Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804
“’All You Zombies—’” takes full advantage of the cause-and-effect paradox inherent in the concept of time travel. The tale assumes not only the existence of time travel but also its necessity. To forestall the atomic destruction of the earth, for example, agents of the Temporal Bureau must selectively manipulate what becomes the past, taking care not to leave too many anachronisms. Temporal agents do not change the past, for that is impossible; rather, it is their hidden presence in past events that ensures that history turns out as it really does. For example, the intervention of a temporal agent turned what could have been the nuclear disintegration of New York into what became known as the Fizzle War of 1963. The Mistake of 1972 (which apparently led to forced labor and a shortage of food in 1974), however, did take place. It is history, and no temporal agent can undo it.
More temporal agents are needed to prevent another Mistake. Thus, the narrator is sent from 1993 back to 1970 to recruit a likely candidate: himself. Central to the fun of the story is the revelation of how significant a part the agent played in the very existence of the raw recruit. The recruit actually comes into the world as a baby girl, Jane. She is stolen from the hospital in 1945 by a mysterious man, the temporal agent, who places her as a foundling on the steps of an orphanage in Cleveland. Though she is determined to keep her virginity until she is married, Jane realizes after lonely years in the orphanage that her rather severe, mannish appearance will do little to attract a potential husband. The alternative is to enlist in W.E.N.C.H.E.S., the Women’s Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section, to provide on-board relief of sexual tensions for pilots who must spend years in space. The Corps takes good care of its own, and many end up getting married to pilots.
Jane’s dream, though, is shattered in 1963. She is seduced by a mysterious man and becomes pregnant. Her baby girl is delivered by cesarean section, and the surgeon points out to Jane that she has apparently grown up with both male and female organs. In fact, though Jane did become pregnant, “she” is really a man. Worse, a month later Jane’s daughter is stolen from the hospital nursery. Jane is determined to find the man who seduced her and brought ruin to her life. Now maturing as a male, Jane changes his name and moves to New York, where, unable to secure a decent job, he becomes a confession writer. Now, in 1970, at twenty-five, he spills out his life story to the barkeeper at “Pop’s Place” in New York. The man behind the counter, the temporal agent, offers this potential recruit a chance to come face-to-face with the seducer.
That requires a time jump for both of them back to 1963. Sent out by the agent, the potential recruit finds not a mysterious man but Jane. She is irresistible. As the agent later reflects: “It’s a shock to have it proved to you that you can’t resist seducing yourself.” After such a realization, the young man is ready to be recruited into the Temporal Bureau. The agent returns to 1993 with his recruit, who is sent off for processing.
The agent returns to his own quarters, determined to give up recruitment for some other work at the Bureau. Thirty years of recruiting have soured him on the job. Besides, once one has recruited oneself, completing the circle, what is there left to accomplish? The young...
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man will make a good agent, of course; he already knew that.
Self-doubt and loneliness wash over the agent. He glances down at his belly, finding the scar from the cesarean section, and something in him aches for Jane. Those around the agent, and presumably the readers of the story as well, are to him little more than zombies, animated corpses, less than human, with their origins unknown. Now, in the darkness, the agent has a frightening thought, and he addresses the reader: “You aren’t really there at all. There isn’t anybody but me—Jane—here alone in the dark. I miss you dreadfully!”
All the main characters in the story—the agent, the recruit, the baby girl, the woman, the seducer—are the same person. A few other supporting characters are briefly mentioned in the story, such as the doctor at the hospital and an officer at the Temporal Bureau, but the question of their identity is left open. The events in the story form a closed loop, and it is in that loop that the agent is caught. Everyone else is excluded from that loop; the very existence of others, from the agent’s perspective, is questionable indeed.