The two of them
Being a Review of My Real Children by Jo Walton.
[Note: A version of this review appears in the June 2016 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, #334. Many thanks to them for their kind support of my writing.]
Snakes in the Garden
The snake of Uncertainty starts to take up residence in the epistemological Garden when Immanuel Kant ponders the unknowability of “the thing in itself” (Ding an sich), splitting away the crisp “objective” Truth from our more vague “subjective” understanding of a world that is mediated by our perception. Try as we might, no St. Patrick has arisen to banish the snake from Science or from Literature.
Which is just as well, since the scaly devil has produced a number of new paradigms for us, ranging from Freudian psychoanalysis (with its split between conscious and unconscious) and Jungian archetypes (universal Truths mediated through common if individualized cultural patterns and symbols), to quantum mechanics in the duality of particle/wave and the superposition of quantum states, keeping the cat in the box both dead/alive until proven otherwise.
Literature went for the creative uses of Uncertainty, too, fashioning the Modernist movement out of all the lovely, seething Freudian and Jungian stews, casting large shadows of irrationality across the formerly restrictive realm of the Romantic (wherein only developed “sensitive” neurasthenics could be emotionally accessible) and making what was remote and elite now common and demotic (if still requiring a good education to decipher all the allusive symbols and mythic references).
But the snake is a tricky beast, for once having revealed that there is both a surface and a depth to Truth, it conjures up the question of what lies beneath the depth? How low can you go? Are those Jungian archetypes and Levi-Straussian structural analyses of myths enough to pin down the Truths of human existence? Well, no. Linguists found an infinite recession of meaning when they contemplated how to build dictionaries and were confronted with the paradox embodied by the word game Vish (for “vicious cycle”) in which a player takes any word and tries to determine the key idea of its definition, checks the definition of that ideal, and continues until the original word appears somewhere along the chain as the defining term. Language, the supreme human tool, has no solid ground of meaning.
Relativity in the Motion of Turtles in Ether
Nor does Science, as soon as Relativity comes along to remove the idea of a solid (or absolute) frame of reference that determines all “real” measurement. Objects in motion relative to each other operate in different frames, perceive different universes, offer different truths as to the passage of time, in ways that are not resolvable into a universal Truth, even via ‘hidden’ variables (to Dr. Einstein’s great disappointment). Truth exists, but it recedes before us, forever. As the apocryphal joke about the cosmology of a world resting on the back of an elephant that stands upon four pillars that rest on the shells of giant turtles that swim in a set of bowls goes, after a point, it is turtles all the way down.
Which itself is not a bad thing, if a harder version of Truth to handle. Mathematics took 250 years from Newton and Liebniz inventing ways to assemble answers based on a series of infinitely shrinking quantities (the calculus) to formally determine the theory of limits. Physics needed Heisenberg to show that Uncertainty (or Tolerance, as Jacob Bronowski preferred to call it) is an integral part of measurement and not just annoying error that could be removed with ever more precise instrumentation. It is still turtles, but we can at least put precise limits on their sizes and their likelihood of popping into existence for a given duration of time. Thus, we become Post-Modern, asymptotically committed to falling forever toward Truth. Even if we do not reach it, we are like the engineer confronted with Zeno’s Paradox of moving by halves across a dance hall to find a partner. Where the logician gives up trying to reach a partner, the engineer perseveres, reasoning he can come close enough for all practical purposes.
But, we still struggle, having barely ingested the Modern, to inculcate the Post-Modern. Physics still battles with the idea of superposition as either being a temporary state that will “collapse” into Truth (the “Copenhagen” interpretation, due to Danish physicist Niels Bohr) or will split into separate but equal Truths (the “Many-worlds” interpretation, beloved of multiverse fans, due to American physicist Hugh Everett). We are thus still arguing in Modernist terms (“surface” vs. “depth”) even as we confront a Truth that is split probabilisticly into infinite states.
The Frontier After the Final Frontier
Where in all this Uncertainty is Science Fiction?
Weirdly, for the branch of Literature that is linked to Science, which was going Modern and Post-Modern in the 1920s, Science Fiction was staying Romantic (“pulp”) until the 1960s when the Modern techniques in use everywhere else overwhelmed the Old Guard in a New Wave. Uncertainty trashed the “transparent” prose of the pulps, inner space joined outer space as a final frontier. But it took a while, perhaps because while Modernism in non-genre Literature meant experiment in form, genres like Science Fiction tend toward experiment in content, being inherently more conservative in method than in ideas (not unlike Science itself). Not that experiments in form to embed an infinite recession or remove a firm if imperfectly perceived ground of reality have not, like Finnegan’s Wake, looped around us. Delany and Dhalgren spring to mind. But it does mean that we could have a wait for Post-Modern science fiction works to show up in number and in relatively unornamented style. Fortunately, I think that I have found one, in readily accessible form.
Jo Walton’s My Real Children is a dual, not to say dueling, biography. We meet Patricia in her dotage, when the staff of her nursing home are labeling her ‘VC’ for “very confused” on days that her memory doubles up and trips her up. For Patricia finds two separate lives in her memories, with different partners, different numbers and names of children, different world events around which to anchor her own life events. Very confusing, without doubt. But which one is the Truth?
Open the Book, the Character Splits
We go back, to Patsy Cowan, born 1926, growing up in a middle-class life in England. Father is a wireless installer (radio technician). Vacation is the beach for two weeks. Her older brother dies in World War 2, while she goes to Oxford for a teaching degree. She meets Mark, who appears to be to the Academie born. She graduates, starts to teach, is interrupted by Mark’s proposal, which must be answered “Now or never!” And then, split.
The split is exemplified by the names. In “Now”, where she marries Mark, she is re-christened Tricia by Mark’s oh-so-clever academic friends. In “Never”, where she refuses, she graduates to Pat. We follow both names down the rest of her years. As Tricia, she is a dutiful homemaker, raising a family of five for Mark, in a loveless marriage where the occasions of sex are marked by her husband bringing home a bottle of wine (to soften the blow). The situation is not improved by Mark’s own failure (gaining only a Third and not a First at Oxford) and subsequent settling for a minor teaching post. Or the miscarriages, dangerous enough for Tricia to get a prescription for the Pill (contraceptive wonder of the 1960s). She discovers The Feminine Mystique, becomes involved in No Nukes, returns to teaching. Mark cheats on her (with a man). Divorce follows. One son has a successful folk-rock career, one daughter becomes a London banker, another son gets married on the Moon. Late in life, she meets an American professor from Berkeley and has an affair. Age takes its toll (heart attack, Alzheimer’s). By 2015, she is in the nursing home (where the bathroom is “just outside, to the right” of her room) as Patricia.
Pat, alternately, remains unattached longer. She travels, finding beauty in Florence’s magnificent cathedral, il Duomo, enough to drop her to her knees in thanksgiving. She continues to teach, but moves to Cambridge (occasionally bumping into Alan Turing), and starts to write about her travels in Italy, which gets her published (as “P. A. Cowan”). Love comes when she meets Bee Dickinson, a fellow choir member and newly minted Ph.D. in Botany. Her writing career flourishes, enough to get a photographer, Michael, assigned to her, and she and Bee have three children (via the new procedure of artificial insemination, with Michael as the donor). Homosexuality being illegal means that Pat and Bee have some dodgy times getting around, including traveling alone with the children, who are not legally related to both women. And, almost inevitably, the children tend toward their non-biological parent. (Kids!) Bee is injured in an IRA bomb attack, losing both legs, but they adjust despite the difficulties (hospital visits for “non-family” visitors are harder to arrange for the critical Bee, their villa in Italy needs extensive renovations for wheelchair accessibility, as does their automobile). Pat starts a campaign for preservation of world heritage sites like Florence, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu. Age takes its toll (heart attack, Alzheimer’s). Bee dies of thyroid cancer, which leads Pat to attempt suicide. By 2015, she is in the nursing home (where the bathroom is “just outside, to the left” of her room) as Patricia.
Neither Follower Nor Leader Be
So, one Patricia particle, two Pat/Tricia world lines. We have seen this two-slit experiment before, say with blonde/brunette Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors. Except in the Paltrow movie, the particles are truly split, there is a many-worlds interpretation at play, we have a certainty as to the outcome(s). We are led to prefer brunette Gwyneth’s world line over blonde Gwyneth (who dies), even if we are still given those moments of synchronicity between them (and a straight-up psychic vision connecting them at the end). Pat/Tricia are never so linked. After the “now/never” moment, the split is distinct, and there is no attempt to imply any crossover. Nor is there any attempt to privilege one world line over the other. Both become distinct alternate universes, distinct from each other and from ours.
Ms. Walton gingerly feeds clues, keeping the focus on Pat/Tricia and letting the background slippage bleed through in “corner of the eye” ways or short clips of exposition. The events sound familiar but are estranged in the details that leak out. In Tricia’s world line, there is a Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. But the lone gunman is replaced by a hidden bomb at a banquet, and the Attorney General (RFK) is loudly accusing the Vice-President (LBJ) of planting it. For Pat, there is no Kennedy assassination. Instead, the crisis over Russian missiles 90 miles from Miami goes nuclear in the Cuban Missile Exchange, taking out Miami and Kiev. Bee’s thyroid cancer, in fact, is a consequence of the freer use of atomic weapons in Pat’s world line (China also “enjoys” being part of the Nuclear Weapons Club, India not so much), the driving reason behind Pat worrying over the fragility of Florence and setting up the international heritage sites organization. So, different and distinct. OK, sometimes Homer nods, or Walton winks, as Tricia’s daughter-in-law studies botany at Cambridge with a Prof. Dickinson, aka Pat’s Bee. But never the twain meet for any moment of out-of-timeline recognition. That frisson is reserved for us alone.
Taking History with a Syncopated Beat
What Ms. Walton presents is not alternate history as much as *alternating* history, and she makes us work to determine what and how the background changes. We in fact have no solid ground on which to stand, flipped between world lines that diverge, tossed from Tricia to Pat and back. Where we are somewhat comfortable with the “unreliable narrator”, Ms. Walton switches foreground and background to produce what I think of as the “unreliable narration”. Our default, the background against whose Truth we can triangulate the statements of the characters and thus spot their unreliability, is itself changing, fluid, turbulent, chaotic. We are uncertain, which is what Ms. Walton wants. Particularly when we confront Pat/Tricia at the end.
Who are the “real” children? The instinct is still Modern, still trying to pin down Truth amid the blur of perception. Your oh-so-clever reviewer thought he detected a pattern in the process, the signal in the noise, amid copious notes taken and diagrams drawn. Tricia’s personal life is clearly the worse (sex-as-assault, loveless marriage, miscarriages, family troubles including her eldest dying of AIDS), but her world is better (no nukings, multinational space cooperation with Moon bases by 1972 and Mars terraforming by 1988). Pat, on the other hand, is much more personally fulfilled with a loving marriage and a rewarding career and happier family life, and a world of troubles outside (the nuclear exchanges, the thyroid cancers, more frequent terrorist bombings, weaponized Moon bases – well, they still *have* Moon bases, in any case).
Perhaps Ms. Walton is presenting a moral choice here, positing the personal against the political, the individual satisfaction versus the communal. Mr. Clever Boots reviewer ponders the interior/exterior dichotomy, pulls out a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, lingers over the philosophy of Dorian’s mentor, Lord Henry Wotton: “To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self. Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others.” (Wilde, 76). Tricia is a life in discord, the dutiful wife forced to accede to matrimonial demands. Pat is in harmony with herself, and happy, to boot. So, the dilemma of who we want to be “real” is made clearer, if not settled.
But Ms. Walton anticipates and sucker punches well, having Patricia in the final chapter examine her life/lives in exactly these inside/outside terms, and even tossing off our favorite sf metaphor for Chaos, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, to connect Pat/Tricia’s “now/never” choice to an entire world’s worth of consequences. Which illuminates the question and also collapses it, neatly. As we find her, Patricia is not two separate individuals, she is the collective Pat/Tricia. The electron, is it particle or wave? Both, simultaneously. We cannot understand it as either/or, but we try, in a Modernist way, to describe it as “particle with wave-like properties”. Harder to push past to a Post-Modernist superposition of states, but we need to try. We cannot isolate Patricia into discrete Pat and Tricia components; they are entangled as Ms. Walton’s ending shows. Curiously, loss of entanglement, the separation of particles and collapse of the physical uncertainty is labeled “decoherence”, while the overlap of Patricia’s entanglement as Pat/Tricia is evident when she is being labeled incoherent (“very confused”).
Next Stop, the Tolerance Zone
To guide us through the welter, Ms. Walton provides a number of signposts aimed at her sf homies. I hear echoes of previous works; the title alone brings up George R. R. Martin’s “Portraits of His Children”, 1986 Nebula Best Novelette, or Novelcinno, a tale of an author whose biological daughter erases her neglected childhood by substituting his protagonists for herself – we are deep in Freudian Modernism, here. With either Tricia or Pat, we get Moon bases (bases, on the Moon!), so the Race for Space is being won in either world line. And Alan Turing gets to live instead of being prosecuted and persecuted into suicide. All is not lost, even if Certainty is. Plus, we have seen instances like this conjunction of lives before, as with other multiversal menageries, notably Michael Moorcock, whose Eternal Champion is a similar congeries of figures, none of whom is readily identifiable as the “true” or ground state of being. Not pushing the issue of multiple identities to the point of Post-Modern, Moorcock’s work may be (delightfully and absurdly) deemed “proto-PoMo”.
So, Ms. Walton puts us in an unresolvable moral dilemma, illustrative of our unresolved biographical multiplicity, we who are legion, who contain multitudes within us. How can Patricia choose? How could anyone? We face instead the unanswerable question, beloved of parents: Which child is your favorite? Which child is “real”? Tell us, author, which work is your favorite? Perhaps a specific answer can come to mind, at a specific point in time, a specific place in space. But, all such answers are evolving, are part of a process, an infinite process of discovery and determination, an infinite series of partial sums that must run forever in order to produce a final answer. Mr. Clever Boots, embarrassed, goes back to Mr. Wilde, to the Preface: “All art is quite useless.” (xxiii) Art is not a tool, not a device. It is a Thing-in-Itself (Ding an sich). What it produces is shaped by the perception of the Observer, almost fatally so. Trying to pull the signal out from the noise is to be Modern, to have an unshakeable faith in knowing how to tell signal elements from noise elements.
And we have to do it to survive, to tell friend from foe, portion from poison. But we do it Post-Modernly, by infinite regress, until we are close enough for all practical purposes to an answer, not by a simple mapping of Unconscious symbol to Conscious concept, eliminating the Untrue from the True. A picture emerges, like a Chuck Close painting, a hyperrealistic portrait comprising concentric rings of color splotches when examined up close. We have a pixelated epistemology for a quantized worldview. It ain’t easy, but it is so, and it can be beautiful.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.