Sunday, January 15, 2017

All You Zombies

I'm not sure if this is the exact issue
"All You Zombies" first appeared in,
but how cool are these vintage scifi
"All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1959
Read the story here - SPOILERS BELOW

Most people probably wish that they could go back in time to change the past.  I know I do!  We've made mistakes that have made our present (and coming future) more difficult.  So if we could just go fix things...

But time travel is complicated.  Countless stories and movies have tried to deal with the ideas of what might happen if we traveled and meddled with the past.  Would a small change to the past create alternate timelines into the future, changing our lives as we know them?  Could we create a paradox that would rip the fabric of the universe and completely destroy reality?  What if we got stuck in a loop...?

Think about it (though it may hurt your head to think about it - it hurts mines, but is still fun to try to do!).  You, right now, decide to go back in time to change something from your life (because you can do that in this scenario).  So you do, and that changes your life; however, as the past you that you visited ages through time, they eventually become the you that decided to travel back in time to visit yourself - and must travel back in time, since that's what you did.  Essentially, once you open that particular Pandora's box, you may enter a loop of time travel.

The Story
This story is a fun little mind-bender.  A quick YouTube search turns up a couple of different summaries of the timeline in the plot, and you can study this simple (yet complex) graphic HERE.  I'll do my best to summarize simply...

A bartender is working at an establishment called Pop's Place when someone known as the Unmarried Mother comes in.  The Unmarried Mother is a 25 year old man who writes confession stories, trashy "true" tales meant to titillate readers.  He is surprisingly good at writing the woman's angle - there is a good reason for this, revealed later.

The bartender and the Unmarried Mother make a little wager about whether or not the story of the Unmarried Mother's life will astonish the bartender.  So the Unmarried Mother begins his tale: he began life as a little girl dropped off at an orphanage (yes, a little girl).  Being quite ugly as a young woman, by his own description, the Unmarried Mother decided that no man would ever want her, and so planned to join the Women's Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section (WENCHES), now called "Space Angels" (Auxilary Nursing Group, Extraterrestrial Legions), and formerly called Women's Hospitality Order Refortifying & Encouraging Spacemen (spell that as an acronym for a little chuckle - Heinlein has a wicked sense of humor!).

Before she was old enough to enlist, she worked as a mother's helper/servant.  It was at this time that she met a man who flashed a lot of money and was nice to her.  She saw him a bit and was happy.  And then she says, "Then one night in the park the games began.  And then nothing!  I never saw him again."  This is a bit mysterious; it's not clear if she was raped or not, but they did have sex - some time later she realized she was pregnant.

Fast-forward to the end of the pregnancy, and she wakes up after having a Caesarian.  She learns that she has had a healthy girl.  But the doctor has a bigger surprise for her - he tells that her that she is a man.  It turns out that when he opened her up, there were two full sets of organs, male and female.  The female ones were developed enough to have a baby, but were pretty much destroyed after the pregnancy.  So the doctor rearranged things so she could develop as a man.  To add insult to injury, the baby was kidnapped from the hospital nursery.

The bartender acknowledges that the Unmarried Mother wins the bet, and says he can deliver the guy who did this to him/her, if he agrees to work for him.  The Unmarried Mother agrees, and using an element of surprise, the bartender throws a time traveling net device over the two of them, taking them to...

The bartender gives the Unmarried Mother a bunch of cash (time period appropriate, of course) and drops him off to encounter the man who took advantage of her (back when he was a she).  The bartender then time travels to...

The bartender goes to the hospital and kidnaps the Unmarried Mother's baby, named Jane.  The bartender and the baby then time travel to...

The bartender drops the baby off at an orphanage.  He then travels to...

It is three weeks later than when he dropped off the Unmarried Mother, and he grabs him after he has seduced and had sex with Jane (who is now 19).  The Unmarried Mother is shocked at a sudden realization, made clearer by the bartender who says, "Now you know who he is - and if you think it over you'll know who you are...and if you think hard enough, you'll figure out who the baby is...and who I am."  For clarity: they are all the same person!  He then brings the unmarried mother to...

They arrive at a time travelers' base, and the bartender leaves the Unmarried Mother here, with instructions to the staff to put him down for the night and recruit him in the morning.  The bartender then travels back to...

He arrives back at the bar, only one minute after he originally left.  Leaving a note on the register, he tells the bar manager that he is going on a long vacation.  He time travels to...

This appears to be the bartender's "real" time, and he reflects on his job.  He's tired of recruiting, and wants a reassignment.  He crawls into bed, and the story ends with this thought: "You aren't really there at all.  There isn't anybody but me - Jane - here alone in the dark.  I miss you dreadfully!"

What it all means
A man seduces himself when he was a female, kidnaps the resulting baby, brings that baby back in time where she grows up to be the woman he seduces (himself).  After the seduction, he brings himself to a time traveling agency where he will work and eventually go back in time to recruit himself.  This loop will continue indefinitely.  Head hurt yet?

A short review on The Heinlein Society web page mentions that Heinlein plays with the idea of solipsism in a number of his works.  I am not familiar with enough of Heinlein's material to give other examples, but it does make sense here.  Solipsism is a view that the self is all that we can be certain exists.  I know I exist; I am here inside my head.  I don't know if anyone or anything outside of me really exists; maybe all of this is a projection of my mind.  Maybe I'm dead.  The bartender/Jane definitely seems to feel this way.  This story almost seems like a way for Heinlein to put the view/theory into a "real life" scenario.

I like that idea, but I also like the idea that Heinlein is exploring the complexities of time travel.  This story plays somewhat on the Grandfather paradox of time travel, where a person travels back in time and kills their grandfather, thereby preventing themselves from ever being born.  But if they were never born, they couldn't have traveled back in time to kill the grandfather in the first place.  If the bartender doesn't travel in time to seduce, impregnate, kidnap, and recruit himself, he'll never exist.  It does make me wonder: how did this loop start?  It also makes me think that messing with time is not something I want to do.

Finally, I want to mention again how funny Heinlein is in this story.  When you read the story for a second time, you catch all sorts of little things he drops in that are hints the bartender and the Unmarried Mother (all the characters) are actually the same person.  For example:
"The Unmarried Mother was a man twenty-five years old, no taller than I am..."
 "I didn't like his looks - I never had..."
"No one in my family ever marries.  All bastards." 
"Just a man, with a face-shaped face, like yours or mine."

And let's end with Heinlein's clever and thought-provoking "By-Laws of Time," posted over Jane's bed:
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.
Next week's story is "Tunesmith" by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

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