More on Divided by Infinity

I had intended last Wednesday’s post on the Many-Worlds variant in Robert Charles Wilson’s Divided by Infinity to be followed by a post on the other things I said when I did a guest lecture on it for an English class. What with one thing and another, though, I got a little distracted, and I’m only getting around to it now.

Anyway, this was a guest lecture for a class on Science Fiction taught by a friend in the English department. To give you an idea of the stuff they covered, here’s the “required books” list from the syllabus:

  • The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (VBFSF) Anthology. Gordon Van Gelder, Editor.
  • Bradbury, Ray. Bradbury Stories.
  • Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others.
  • Lem, Stanislaw. The Cyberiad.
  • Zelazny, Roger. Last Defender of Camelot

The last time I did this, I talked about Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”, which is the closing story in the Starlight 2 anthology edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Interestingly, “Divided by Infinity” is the opening story in that same anthology, so now I’ve got the whole thing bracketed…

(Kate said that the next time I do this, whenever that may be, I need to pick something cheerful. Because, damn.)

I spent about a third of my time talking about the physics stuff mentioned in the previous post. In my notes for the lecture, that stuff comes first, but I decided that morning to reverse the order and do the physics at the end. Which made using my notes a little interesting, but it’s kind of fun to revise things on the fly that way.

In re-reading it for the lecture, the non-physics thing that struck me was a quote early on from the old bookstore owner who gives the narrator the “crank book” presenting the central science conceit:

Does it strike you, Mr. Keller, that we live every day in the science fiction of our youth?

The other points I tried to make could be summarized by saying that, like the characters, the story is in a sort of dialogue with the science fiction of their youth.

A one-sentence summary of the story might be “A man discovers that he’s going to live forever, and it sucks.” This is, I pointed out, in a long and honorable literary tradition, both in and out of the genre. They hadn’t been assigned anything in that vein, but I had a couple of examples written down, including the title story of the Zelazny collection (which, by a weird coincidence, was turned into an episode of the 80′s Twilight Zone series, which I happened to catch on tv a few weeks ago. Synchronicity!). The others I had down were the Wandering Jew character in A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I figured some of them might have read in high school (it was the token genre fiction in my 12th grade English class), and Tuck Everlasting, which I read in my father’s language arts class an eon or so ago.

I also asked them for examples, and got a couple of good suggestions (in fact, I don’t think I mentioned any of mine other than the Zelazny), including Gaiman’s Sandman, which I sort of kicked myself for not thinking of. The character of Orpheus in particular seems to fit, though interestingly, Hob Gadling takes the other side of the question (which I didn’t think of until just now).

I also pointed out that that this fits into a very long literary tradition, stretching back to things like the Greek story of Tithonus, who is granted immortality through the intercession of the goddess Eos, who forgets to also request eternal youth, so he lives forever while aging. In the version I remember from the d’Aulaires’ book, he withers away and eventually turns into a cricket. Which fits right in with this story.

The other thing I pointed out that fits with that quote is the structure of the plot, which in some way is a procession back through the history of SF. It starts out as a very mundane story about a depressed guy whose wife is dead, then starts accreting SF elements in a way that gets progressively pulpier. First, you’ve got mentions of a signal from aliens, which is the way that more realistic first contact stories tend to run these days. Then you have the entire Earth destroyed by a gamma-ray burst, leading to the hospital sequence, which has a bit of a “cozy catastrophe” feel to it. (One or two students had read On the Beach, and recognized the subgenre.)

After that, the narrator is resurrected by aliens who have come to Earth in person, which has a lot of echoes of older stuff, but isn’t as common these days. And it ends with the narrator literally being eaten by aliens, which is about as disreputably pulpy as you can get.

So in addition to being a story that fits within a tradition of literature generally, it’s a story that is very aware of the SF genre. As you would expect from Wilson, who’s been around a while.

I also tried to point out that this is, in many ways, a prototypical Wilson story, in which there are giant cosmic events happening, but they remain subordinate to the personal stories of the people involved. The plot of this one has the gigantic mind-bening Many-Worlds thing going on, and the entire planet gets wiped out, and yet, the narrator remains obsessed with his dead wife. Which is both very human and very Wilson– the same sort of dynamic goes on in his excellent novels– Spin is probably the very best example.

Given the relentlessly downbeat tone of this story, I’m not sure that really constituted an effective sales pitch for his books, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Anyway, that’s what I said. It was fun to do, as always, though I think I agree with Kate– next time, I need to find a really good story to talk about that isn’t such a downer. Suggestions are of course welcome in the comments.


  1. #1 Henry Farrell
    May 30, 2011

    I also suspect that “Divided by Infinity” is a specific response to Robert Heinlein’s _Elsewhen_ which has the same mix of solipsism and parallel universes, but deliberately eschews the bleaker ideas that RCW wants to explore.