Computer mishaps have got David Langford remembering
SFX’s columnists talk amnesia, space travel and fear…
Things in life which are no fun at all include returning from a convivial SF convention (Novacon in Nottingham, since you ask) and exhaustedly trying to catch up on writing deadlines – only for the computer to murmur “I’m sorry, I can’t do that” and, pausing only for a brief chorus of “Daisy, Daisy”, to die a horrible death. Of course I have lots of backups (he said unconvincingly), but the time it takes to get it all together on a new machine is... well, the great crash was a week ago and everything is still what in the technical jargon of computer geeks is termed higgledy-piggledy.
Losing access to my vast email archive, even temporarily, is like being in one of these novels that start off with the famous cliché of lumbering the hero with amnesia: Philip José Farmer’s The Maker Of Universes, Colin Kapp’s The Patterns Of Chaos, Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle and many more. From the writer’s point of view this is dead convenient, since rather than organising infodumps of background data (“Tell me again, as though I knew nothing of it”) they can let readers follow the protagonist on the journey of learning what he needs to know – or rather, what the author wants readers to know.
Gene Wolfe has an interesting twist on amnesia in his Soldier In The Mist, whose hero Latro’s recent memories keep vanishing overnight, forcing him to write down everything he might need to know in the days to come. The novel consists of what he writes.
Some characters, like Latro, lose their memories through the traditional knock on the head; I’m not sure there’s any medical justification for the handy plot device, much older than SF, that they can be instantly cured by an equal but opposite knock on the other side of the head. Others suffer insidious memory edits inflicted by bad guys or Men in Black. I couldn’t help cheering when, on being told by an extraterrestrial that he knows too much and must suffer memory erasure, the hero of Lloyd Biggle Jr’s All The Colours Of Darkness is grumpily unsurprised: “Aliens always erase the memory. We have a substantial literature on that subject.”
Something else that occasionally erases minds is Knowledge Too Awful To Contemplate – a problem for any HP Lovecraft character who even glimpses the Great Old Slimy Ones or Donald Trump.
On the other side of the coin from all those unfortunates with amnesia are the lucky sods who remember everything in excruciating detail. The hero of Robert Heinlein’s YA Starman Jones soon loses the valuable books of astrogation tables he inherited from an uncle, but it’s okay because he read them once and can recall every figure, every decimal point. SF has many other characters with photographic memories, like the Microfilm Mind in Charles Harness’s The Paradox Men, or the Mentats in Frank Herbert’s Dune. But one author thought this particular superpower wouldn’t be a blessing. The mental prodigy of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Funes the Memorious” performs amazing feats of memory but is deeply dysfunctional, lost in a blizzard of tiny details. Can’t see the wood for the trees.
All the same, I could use one of those clever chaps to help restore my data…
David Langford’s latest proof that SF has conquered the world is a restaurant review in The Independent that sensuously reports: “A helping of kale lay over the chicken like a drunken triffid.”
“pausing only for a Chorus of ‘daisy, daisy’, it died a horrible death”