House of Ancestors

Publication(s)

  • First publication
    • If, ed. Kirby McCauley, 1968
  • Wolfe collection(s)

Summary

Joe, a man living on borrowed time after a freak accident, has a chance to visit a World's Fair exhibit shaped like a giant DNA molecule. It could change his future... by bringing back his past.

Analysis

  • Joe wouldn't get an operation because he had a subconscious death-wish. He faced and defeated that part of himself. Symbolically, the nail in the heart reminds one of images the Sacred Heart of Mary. His female ancestors partake of his suffering and are a crucial factor in helping him.
  • At the beginning, people are looking up at the building from a long way off. One might picture them as tourists looking through the pay telescopes at the top of the Empire State Building.
  • "For a few seconds a figure stood at one of those holes; then another who struggled with him; then both were gone."
    Without this line, one might think that everything that happened after Joe went into the Thing took place only in his mind. In fact, what seems to have happened is a form of timeless information feedback, almost time travel.
  • "He could sense her beside him in the blackness; and unexpectedly, overwhelmingly, the certainty came to him that they had waited together like this before, and that the sensation he now felt was familiar through countless repetitions."
    Somehow, whatever his ancestor robots learn is fed back to him across time. Joe contains his ancestors, and these robot copies somehow link to their souls. What Joe's "mother" knows was transmitted to him at conception, therefore he knows it too. When he gives up his death-wish, that too is transmitted back. He now chooses to wait at the entrance instead of going in. The others would have said something if they found him bloodied. All that happened in the Thing has been undone except for the internal change that leads him to ask for the operation.
  • It is difficult to suspend disbelief about the scale of the Thing. A back-of-the-envelope calculation says it would be taller than the orbit of the moon. There are over 200 million base pairs in a typical DNA molecule which is part of the human genome. Every atom is represented. Wolfe is an engineer, so we can assume he crunched the numbers correctly. But how much time would it take to prepare presentations for all those rooms? How could a world's fair visitor have the time to see them all?
  • There is a hint in the story that the DNA molecule actually represents one of Joe's, and that is why the feedback works. It's not clear whether Wolfe really intends the reader to believe this or not. It may be a metaphor for the real mental and spiritual feedback he receives.

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