Traditionally, science fiction believes in its worlds. It likes to talk about them, and in particular about the ones that take off from our world, and to treat them as though they are things we can hold in our minds; as though they have a shape we can comprehend. The way we talk about sf reflects this shared assumption, from the communal fascination with world-building to the persistency of tropes such as one world governments, or the Clutean description of sf novels as being about “the case of the world.”
All of which plays to one of sf’s great strengths—its ability to give us a sense of perspective—but all of which is, of course, in many ways a pretense. The world has far too many degrees of freedom to be captured in a story; even the most detailed futures are, in the end, pale shadows on a cave wall. And somewhat paradoxically, living at the start of a century in which the world is smaller than it has ever been makes it easier to be aware of this fact, without needing to be prompted by fiction. It may sometimes feel that the interconnection of things is approaching saturation point, but while we wait for that to happen it’s hard not to be humblingly aware of how many individual lives there are out there, and how meaningless it can be to sum across them. It gets easier to notice the people who are left out; to face up to the fact that someone is always going to be left out.
Because the key question, the one that it’s getting harder and harder to justify not answering, is: who is left out? Whose world is it anyway? In this, feminist science fiction, by which I mean a self-aware tradition within a self-aware tradition, has clearly been ahead of the curve. The story of feminist sf is the story of breaking into the clubhouse and claiming a voice. It is an energetic, passionate story. So any new fiction—such as L. Timmel Duchamp’s “The World and Alice” (Asimov’s, July)—which is shaped around a female character and her exclusion from the world is bringing two live wires together. Or in this case, not quite together: just close enough to feel the charge between them buzzing in the air.
This is what Alice has thought all her life:
She belonged somewhere else. Or perhaps nowhere, nowhere at all. And so she thought of herself as the world’s mistake. A century earlier, she believed, the mistake could not have been made.
The problem is one of heft. Alice feels too light for the world, and growing up she thinks (as any child could think, but in her case with more justification than most) that everyone else can see that she’s out of place. So she blames the technology that saved her, the incubator that nurtured her in the weeks after her premature birth. In a sense, she’s right: hers is a specifically contemporary alienation. A century earlier, she wouldn’t have lived.
As she grows up, Alice discovers that ties of love and blood—first to her grandmother, and later to her husband, Daniel—can tether her to the world. The heft of other people exerts a special gravity, to the point where, when Alice’s mother has terminal cancer, she becomes the equivalent of a neutron star: Alice’s life becomes furiously focused on caring for her, with the rest of the world relegated to peripheral vision, and receding to a dangerous extent.
But in the end, such ties are only partial, temporary solutions, and they don’t stop Alice sometimes coming adrift from the world. When she sits mourning at her grandmother’s grave, she meets her older self; or you could equally say, since the perspective of the story neatly flips at that point, that Alice the Older is reminded of a long-ago meeting. It is not time travel in the usual sense, from now to then or then to now. It is more chaotic, more unpredictable, more slippery. Alice’s life in time is a piece of string, scrunched into a ball. Where it crosses itself, the two Alices involved are drawn out of time, into their own moment outside the world. Here they are on a beach:
The ocean held constant, and the rocks on which they stood, and both Alices. But the sky fractured into disjointed shards, zigging and zagging down into the earth and below the surface of the water, every misshapen fragment glittering with sinister, nauseating beauty. Alice and Alice knew she was nowhere, nowhere at all, her being as evanescent as the shifting shards of the world around her, constantly moving, appearing and disappearing, growing and shrinking, in an unceasing parade of change. Alice the Younger held out her hands to Alice the Older. “Touch me, please touch me. I’m so afraid, so afraid I’m not real. That nothing is real. Is this where we really belong? Not in the world, but here?”
It is an arresting image. The contrast between the broken world and Alice the lost individual is stark. She wonders what causes it, beyond the simple fact of the world having made a mistake, but it’s a tricky puzzle. It could be the effect of Alice on the world; it could be the effect of the world on Alice; it could be mutual. What seems clear is that the Alices cannot stay in such a no-place, and so they go back to the world, to live their lives a little more, waiting for the next meeting and for an answer.
This could all get arbitrary and confusing, but Duchamp’s structuring of her story is careful and clever. Most of the time, we follow Alice through her life, through the world, growing older. We share her feeling of acute dislocation, her sense that there should be a reason for it all. But no reason arrives, so every time she meets herself (and by this point we are seeing the encounters from the point of view of the older Alice) she reiterates what she remembers being told: go back to the world.
It is not until Alice’s twilight that things start to come clear. She discovers boxes and albums of old photos, and starts to sort through them with her friend, Marion. They seem alien, as meaningful as images from another world, because they come with no context, no names or descriptions attached to give them relevance. She cannot connect to them any more than she connects to her everyday life. Except:
She looked down at the picture in her hand, a yellowed color photo of her father holding herself at about eighteen months. What she saw in it, she realized, amounted to two individuals in close relation, not figures in relation to a world. Everything else looked like backdrop.
At which point we know what the story is trying to say. It’s telling us what happens when we talk about the world: we reduce it to a backdrop, in front of which there are only individuals, “perhaps embedded in but essentially distinct from the world”, instead of being an integral, vital part of its processes. So when Alice starts to wonder whether she was wrong, after all, about the need to go back to the world, we can feel the stirring of a deep sadness. Pulling herself out of space and time permanently, locking all of herself into a no-place, isn’t a solution: it’s a retreat.
Her final encounter is with her three year-old self. She never remembers being as happy as little Alice seems, playing in her sandbox, full of life and imagination and capable of constructing bold worlds and endless stories. Alice takes Alice outside the world for the first time, and it’s not a surprise to us that she steals something from herself. When they get back, Alice the Younger seems thinner, lighter than she was, and we know that her fate has been sealed. Back in her own time, Alice the Older is suddenly heavier, bowed down by the full weight of the world, and we know that her fate has been sealed as well. The story is a time loop, and it has closed.
And it lingers in the mind until we realise why Alice’s isolation hits so hard: because what she did, focusing on individuals rather than the world, is what we all do too often—what we think we have to do—to get through the day. Too much is reduced to backdrop. If there is such a thing as “the world”, then it’s true that we cannot help but be all too aware of our size in relation to it, to see the limits of our own life and our own times. But if that’s all we see—individuals on the one hand, the world on the other—then we are crippling ourselves. If we don’t see the history, the continuity, the community of the world, we might as well not be looking at all. In the end, “The World and Alice” is a lament for the political consciousness (or lack thereof) of our times: graceful, bleak, familiar.