“She felt her strong young body that she had never appreciated when she had it, constantly worrying that she didn’t meet standards of beauty and not understanding how standards of health were so much more important.”
My Real Children is a unique and thought-provoking science fiction/alternate history novel by Jo Walton that has stuck with me for years.
The book opens with an elderly Patricia Cowan confused about her life. She has memory problems and seems to recall two different versions of her life, with two different families and two different sets of children. Who are her real children?
My Real Children flashes back to her childhood before World War II and the events leading up to a marriage proposal from Mark, who demands a “now or never” response.
My Real Children then bifurcates into two sets of alternating chapters. In one set of chapters, Patricia chooses to marry Mark. Her marriage is miserable, as her only purpose in life seems to be to give birth and raise children. In the alternate timeline, Patricia rejects Mark’s proposal and leads a much happier life with a different partner and a different set of children.
In both sets of alternating chapters, we are given information about world events, which follow very different paths. In one timeline, the world is devastated by nuclear war. In the other, the world is much more peaceful, and science and technology have made much greater advances.
I love the little tidbits of alternate history that Jo Walton includes in both sets of chapters throughout My Real Children. For example, when she mentions President Kennedy, along one timeline it’s actually President Robert F. Kennedy rather than John F. Kennedy.
In the final chapter of My Real Children, the two timelines have essentially converged and brought us back to the novel’s opening, with a confused and elderly Patricia trying to make sense of what is real and what is not.
I love the concept of this book, which draws on the quantum mechanical principle of superposition. Basically, a quantum particle takes all possible pathways simultaneously, and the reality we observe is a superposition of all those possible realities. Jo Walton is taking that concept from quantum mechanics and applying it to a human life.
Jo Walton also considers the impact that each of us has on the course of world events. Even small perturbations can lead to major changes in the course of world history. For example, what if the Cuban Missile Crisis actually led to a nuclear attack against Miami? What if RFK had never been assassinated? Small perturbations can lead to major changes at a global scale. Jo Walton captures that beautifully in My Real Children.
On the downside, the writing is a bit stilted, especially the dialogue. The discussion of world events during the alternating chapters can feel rather forced and unnatural. This was especially noticeable during my recent reread.
Despite these flaws, My Real Children is a highly worthwhile read. I definitely recommend this for anyone who prefers a more subtle kind of sci-fi.