My Real Children by Jo Walton
We are already in the future. In a future. A high-tech environment, in many ways different from every other earlier part of history. Of course, there were many possible futures, and we inhabit only one of them. Where are the moon bases, for example?
In Jo Walton's My Real Children Patricia Cowan lives in two futures, with two different pasts. The year is 2015, and she is old and confused. It's dementia, but it's also the weirdness and vertigo of two sets of memories of two very different lives. She has three children. Or she has four. There was a bomb over Europe. Or there wasn't.
Through her memories we get to follow these two developments. The point of divergence for her seems to be a certain decision, a bit like the missed train in Sliding Doors. Is it her choice, I wonder, that makes the worlds diverge in chaotic ways? Or is it some subtle variation already present that makes her choose differently?
This is a very human story, following Patricia and her families through the decades. It's one of those books I could give to almost anyone, also people who normally claim that they don't like SF/F.
Some parts, especially those about the dysfunctional marriage, made me think of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, a book I would also recommend without hesitation. Kate Atkinson's novel seems to be asking the question "what if I got to try again?". In that story we follow a girl and young woman, living parts of her life over and over again. It's a little bit like in the movie Run Lola Run, or in Groundhog Day although for a whole life and not just one single day.
Still, I don't like to compare the books too much. My Real Children does its own thing. Also, it is much more overtly and unapologetically science fiction. You cannot mistake it for anything else (although it has been nominated for a fantasy award – many readers are not so picky about genre boundaries). This is fundamentally a story about history and change, two alternate histories running in parallel.
The story focuses on Patricia's own life and her children, but in the background we glimpse her world – her worlds. I almost didn't notice while I was reading, because I worried and cared about the people in these stories. Still, it's the backdrop that makes me think, long after I put the book down.
I'm not really qualified to say anything very deep about how this story fits with other genre treatments of alternate history. Jo Walton herself could probably say a few clever things about that. She has a solid understanding of genre, and is much more well read than I will ever be.
If you feel like sharing a bit of Jo Walton's own thougts about – and joy of – reading, I would tell you to immediately get her What Makes This Book So Great. This collection of essays and personal reflections around the rereading of science fiction and fantasy belongs in every genre reader's reference library.