]
    Algernon_Asimov Link
    I don't like 'All You Zombies'. It's too clever. It's just a vehicle for Heinlein to show off how clever he was, by making one person their own father and mother via time travel. It also relies...

    I don't like 'All You Zombies'. It's too clever. It's just a vehicle for Heinlein to show off how clever he was, by making one person their own father and mother via time travel.

    It also relies too much on hiding information from the reader. Those hints you talk about aren't fair. The quotation you cite that "The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described." exposes the fact that Heinlein makes sure we do not have an equal opportunity to solve the mystery. Those so-called hints are there to be "Ah-hah!" moments after the fact. You can only notice these supposed hints in retrospect, or even on a second reading of the story.

    And the character is nothing more than a one-dimensional vehicle for carrying the plot. There's no motivation, no emotion, no characterisation. We have no idea why the Bartender took the Unmarried Mother back in time to meet teenaged Jane, or why they recruited the Unmarried Mother into the Temporal Bureau. They just did, because the plot required them to.

    A point of feedback about your flowchart: the "second loop" you've identified is not actually a loop because it doesn't return to its starting point in space and time. It's an open-ended exit from the previous loop.

    Actually, your flowchart has made me realise something. The central character certainly crosses their own timeline at multiple points, but their life is a single one-way progression: baby Jane -> teenager Jane -> mother Jane -> gender-switched Unmarried Mother -> bar customer -> impregnator/father -> Temporal Bureau recruit -> Temporal Bureau agent -> Bartender -> ??? I'm not sure it's a loop at all.

    I should also point out that you've misread the last part of the story. You say "the Bartender saw through his own life at least forty times". However, the actual line in the story is "I dictated my report; forty recruitments all okayed by the Psych Bureau—counting my own, which I knew would be okayed." The Bartender has recruited forty people to the Temporal Bureau - forty different people. The Bartender has not viewed their own life forty times. They've recruited forty people.

    3 votes
    1. [3]
      mrbig Link Parent
      While I wanna write a proper response for you later, I can't resist answering a few points just now. I'm not sure if "too clever" is something I'm willing to consider a demerit in this case, nor...

      While I wanna write a proper response for you later, I can't resist answering a few points just now.

      I don't like 'All You Zombies'. It's too clever. It's just a vehicle for Heinlein to show off how clever he was, by making one person their own father and mother via time travel.

      I'm not sure if "too clever" is something I'm willing to consider a demerit in this case, nor if this short story is too clever for its own good. I would consider too clever a story that is so cryptic that it's impossible to enjoy or understand. I watched the movie adaptation first, which is pretty faithful to the source material, and was pretty mind-blown - in a good way. It was a very enjoiable and enticing experience, and I felt the same way about the short story. It probably helped that I'm a sucker for time travel stories, and also logic and philosophy. I find paradoxes fascinating, and I suppose this is not a rare taste among science fictions fans.

      The Bartender has recruited forty people to the Temporal Bureau - forty different people. The Bartender has not viewed their own life forty times. They've recruited forty people.

      I agree there is no concrete evidence that the previous recruits where all from the same loop. This is absolutely an interpretative jump on my part. But I also don't think there's concrete evidence that they were not himself. I'll update the article to account for that.

      6 votes
      1. [2]
        Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
        Actually, on second thought, I'm almost certain that the wording of that sentence indicates the 40 recruits are not all the narrator. When someone uses the phrase "counting X" in this way, it's to...

        I agree there is no concrete evidence that the previous recruits where all from the same loop. This is absolutely an interpretative jump on my part. But I also don't think there's concrete evidence that they were not himself.

        Actually, on second thought, I'm almost certain that the wording of that sentence indicates the 40 recruits are not all the narrator.

        "I dictated my report; forty recruitments all okayed by the Psych Bureau—counting my own, which I knew would be okayed."

        When someone uses the phrase "counting X" in this way, it's to indicate addition:

        • "You have an ice-cream, and she has an ice-cream. So, counting my own ice-cream, we have three ice-creams."

        • "There are two dogs living in the house next to me, and one dog living in the house across the street. So, counting my dog, there are four dogs in this neighbourhood."

        • "We can see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. So, counting Earth, we know of 8 planets in the Solar System."

        This phrase "counting X" implies that I'm adding the extra X to the other Xs when counting the total.

        So, in this case, it means that the narrator is adding their own recruitment to the other recruitments when counting the total: "40 recruitments, counting my own" means "40 recruitments, including my own" or "39 recruitments, plus my own".

        1. mrbig (edited ) Link Parent
          Subjectively the other 39 are not him, even though they objectively are. He may be counting from a subjective standpoint, in which case he satisfies your rule (he sees himself as an entity...

          Subjectively the other 39 are not him, even though they objectively are. He may be counting from a subjective standpoint, in which case he satisfies your rule (he sees himself as an entity distinct from the others). This is what I assumed while reading.

    2. [11]
      mrbig Link Parent
      What is unspoken in this rule is that a good mystery must always present the pieces required to assemble the puzzle, but it has no obligation to do so in an orderly fashion. Memento comes to mind....

      Heinlein makes sure we do not have an equal opportunity to solve the mystery

      What is unspoken in this rule is that a good mystery must always present the pieces required to assemble the puzzle, but it has no obligation to do so in an orderly fashion. Memento comes to mind. It must be solvable, but it should be reasonably hard to do so. Like a good puzzle. And after reading the story a bunch of times, I am convinced that, by the time of the revelation, which happens roughly at 79% of the story (sadly, I don't have a print version to give a page number), an attentive reader that is educated in the genre have a good shot at figuring a lot of it out.

      We have no idea why the Bartender took the Unmarried Mother back in time to meet teenaged Jane, or why they recruited the Unmarried Mother into the Temporal Bureau.

      I suppose he was following orders, and that his work is important. He mentions a bomb threat in New York in 1963 that didn't go off because of the Bureau. This could be more developed for sure. The other versions have plenty of motivation, though.

      their life is a single one-way progression

      Yes. The ending, as you point out, is open. He may keep recruiting or not. I still think the hypothesis of the 39 loops is quite probable, but it's all up in the air. I updated the text of the article to make it clear that this is just one possible interpretation, I'll fix the flowchart now. Thanks!

      4 votes
      1. [10]
        Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
        My description of this story as "too clever" means that it's intended only as a showcase for Heinlein's ability to write a time-travel paradox story. He's showing off. The point of the story is...

        I'm not sure if "too clever" is something I'm willing to consider a demerit in this case, nor if this short story is too clever for its own good.

        My description of this story as "too clever" means that it's intended only as a showcase for Heinlein's ability to write a time-travel paradox story. He's showing off. The point of the story is not to explore the ramifications of living this life, or to understand the character of this person. The point of the story is for Heinlein to say "Look how smart I am! I made an impossible thing happen!"

        As a science fiction fan myself, I like these idea-based stories. But there has to be something more to them than just the idea.

        I agree there is no concrete evidence that the previous recruits where all from the same loop. This is absolutely an interpretative jump on my part. But I also don't think there's concrete evidence that they were not himself.

        It's a flimsy interpretation. There is no evidence at all that the central character recruited themself 40 times.

        I suppose he was following orders, and that his work is important.

        Again, there's no evidence of this in the story.

        This comes back to the major flaw I keep mentioning: this story exists only to present the paradox of a person becoming their own father and mother. There's no depth to the story beyond the presentation of that paradox. There's no why, just a how. It's shallow.

        1 vote
        1. [8]
          cfabbro Link Parent
          Are riddle creators merely showing off their ability to write riddles? And even if that was actually their sole reason for doing so, does it really matter so long as the process of crafting the...

          Are riddle creators merely showing off their ability to write riddles? And even if that was actually their sole reason for doing so, does it really matter so long as the process of crafting the riddle is enjoyable for the author and unraveling it enjoyable for the intended audience? And similar to this story, riddles rarely have any depth to them either but that doesn't diminish their value to those who enjoy creating or solving them.

          1 vote
          1. [7]
            Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
            I'm not saying it's not clever! As far as sci-fi stories go, it's one of the cleverest. But that's all it has going for it. It's not enjoyable to read. It doesn't give me any insights into other...

            I'm not saying it's not clever! As far as sci-fi stories go, it's one of the cleverest. But that's all it has going for it. It's not enjoyable to read. It doesn't give me any insights into other people's perspectives. It doesn't expose me to a different culture. It's nothing more than a clever paradox presented in narrative form. That's fine. You read it once, get to the punchline/solution, and go "Ah! How clever!" and then move on. However, in that field, it's not as good as Asimov's classic punchline-oriented story 'The Last Question', which has supposedly opened people's minds to whole new perspectives on the universe.

            In a way, 'All You Zombies' would be more enjoyable as just a bald presentation of the scenario which led to a person becoming their own father and mother, because then I wouldn't have to wade through a narrative which tries to create mystery via the clumsy device of withholding information, and which isn't enjoyable in its own right.

            Reading is not just about the destination, it's also about the journey. I need to enjoy reading the sentences and paragraphs long before I get to the final page - or I'm not going to get to that final page to be able to appreciate it. The destination of 'All You Zombies' is interesting, but the journey is not. Luckily, the journey is short enough that the lack of enjoyment doesn't stop me pushing through to the end. If it was a longer story, I might not make it to the end. Then again, if it was a longer story, it might have some of the characterisation and insights that I'm looking for!

            2 votes
            1. [6]
              cfabbro (edited ) Link Parent
              Fair enough, although I personally did enjoy reading it and the journey it took me on, even though the payoff wasn't anything particularly profound or life changing. p.s. Incidentally, great...

              Fair enough, although I personally did enjoy reading it and the journey it took me on, even though the payoff wasn't anything particularly profound or life changing.

              p.s. Incidentally, great example of the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of meaningful short stories; The Last Question is one of my absolute favorites of all time.

              2 votes
              1. [5]
                Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
                Each to their own, I suppose. :P Exactly. It's just a "That's clever!" moment. I didn't get the same "wow" factor from this story's ending that so many other people seem to get. In this case, I...

                although I personally did enjoy reading it and the journey it took me on

                Each to their own, I suppose. :P

                even though the payoff wasn't anything particularly profound or life changing.

                Exactly. It's just a "That's clever!" moment.

                The Last Question is one of my absolute favorites of all time.

                I didn't get the same "wow" factor from this story's ending that so many other people seem to get. In this case, I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. It's okay, but it's not one of my top-favourite stories of his.

                1 vote
                1. [4]
                  cfabbro Link Parent
                  What is then. if you don't mind me asking? I think my favorite short story of his is probably True Love... it's just so deliciously ironic.

                  It's okay, but it's not one of my top-favourite stories of his.

                  What is then. if you don't mind me asking? I think my favorite short story of his is probably True Love... it's just so deliciously ironic.

                  1. [3]
                    Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
                    My top-favourite story of Asimov's is 'The Ugly Little Boy'. It's a tear-jerker! 'True Love' (which I had to quickly double-check) is, as you say, deliciously ironic. It has a great twist at the...

                    My top-favourite story of Asimov's is 'The Ugly Little Boy'. It's a tear-jerker!

                    'True Love' (which I had to quickly double-check) is, as you say, deliciously ironic. It has a great twist at the end, and I do enjoy it.

                    2 votes
                    1. [2]
                      cfabbro Link Parent
                      Ugly Little Boy was the neanderthal one, right? I honestly don't remember much from it so may have to give it a read again on your recommendation.

                      Ugly Little Boy was the neanderthal one, right? I honestly don't remember much from it so may have to give it a read again on your recommendation.

        2. mrbig (edited ) Link Parent
          Because of its terseness, this is a story that is particularly open to interpretation. There is evidence alright (because evidence is not proof), but there is no definitive evidence. And not only...

          Again, there's no evidence of this in the story.

          Because of its terseness, this is a story that is particularly open to interpretation. There is evidence alright (because evidence is not proof), but there is no definitive evidence. And not only for that. All You Zombies's lack of answers is an implicit call for speculation. And there is such a thing as genre expectations, which come into play here. This is literature, not a legal argument. Subjectivity has its place.

          Either way, I altered the article to make sure that what I proposed is nothing more than a possible interpretation. I wouldn't use the word "flimsy", though.