Wednesday, April 11, 2018

My Real Children: Book Review

I decided that I'm no longer bound by space and time when it comes to book club reads. In other words, I don't have to wait for a respective book's month, or even read them in order! Which is why I dug into My Real Children last week, even though it's not on the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club docket until June.

Image courtesy Tor

My Real Children takes a very personal, intimate look at history and chaos theory. Walton gives us two (alternate?) lives of Patricia Cowan, with different spouses and different struggles and different triumphs.

Of course, it's not just Patricia's life that's different between the two. History also takes two different tracks (though both are different from history as it tracked in our world). Walton sets up a delicious little tension there that's never entirely resolved: did Patricia's choices in any way affect larger world events? Or did those larger world events have any effect on her? Another author might have been tempted to draw a line between Patricia's choices and world events (like Charles Wallace body-hopping through different people in A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but Walton just leaves those differences there.

While My Real Children is put out by Tor, an imprint famous for fantasy and science fiction, I wouldn't classify it as science fiction myself. (I was actually surprised to see it was a Tor book!) But maybe that's because I already comfortably half-accept the idea of there being alternate reality versions of myself leading different versions of my life. There's no attempt to explain why those lifetimes are converging in Patricia's memory, or why she's drifting between two timelines. It's most certainly not a metaphor for dementia; she has dementia in both lifetimes, unrelated to the timelines crossing. The dual lives are simply a narrative device that shows how differently things can turn out on the micro- and macro-scale.

On a really personal level, I read this either at exactly the wrong point in my life or exactly the right point. (I'm not entirely sure which, yet.) Some days I'm cool with the idea of those alternate versions of myself being out there, hopefully living their best lives while I'm trying to live my best life in this timeline; some days I hate and regret everything and want nothing more than to tour through the different timelines and pick one where things are going a little (okay, a lot) better for me. I might have texted Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club Co-Founder Friend in tears over that. (Spoiler: I did.)

There's a moment where Patricia contemplates the differences in her two worlds: not in her life choices, but in the history. The lifetime where she had a long and happy marriage was in a world marred by multiple exchanges of nuclear warheads and the ensuing radioactive fallout; the lifetime where she had a shorter but deeply unhappy marriage was much more peaceful on the global scale. And there's an element of bitterness (why did cancer and violence have to wreck her storybook life?) there's also an element of hope (the sacrifices she made, even unknowingly, perhaps tilted the scales towards world peace). And at the end of the day, you can choose: bitterness or hope? This is the importance of stories: I can choose a story for myself where my struggles and my choices make the world a better place. Whether or not it's true is secondary (how could I possibly empirically test or measure that?); the fact that it's possible is what counts. It's perhaps hackneyed to quote David Foster Wallace at this point, but he hit the nail on the head:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line—maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible—it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default-setting—then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.

And since it rankles, a bit, to close a review of a book deliberately chosen for a feminist book club with a quote by a man (who has, unfairly, become the catch-all representative of obnoxious litbros everywhere), I'll actually close this review with a quote from A Tale for the Time Being, which is still one of my favorite books that I've read recently, and that feels very relevant to this act of choosing:

Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being. To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.

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