OPIN­ION

Com­puter mishaps have got David Langford re­mem­ber­ing

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

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”

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