Thursday, May 11, 2023


A vintage short story that was filmed as a TWILIGHT ZONE episode features an elderly millionaire who wants to relive his life, with his memories intact, for the thrill of making his fortune all over again. He stikes a deal with a demon and is duly returned to his home town in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, the past turns out to be less golden than he imagined, and, most important, he forgets to specify having his youth restored. Therefore, he suffers a heart attack and dies for lack of modern medicine. As he faces death, the demon taunts him about his request that he keep his memories: "Can we help it if your memory is lousy?"

The hypothetical question often arises, "Would you live your life over again, knowing what you know now?" Occasionally pondering that fantasy, I definitely would not accept a do-over from childhood or even my early teens. Go through all that again, with the added horror of being treated like a dependent child while having the mind and memories of an adult in my seventies? No, thanks! In the movie PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, a middle-aged woman reverts to her high-school self with her memories intact, faced with the decision of whether or not to repeat the choices that led to marrying her present-day husband, from whom she's currently separated. After reliving part of her senior year (spoiler), she reawakens to her reasons for loving her husband and, upon returning to the present, decides to stay with him.

Would I repeat my life starting from, say, my marriage at the age of eighteen? In T. Kingfisher's latest horror novel, A HOUSE WITH GOOD BONES, the narrator returns to her grandmother's house (now her mother's), where she lived for part of her childhood and teens. Upon waking up in her old bedroom on the first morning, she experiences a disorienting moment of terror that her entire life since the age of ten has been a dream, and she'll be condemned to repeating high school, college, and graduate school—and writing her PhD dissertation all over again. I can identify with that nightmare. I'm not sure I'd have the stamina to struggle through all my university courses and the rewriting of my dissertation from scratch, although I might perform better in my advancement-to-candidacy oral exam with the memory of my previous blunders. On the other hand, I would have a fair chance to avoid most if not all of the worst mistakes and wrongdoings of my first lifetime. And yet, knowing I'd have to relive some painful events that are outside my control, would I want to face them again?

A further concern: If I repeated my life from my wedding day on, we might end up without all the children we've had in this timeline. Alternate history novels often include real people from the primary world but in different roles from the ones they played in our version of history. Although that's an entertaining trope I enjoy reading, in fact it's a vanishingly remote possiblity. A minor change in the timing of a sexual act could more likely than not result in the conception of a different individual. A difference of a month would, of course, definitely do so. Given a point of departure in the 19th century—say, the familiar scenario of the South winning the Civil War—virtually none of the people alive today, at least in this country, would ever have been conceived. On a lesser scale, the same result would happen in a family after a point of departure in one couple's married life. In Jo Walton's novel MY REAL CHILDREN, the protagonist faces a moment of decision in early adulthood when she decides whether or not to marry the man whom she's been dating. That decision splits her life from then on into two separate timelines, one in which they marry and one where they don't. In her final years, she remembers both lifetimes and families she's had. One interesting aspect of this novel, by the way, is that neither timeline is our own history. One alternate world turns out worse, the other better; in a further intriguing twist, the protagonist's personal life is happier in the dystopic world than in the optimistic one.

So if a genie offers to grant me a wish to re-do my adult life, I think I'll turn it down. That scenario would hold too many risky variables.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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