Thursday, February 08, 2024

Parallel Lives in Different Worlds

Speaking of living one's life over again, have I mentioned Jo Walton's novel MY REAL CHILDREN before? Having reread it last week, I'm impressed anew by its unusual approach to alternate history, possibly unique. At least, I don't remember encountering anything else like it. The British protagonist's personal timeline splits into two at the end of her Oxford education, and the story follows both of her lives in two separate worlds from that point in early adulthood to her old age.

The prologue introduces the elderly Patricia in a nursing home. As the nurses often note on her chart, she's Very Confused. She remembers her life as Tricia, in which she accepted Mark's proposal at the crucial point of divergence, but also her life as Pat, in which she refused him. Did she have four children plus multiple miscarriages and stillbirths, in an emotionallly abusive marriage from which she escaped in middle age, or three children in a fulfilled, mostly happy life with love, travel, and success as a writer? After the prologue, chapters alternate episodes from the timelines of Tricia and Pat, each helpfully labeled with the years covered in that chapter.

Interestingly, neither of her worlds corresponds to the history we know. Therefore, the reader can feel no temptation to prefer either timeline as "real." Both alternate Earths are more scientifically and technologically advanced than ours, having colonies on the Moon by the 1990s, at the end of Patricia's life. In one history, there's a multi-national research station; in the other, two mutually hostile lunar military bases confront each other. In the latter world, President Kennedy died from an assassin's bomb; in the former, he served out his term and declined to run for reelection in 1964. In one history, international chaos, local wars with a constant threat of nuclear holocaust, and repressive political systems even in advanced Western nations plague the world. The other timeline, although of course not perfect, enjoys prosperity, widespread freedom, international cooperation, and relative peace.

In the novel's most intriguing twist, Pat leads her fulfilling life in the dystopian world, while Tricia suffers through her miserable marriage in the much better world. Suppose she could relive the decisive conversation with Mark and make one timeline definitively real. Which would she pick? Ordinarily, I snarl in frustration at novels that leave the reader hanging at the end. This book's "Lady or the Tiger?" conclusion, however, strikes me as perfect. What alternative does Patricia choose? What SHOULD she choose? Leaving that question open makes the ideal culmination for this thought-provoking narrative.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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