Remembering the Adelines

Adeline and Adaline

One of the functions of imagination is to make odd, sometimes random connections.  In this case, the random connection is between two very different stories about women with almost the same name.  The “Addie” in V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020) is Adeline, a young girl of the seventeenth century who becomes immortal—at a price.  In the 2015 movie The Age of Adaline, the titular Adaline is also immortal, for entirely different reasons.  Yet both face certain issues that resonate particularly well with us today.

Addie’s Dark Deal

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, cover

Addie LaRue doesn’t set out to become immortal.  A village girl in seventeenth-century France, she wants to avoid being shunted into an unwanted marriage that will trap her in this small country backwater, isolated from the larger world she longs to know.  Although she’s cautioned by her eccentric mentor never to deal with the gods that come out after sunset, Addie incautiously promises her soul to a Darkness in return for freedom from these entanglements.

This supernatural entity grants her wish in a way that’s as tricky and cruel as any fairy-tale curse.  Addie will be free of entrapment because everyone she meets will forget her once they’re out of her presence.  She won’t die or change until she willingly gives up her unremembered life; but she can form no lasting relationships.

Addie’s family fails to recognize her when she returns to the village.  A good Samaritan who’s convinced to help her forgets about it as soon as she leaves to bring food, and never returns.  If she pays in advance for a room, the innkeeper has forgotten the payment next time they meet.  Addie is, of course, prevented from explaining her predicament to anyone, even if they would believe her.

Much of the story takes place in the present day, where we meet Addie living by her wits from moment to moment, as she has for three hundred years.  While the wish gone wrong is a classic fairy-tale trope, this is not a fairy tale; it’s more like science fiction.  Schwab does an amazing job of showing us the logical ramifications of the curse and how a highly sympathetic character copes with them.

Then the ground shifts when Addie meets a young man in a bookstore who—somehow—does remember her name.  This leads to a haunting illustration of human life and how we live it that, as a perceptive book review notes, is hard to forget.

The Perpetual Reboot

No one can remember Adeline from one meeting to the next—even a lover waking up in the morning.  In this respect, her situation resembles what we find in other stories that deal with memory issues, or with repeating circumstances that only the main character can recall.  Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993) finds himself with a similar problem:  when he finally wants to form a permanent relationship with the woman he’s falling in love with, the permanence is all on his side.  He has to win her affection again every day.

50 First Dates, movie poster

The same result occurs, from an opposite cause, in the movie 50 First Dates (2004).  Lucy Whitmore, the girl Henry Roth becomes interested in, has suffered a traumatic short-term memory defect:  she remembers her life up to the date of the accident, but each night she forgets everything that’s happened after that time.  Her family and friends find ways to cope with this—but she knows them from before.  Henry, who wants to get to know her, has no previous relationship to build on.  Like Phil, he has to ingratiate himself with her—court her—each day anew.

Addie’s case is harder.  No one remembers her from day to day; she is prevented from making any permanent mark on the world.  But the hardest part is similar.  She can form no lasting relationships.  The essential loneliness of the main character is each case is what makes the stories so poignant.

In that respect, there’s a similarity to Diana Wynne Jones’s eerie story The Homeward Bounders (1981).  Jamie, the narrator there, is condemned to wander from one alternate world to another whenever a “move” is made by supernatural players who game with human lives.  Like Addie, he can’t be killed or seriously harmed—but he can never find a home.  “You wouldn’t believe how lonely you get” (chapters 2, 14).

Adaline’s Accidental Immortality

The Age of Adaline movie poster

In contrast to the stories mentioned above, which mostly depend on fantasy tropes of one sort or another to set up the situation, The Age of Adaline is straight science fiction—though it’s not advertised as a “science fiction movie.”  A voice-over narrator explains to us that when Adaline Bowman, born in 1908, falls into a freezing lake in 1937 and then is revived by a lightning strike, the “principle of electron compression in DNA,” which will be discovered in 2035, causes her to stop aging.

This fact only gradually becomes apparent to her.  We see it through a narrative sequence that jumps back and forth in time, just as in Addie LaRue.  As her birth date recedes, but she does not visibly age, people look at her more and more oddly—say, in a traffic stop where the policeman examines the date on her driver’s license.  Eventually the FBI takes an interest.  Adaline escapes and begins changing her identity every so often to conceal her real age.

Methuselah's Children cover

Adaline’s situation resembles that of the long-lived “Howard Family” members in Heinlein’s classic novel Methuselah’s Children (1941, 1958).  She lives a perpetual “masquerade.”  She is not quite so deprived of permanence as Addie; she can live for a while in a given identity, build up a bank account, buy a home.  Ultimately, however, she has to keep moving.  Her problem is in a way the opposite of Addie’s:  Adaline needs to keep from being remembered (by the wrong people).

But this deprives her of long-term relationships just as in Addie’s and Phil’s cases.  We see Adaline’s (latest) dog die, reminding her that she will outlive anyone.  Her first husband died young, before her immortality began; for her, love means growing old together—but she can’t have that.  Becoming involved with an “ephemeral” can only lead to tragedy in the end.

As a result, Adaline shies away from long-term commitments.  It is too emotionally wrenching for her to confront the fate reluctantly embraced at one point by Lazarus Long, one of Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children characters, who does marry a short-lived ordinary human in “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter.”  But Adaline finds the lack of such relationships more and more a grief as time goes on.  As a character who’s learned her secret tells her (at 1:27):  “All these years you’ve lived, but you never had a life.”

Reaching for Continuity

Phil and piano teacher in Groundhog Day

The long lives of Addie and Adaline have their compensations.  For example, by living for so many years as a youthful adult, one builds up a sizable store of skills.  Addie knows many languages; so does Adaline.  Phil in Groundhog Day becomes a whiz at the piano by taking a one-hour lesson on each of his innumerable repeating days.  Adaline can win a game of Trivial Pursuit; she also seems to a friend to drive like a maniac—but she can do this safely, since she’s had more experience than any professional race-car driver and still has the reflexes of a 29-year-old.

But these pragmatic advantages aren’t worth the isolation they must endure.  Not the inability to connect—but the inability to forge a permanent connection, as we see in the desperate moments at the end of a cycle in several of these stories.  At one point, Addie reflects:

Sure, she dreams of sleepy mornings over coffee, legs draped across a lap, inside jokes and easy laughter, but those comforts come with the knowing.  There can be no slow build, no quiet lust, intimacy fostered over days, weeks, months.  (p. 100)

We are fond of admiring the freshness of love’s beginning:  most romances stick to the courtship stage.  But we may not be as attentive to the charms of continuity.  At p. 171, the one man who can remember Addie calls her his “date”:

Date.  The word thrills through her.  A date is something made, something planned; not a chance of opportunity, but time set aside at one point for another, a moment in the future.

In an article about the fast-moving changes in our culture, a recent article in Wired observes:

. . . what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity – the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die.  (Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Cloud Support:  Am I Obligated to Join TikTok?”, Wired, March 2021, p. 25)

Age of Adaline:  It's not the same when there's no growing old together.

We want to be remembered, to be held dear, to make a mark on the world.  The burden with which Addie grapples is the inability to achieve those things.

We honor freedom, the ability to be unconstrained by the past; and that is both true and good.  But that value too can be taken to an extreme. Addie LaRue serves as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the absolutism of freedom.  The “god” who cursed her says jeeringly:

You asked for freedom.  There is no greater freedom than that.  You can move through the world unhindered.  Untethered.  Unbound.  (p. 149)

What we want, as ever, is the happy medium—or, to put it differently, to have our cake and also eat it.  We are willing to expend our freedom to make commitments in relationships, even though this necessarily involves giving hostages to fate—we can always lose the ones we love.  We do this because it’s the only way we can achieve other good things:  “inside jokes and easy laughter,” shared memories, the comfort and the pride of a relationship seasoned over many years.

Not remembering can be a problem; being remembered too well can be a problem too (as we are keenly aware in these days when the Internet preserves all our youthful indiscretions forever).  The ways in which these two Ad(e/a)lines respond to memory, and seek after continuity, are well worth a look as we employ the freedoms and build the permanences of our lives.

The Role of Science Fiction

Science fiction started out as a niche interest for a few eccentrics.  So did Tolkienesque high fantasy, though with a different group of devotees.  Fans had their conventions, their own slang, almost their own culture.  They had that bracing sense of loving something that most people—English teachers, for example—didn’t understand.

No more.  Today, fantasy and science fiction (let’s call them F&SF) have gone mainstream.  Half the movies and books these days have fantastic elements.  These stories may not “feel like” F&SF, but the trans-normal elements have crept slowly into popular culture.  Amy Wallace recently remarked in Wired:  “And now that movies are dominated by space and superheroes, television by dragons and zombies, books by plagues and ghosts, science fiction isn’t a backwater anymore.  It’s mainstream.”  (Nov. 2015 issue, p. 97)

To the dedicated SF fan of years gone by, it’s a little disconcerting.  We wanted to get other people interested in what we loved, of course.  But we didn’t expect this much success.

 

As to which variants are woven into mainstream books and movies, science fiction or fantasy, it isn’t always easy to say.  Harry Potter is fantasy, obviously; it’s got wizards.  The Martian is SF, and “hard science fiction” at that.  It has space travel, and the science rates very high on what TV Tropes calls the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.”

But what do we make of Groundhog Day?  The fantastic premise that sets the story going has no explanation, whether science-fictional (like the particle accelerator in the similar TV movie 12:01), or fantasy-like (as with the Chinese fortune cookie in Freaky Friday).  It’s just there.  The one thing we can say for sure is that Groundhog Day has something going for it that we don’t find in slice-of-life mainstream literature.

Even geeky main characters are in fashion, from Chuck to The Big Bang TheoryThat’s something we 20th-century geeks never expected .

 

What happens, then, when F&SF are added to the mix?  What do these literatures of the fantastic have to offer, over and above the plot and character and background elements we already love in a purely mundane Brooklyn or Titanic?  There’s a lot we can (and will) say about this, but a few things leap out.

Science fiction trains us in recognizing that the future will be different.  It doesn’t predict:  old-time SF produced some strikingly accurate foretellings, but just as many complete misses.  But the very variety of imagined futures shows the wide range of possibilities before us.

A science fiction reader naturally thinks in terms of change:  in society, in technology, in markets, in manners.  A people that’s used to both Star Trek and The Hunger Games will be a little more prepared for a future that’s unlike today, whether or not it looks like either of those two worlds.

 

This ought to be a reason for hope.  The future can be better than today.  Of course it can also be worse.  Yet the realization that things can be otherwise should galvanize us, wean us away from fatalism and resignation.

But very often, that’s not what we’re getting.  Today’s visions of what’s to come seem more like excuses for despair than exercises in hope.  Downbeat futures are rampant.  Teen dystopias saturate the market.  And the grown-ups aren’t doing so well either – ask any character in Game of Thrones.

Even universes that used to be more optimistic get overhauled with less liveliness and more gloom.  Compare the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek with the Roddenberry original.  Writers seem compelled to succumb to that scourge of our times, the “gritty reboot.”

 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  We do see tales that evoke a more balanced picture of the world.  We can avoid the grimdark pit without falling off the other side into a blind Pollyanna optimism.  And we can have fun doing it.

Imaginative stories help us explore the whole range of possibilities – good, bad, and indifferent.  The open-endedness of science fiction and fantasy may be their greatest charm.

So let’s kick around some of the cool things about stories and storytelling, especially in the fantastic mode; some favorite (or unfavorite) books and movies and music; even some of the deeper roots out of which these stories grow.  It’ll be an adventure!