Now they're both as dead as the Dragon Griaule, it may be OK to voice again a thought that many of us have had and sometimes uttered, ever since the early 1980s when Lucius Shepard began to publish short stories in that seismic and oracular tongue he never fully abandoned, that intimately voiced susurrus of implication whose breath made the ground vibrate under your feet as you read, though he claimed to have gone clean after 1998 and abandoned rhetoric for classic purity: that there was more than a passing similtude (which he denied) between him and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Paul Kincaid's smoking-gun quotations from both writers in a recently reprinted column on magic realism provide specific instances of a shared adhesive literalness of approach that makes what they tell us seem inescapable, as though it was the world itself speaking to us at long last, speaking sooth, true words nothing but themselves. Following Kincaid a step further, one might also suggest that a ranged carillon of semblances marries the town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) to the great embrasive dragon who first appears in "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" (December 1984 F&SF), subcutaneous tattoos of topoi and turn and stay that make both Macondo and Griaule into what one might call topics: banyans of topoi so intimately and architectonically wed that in the end the town and the dragon are, like the chambered nautilus, better understood in terms of structure rather than plot: more geography than story, mappable topics of dream, though stories mine them.
Another image comes to mind as well: that Shepard himself rather resembled his most famous creation.
As evasive as always (though he had a po-faced down-home gaze that challenged you not to believe his most Weimarish moments of staged unreliability), he decried any drawing of semblances between his work and Garcia Marquez's, conspicuously trailing other (as they were called) Magic Realists across the trail, instructing us to take as influences upon his work perfectly eminent writers like Alejo Carpentier, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes. But none of them smelled a bit like Lucius. As a manoeuvre, all the same, it did serve the useful function of drawing attention to authors of great significance to world fantastika, who, though deeply versed in the traditional (and well-earned) conversation of Northern Europe, had profoundly estranged that conversation. We need these reminders, but they are still diversive. Shepard's mistake (or diversion) is to claim that Garcia Marquez's world lacks intrinsic mania; that he fails to note that Macondo (for instance) is a shared mask of the humans who inhabit it, the humans it inhabits. As he put it once, in a Strange Horizons interview conducted by Jayme Lynn Blaschke in 2004, in the course of denying any deep connection with Garcia Marquez:
I think people are basically insane, and we've all got this flippy voice-over going on that captions our actions. That's all we are, in a weird way, except when we really focus—and then we're something else we can't get a hold of. So, I think you're talking about a race of insane monkeys who've learned how to operate machinery. I don't look at that as being a magical realist viewpoint!
Which is so boneheaded it must be a false lead.
There may be some inevitable sapping of energy in Beautiful Blood, the sixth and likely the last tale to worship and defame the Dragon Griaule, a great "lizard" immobilized by a spell aeons earlier, though it has continued to grow over the centuries and is now a mile long, and hundreds of feet high; throughout the sequence—the F&SF story; The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter (1988); The Father of Stones (1988); Liar's House (2004); The Taborin Scale (2010); and "The Skull", which appears in The Dragon Griaule (2013), an omnibus assembling the whole to that point—it is made intermittently clear that the inhabitants of Teocinte and the shantytowns that surround it are utterands of the Dragon, snail-tracks of the Inner Will emanating from "the cold tons of his brain". It is possible to think of Beautiful Blood as the end of the series not only because its author is dead, but because the tale seems exceptionally devoted to explicating, and in the end to exhausting, that central topic of the series: that geography of interstices whose exudates—utterands living what seem to be their lives—express one truth in the end: that under the masks humans wear, we are a race of insane monkeys fed from within.
Even the evil we do is obedient.
Beautiful Blood, sadly for lovers of Shepard when he circles round the deep holes of the world like a serpent looking for a nest, is mostly told in clear, though the final pages hit some notes of epiphany, like a wave out of Hokusai, before etherealizing into calligraphics of transcendence. The protagonist of the tale, Richard Rosacher, thinks it is his idea to tap the actual blood of Griaule, which under his microscope is utterly dissimilar to Earth blood: metamorphic lines of shadow and substance figure darkly against a "golden plasma", changing constantly until it seems to Rosacher that perhaps every conceivable shape dances within—but in effect comprises—this fluid, "whose patterns might reflect an ongoing adjustment to the flow of time through matter, an adjustment that prevented it from decaying." The resulting drug, which is called mab (for "more and better"), creates a virtual-reality-like intensification (but not falsification) of the world each user perceives. Sex is better, food is better, social life is less stressful; but no one is tricked into solipsism. The end result is enhancement (for a reader like myself almost congenitally allergic to novels about altered perceptions due to drugs, this is way more than a minor relief). Pretending to possess the secret of alembicating mab, though in truth he does nothing more than take Griaule's blood direct, Rosacher soon becomes rich.
During a scuffle, however, an exudation of story riffs Shepard seems weary of exploring very closely, Rosacher has been injected with an entire hypodermic of blood, and becomes a figure almost literally luminous with the Dragon's deep story: we follow his intrigues, his betrayals, his innovations, his extremely good sex, as though we were in truth tracing with the tongues of identification a genuine protagonist, while knowing all the while that everything Rosacher accomplishes—including the hiring of Meric Cattanay (from the very first story) to kill the dragon by turning it into a work of art using toxic mixtures to achieve his greatest effects—is an utterance of the great inner will. He seems to have been made immortal, or almost ageless, by the drug, and though he loses whole years and decades of his life in timeslips, he does not seem to grow older. Cattanay himself ages and dies; and even after the dragon itself perishes convulsively—a few pages before the end of Beautiful Blood, in scenes that provided the climax to The Taborin Scale—Rosacher continues to live. By the end of the tale, he understands, as though he were porcelain finally cracked enough that the light could come through, that the horrors and the beauties of the world have been masked from him: because, like all humans under the sway of the pulse of the world, he is a mask.
The true terror of the world may be masked from humans, indeed it surely is, or we would look at death as does the narrator of Tom Waits's great song "We're All Mad Here": "And your eyes will die like fish / And the shore of your face will turn to bone". The world would overwhelm us utterly, in an instant, if we weren't salved within our masks, if were were not granted some solace of mab by the dragon engine of the world, allowing us to gaze through papyrus peepholes at the intolerable. So the dragon within the Beautiful Blood, whose breath gusts us into "a swarm of flakes", may be all the story we can take from things. There never will be a story capable of matching "all this sky" and these stars, which Rosacher gazes upon at the very end, but without the dragon inside the Earth we are simply unspeakable.
There is not much point pretending we were not fooled. After the Small Change trilogy about an England which effectively surrendered its soul, but which determinedly underachieved the telling of the tale through a set of singularly unanguished undercooked voices, I thought My Real Children might well provide more of the same, though I should have guessed immediately, after reading John M Ford's brilliant "Sonnet Against Entropy", which serves as the book's epigraph, that Jo Walton was going to tie herself to the mast this time round. What she does not digress from this time, what she does not make seem markedly easier to read than it was to live, is given to us at the get-go, in the sestet:
The universe winds down. That's how it's made.
But memory is everything to lose;
Although some of the colors have to fade,
Do not believe you'll get the chance to choose.
Regret, by definition, comes too late;
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.
By 2015, at the end of her very long life, after beginning to suffer memory loss decades earlier, Patricia Cowan has been senile for some years, and in her confused state cannot sort her memories into any coherent order, for she seems to have vivid recollections of having lived two lives. My Real Children is the story of those two lives.
Cowan, not yet become two versions of herself inhabiting two different time streams, is born in 1926. Part of her difficulty in sorting these two lives from one another, over and above her senility (which Walton conveys with a seemingly dispassionate surety of touch that brooks no misunderstanding of the curse), lies in the profound differences in either world between 1926 and the present; and we begin to understand very early that Cowan's two lives will be narrated not only for their own sake, but to iterate the nature of these two modernizing worlds in some large part through the gradual surfacing of a social and legal admission of the autonomy of women.
There is no real explanation of the splitting of young Patricia Cowan into the two time streams, nor do the stories of Pat Cowan and Tricia Cowan in themselves advocate the two lives being led—comparisons with Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (2013) (see also) will almost certainly be drawn, but in that novel various worlds are looked at and discarded in what seems to be the Book's own search for a reality its protagonist can survive in: it is structurally like the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, where fragments of earlier movements are shrugged off in a search, ultimately successful, for Joy. In My Real Children, no such solace is offered the protagonists, or the reader. Each world is what each character gets. No escape.
The split occurs in 1949. Patty Cowan, who is gifted and personable, meets a young man named Mark Anston, who in a mainly epistolary romance expresses his love for her. He asks her to marry him: now or never. In one world, she says Now, and becomes the beleaguered housefrau Tricia Cowan. In the other she says Never, and becomes Pat Cowan, a successful travel writer whose lifelong partnership with another woman is deeply successful. The Mark who wins Tricia is Walton's main failure in the novel. She depicts him initially as precocious young philosopher, deeply involved in Ludwig Wittgenstein's technical philosophy, a figure seemingly embedded into the beginnings of a potentially high-flying life as a professional academic; his abrupt translation into an unctuous, inhibited prig, who has inexplicably gained a career-crippling Third, and whose Christian beliefs (now suddenly manifest) sanction the demeaning treatment of his wife, seems doctrinaire. The later revelation that he is a closet homosexual with a secret life does nothing to rectify the cartoonishness of this portrait. (Life After Life features a similar bad marriage, though the Christian sadist in this case is not gay, and kills the protagonist; fortunately her Book allows her to start again).
The rest of My Real Children follows the two lives, again with a seeming dispassion. Each world is given a chapter at a time, sequentially, without exception or allowance, in strict chronological order, with an effect of almost forensic intensity: given this body of evidence, here is the world that half-defeats Tricia before she finally divorces the grotesque Mark; given that body of evidence, here is Pat Cowan in Florence in a state of aesthetic transport. At times, the distance is estranging; but the immaculately unwavering accumulation of lived detail slowly but very surely washes that distanced narrative fixedness into a tranced intimate synoptic gaze. We gaze upon the two as time passes, children are born (four to Tricia, three to Pat or her partner; all of them, and their own children in turn, cunningly demarcated so it is possible to remember who's who). SF readers will soon detect markers of alternity. Tricia's world is more or less our own. In Pat's world, on the other hand, an intermittent series of small nuclear outbreaks soon generates a Britain whose government attempts to control its citizens through the kind of low-level-intimidation we have only begun to experience in the last decade or so, here in the real; and high levels of background radiation inflict several members of the cast with incurable cancers.
There are moments when the documentary fixedness of gaze stumbles into a doggedness of iteration that might seem comical if it weren't so headachy:
Kevin was missing, he had been spending a lot of time away from home recently in a way Trish tried not to see as ominous. The lingerers were Bethany, Helen, Duncan, Barb, Barb's new partner Jack, and one of Helen's tutors, a visiting American who had been introduced as Doctor Lin.
That Trish and Doctor Lin eventually sleep together is perhaps mollificatory.
And there is an awful lot about food in both worlds. The mouth did not water.
But the marriage of the worlds is a triumph beyond exact computing. In the end, a goodish world has framed the baddish (but improving) life of Trish, and a baddish world has framed the goodish (but tragedy-ridden) life of Pat. In 2015, united in the boundary-dissolving shambles of dementia, the two lives seem one life, two weavings of chance and biological destiny that become one carpet. It is I think a final embracing strength of this book that I could not choose between weavings.