Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Robert A. Heinlein has dealt with the convolutions of time travel before, most notably in the novel The Door into Summer (1957) and in “By His Bootstraps,” a story published in 1941. “’All You Zombies—’” takes full advantage of those convolutions but is much more than the work of a gifted writer who has taken on an imaginative challenge. At the beginning of the story, the temporal agent refers to the odd ring he is wearing. A gift from another operative, it pictures the World Snake consuming its own tail, symbolizing the time-travel paradox. It is in a sense also symbolic of a favorite kind of Heinlein character, the self-made individual, one who by force of intellect and will is able to create his own environment. In Starship Troopers (1959), for example, published the same year as “’All You Zombies—,’” Heinlein glorifies the individual combatant in his fight against the Bugs. The world of the starship trooper is all that matters.
It is to the author’s credit that he realizes the darker side of the self-made individual. In the end, such a person is condemned to a solipsistic universe. A culture that exalts individualism, self-achievement, and even eccentricity also produces alienation, disenchantment, and loneliness. The ultimate end of the work ethic, the pressure for individual accomplishment, is the salvation of the world, over and over and over again, by the temporal agent. It is at once the highest calling and yet the most meaningless of tasks, for if all but the agent are mere zombies, for whom is the world to be saved? Fittingly, the word “zombie” refers not only to talking corpses, the soulless ones, but also to a snake, the python god of West African origin.