One of the questions I find myself returning to time and again is: what is science fiction? Or, perhaps more accurately, why do we consider book X to be science fiction, but not book Y? The borders are fluid, porous, constantly open to being redefined, reimagined, they are never the same for any two people, they are never the same for one person at different times; yet we always end up drawing distinctions, deciding to read X as science fiction, Y as mainstream. I don’t think there is any great mystery about why this should be: we are a pigeonholing species, categorization is simply what we do. But how do we do it? What is the trigger that determines which side of our imaginary border we place any particular book?
This is a question that was inspired by reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This is, let me make it clear, a good book, a very good book, a book I enjoyed immensely and that will very likely feature among my books of the year. It is also a book that features at its heart a device that automatically ticks sf boxes; and this is not simply a gesture, a decoration, a jeu d’esprit, for the device is integral to the book, the book could not exist without this device. It is a novel that plays with that most fundamental of all science fictional dimensions, time. And yet, I found that I did not read the novel as science fiction, in fact I could not read the novel as science fiction, were I to do so it would weaken the things that the novel did well, were I to do so it would demand things that the novel did not do other than fleetingly and obliquely.
In Life After Life, the central character, Ursula, constantly relives her life, making small changes in each iteration. Whether this is the reincarnation suggested by psychiatrist Dr Kennet (as in, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt) or some sort of actualisation of déjà vu, is unclear and unimportant, the machinery by which Ursula repeats and repeats her life is not what the book is about. What is important is seeing the different routes that her life might take.
Ursula is born on a snowy morning in February 1910, and immediately dies because the birth cord is wrapped around her throat and chokes her. Or she drowns on a childhood holiday, or she falls from a roof, or dies in the influenza epidemic of 1918, or is murdered by an abusive husband, or is killed in the Blitz, or commits suicide in the ruins of Berlin as the Russian troops advance, or is killed by a gas leak in a cheap flat in postwar London. The book, particularly in its early pages, seems to be more about the ways she dies rather than the ways she lives. But these deaths are really no more than reset switches, allowing the story to turn back to that snowy February.
Sometimes the different outcomes are the result of actions by other people; mostly, she is responsible for the change. Not that she is aware of her previous lives (though, as the book progresses, we begin to get a sense that she might be), but rather, she gets a sense of dark, formless dread when the circumstances of one of these deaths approaches. She doesn’t necessarily know what to do, it takes several different attempts to get past the influenza epidemic, for instance; nevertheless, the awareness helps her to avoid things that turned out badly in a previous life. So history is changed, we are contemplating multiple different worlds, which surely identifies the novel as science fiction.
Except that the course of history is not changed; the course of individual lives is changed, but not the flood of history that sweeps around them. However many lives she lives, the influenza epidemic of 1918 always follows the same course, all that is affected is whether certain individuals live or die, and those individual lives and deaths may change the individual careers of people but they have no apparent effect upon the grand sweep of events. Whether Ursula’s career sees her working for a British government ministry or married to a German and befriended by Eva Braun, the Second World War still begins in September 1939 and ends in 1945. She may or may not survive the war, the people she meets may or may not survive the war, but the war itself and all subsequent history is otherwise unaffected.
And the career that Ursula follows is not particularly spectacular, indeed its very ordinariness is the whole point of the book. She may travel to Germany as a student, fall in love with a German, marry him and find herself trapped in Berlin when the Second World War begins. Or she may meet and marry a nondescript teacher who turns out to be an abusive husband. More likely, she will study at a secretarial college, find a job in a government ministry, serve in the ARP during the war, then have a moderately successful career until she retires as a mid-level bureaucrat. Whichever course she takes, her father will die of a heart attack in 1940 and her mother will commit suicide on VE day in 1945, while her disreputable aunt becomes a famous author of children’s books. This is a perfectly valid position to take: small lives do not necessarily affect great events, Ray Bradbury’s butterfly is not necessarily going to bring about a radically different world. What’s more, it has to be said that Kate Atkinson describes these various small lives with great sensitivity and vivacity. But in the end it is this that makes me read the novel as mainstream rather than science fiction.
Let me put it this way: I think that one of the necessary (though not sufficient) features that makes a particular work science fiction is that the world in which the story takes place is somehow different from our world. If it is set in the past, then it is a past that does not lead to our particular present; if it is set in the here and now, then there is some technological change or alien intrusion that disrupts our recognition of the world; more likely it will be removed from our familiar world by being relocated into the future or elsewhere in space. Whatever the change might be, there has to be a discontinuity between the world of the story and the world of the reader, because otherwise it would be a mainstream fiction.
(I realise that this discontinuity, this necessary change, is very close to Darko Suvin’s idea of the ‘novum’. However, I would argue that there are differences: the necessary change need not be singular (and indeed usually is not), and is actually a more fluid, subtle, less scientifically rigorous notion than the novum.)
In Atkinson’s novel, the world doesn’t change. In fact, the course of world events would seem to be remarkably conservative: whatever changes are made in a small, personal way, events continue exactly as they always have done. Though we see Ursula refracted through numerous different possible lives, the world in which these lives occur is always the one we recognise, one that leads to here and now.
Except … Ursula’s changes to her personal timeline are initially designed to keep her alive. Later, they seem to bend towards a slightly more altruistic purpose, finding a way in which her beloved younger brother Teddy is not killed during the war and, since her suicide is traceable to this death, thus also keeping her mother alive. This, in turn, leads her to a yet broader aim. Twice we see her attempt to kill Hitler in 1930, before he came to power. This, surely, is the necessary change in the world that makes the novel science fiction.
Yet we do not see her kill Hitler. Each time (and we might assume that these are two separate occurrences, though they could just as easily be two descriptions of the same event) she fires her gun and is instantly killed. We do not know if her bullet hit him, if he was killed or wounded, if anything did actually change. Ursula’s personal history comes to an end at that point, and so we can see nothing further in this timeline. Then, later in the novel, we come to a timeline in which Teddy does survive: his plane was shot down over Berlin, as in all the previous iterations, but this time he was able to bail out, and now, as the war comes to an end, he gets back to London and Ursula is there to greet him. So she has managed to make the personal change in history she desired without in any way changing the grand shape of events, Hitler presumably wasn’t killed, the war happened exactly as it did in our world.
It may well be that science fiction readers are the best readers of this novel, for they are the ones who will most willingly accept and understand the multiple timeline device at the heart of the book, but that doesn’t mean that Life After Life is actually a science fiction novel.