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First published in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, the classic science fiction short story “All You Zombies—” (1959) explores an unusual paradox involving transsexual time travel: What if you undergo sexual reassignment surgery, go back in time, have an affair with your younger self, and become your own parent? The story became an award-winning 2014 science fiction film, Predestination. The 2012 eBook edition of the original story is the basis for this study guide.
The story begins in a bar, “Pop’s Place,” in November 1970. The bartender narrates the story; he’s also a professional time traveler or “Temporal agent.” Into the bar walks a 25-year-old man that the narrator calls the “Unmarried Mother,” who gets his name from an advice column he writes as if he is a woman. The Unmarried Mother already is tipsy; the bartender pours him a drink and leaves the bottle. The bartender asks the Unmarried Mother how he is doing; the Unmarried Mother replies sourly that “Business is okay. I write ’em, they print ’em, I eat” (3).
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The bartender tells the Unmarried Mother that he read a few of his articles and admires his ability with the “woman’s angle.” The Unmarried Mother answers that he should know that angle, but that the bartender wouldn’t believe him if he told him why. The bartender bets him a bottle of whiskey that he won’t be shocked.
The Unmarried Mother begins by confessing that he’s a bastard. The bartender admits that he is, too, and that none of his family ever marry. The Unmarried Mother points at a wedding ring on the bartender’s hand; the bartender replies that it’s there to keep women at bay. In fact, a fellow time traveler obtained the ring for him in ancient Crete. The ring is in the shape of an Ouroboros, a snake that eats its own tail.
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The Unmarried Mother explains that he was born a girl in 1945 and raised in an orphanage. He swore that his own kids would have proper parents, but he knew that, because he was unattractive, he’d not likely get married. At 18, he became a “mother’s helper” caregiver while attending night school. He was planning at 21 to join the W.E.N.C.H.E.S., a military auxiliary organization also known as “Space Angels” that specializes in releasing astronauts’ sexual tensions. The organization would provide him with orthodonture and cosmetic surgery to improve his appearance, and he would train in dancing and other social niceties. Most Space Angels muster out by marrying an astronaut.
Instead, he fell for a very nice, big-spending guy, and finally they had sex. The wealthy man confessed his love, but they never saw each other again. Then he discovered he was pregnant. He lost his caregiver job, the Space Angels rejected him, he sat out his pregnancy in a charity clinic, and he gave birth to a healthy baby girl. During the delivery, however, the doctors discovered that The Unmarried Mother (now identified in the story as Jane) had two sets of sexual organs, male and female, and that the birth destroyed the female organs. The doctors managed to save only the male parts.
A month later, someone kidnapped the baby and Jane never saw the child again. After 11 months and three more surgeries, Jane left the clinic as a male but with no experience working jobs reserved for men. Jane worked for a while as a fry cook and a stenographer, then stumbled onto true-confession story-writing and made a career of it.
The bartender admits it’s a shocking story, and he gives the Unmarried Mother a bottle of whiskey. Then the bartender offers to take the Unmarried Mother to meet the man who impregnated him; he cites the names of the orphanage directors as proof that he knows whereof he speaks. The bartender insists on one condition: that the young man accept a very cushy job offer. By now drunk, the young man accepts.
The bartender brings the Unmarried Mother to the bar’s storeroom, where he unlocks an inner room; within is a suitcase-sized time machine. The bartender tosses a metal mesh over them both, flips the machine’s switch, and suddenly they’re in Cleveland in April 1963. The bartender tells the young man that his betraying lover is right outside; he urges him out the door, then closes and locks it.
The bartender transfers himself to March 1964 and takes a taxi to a hospital clinic, where he steals baby Jane and takes her to September 1945, where he leaves her at the orphanage in which she will grow up. Then he returns to April 1963, where the Unmarried Mother is just kissing Jane goodnight at her doorstep. As he walks away, the bartender falls into step with him: “Now you know who he is—and after you think it over you’ll know who you are” (12).
They travel forward in time to the Temporal Bureau’s underground bunker in the Rockies in August 1985, where the young man gets a billet where he will sleep. In the morning, he’ll sign up for the time agent job that will lead to him becoming the bartender.
The bartender time-jumps back to Pop’s Place in November 1970. By chance, the jukebox plays “I’m My Own Granpaw!” (13). The bartender leaves a letter of resignation in the cash register. He grabs the whiskey bottle that he both won and lost, returns to the storeroom, and jumps to the Rockies bunker in January 1993. He goes to his quarters, takes a sip from the bottle, and writes his report.
He undresses for bed, then looks down at the Caesarean scar still visible under his hairy belly. He misses terribly his old self, back when he was simply Jane.
By Robert A. Heinlein