Memory

Tagged: Theme

The most dramatic fictional quirks of human memory are its loss or external manipulation, as discussed in the entries for Amnesia and Memory Edit (see also Dream Hacking). Also of occasional sf interest is the phenomenon of photographic or eidetic memory, sometimes treated as a minor Superpower. Among the best-known examples are: the eponym of Jorge Luis Borges's "Funes el memorioso" (June 1942 La Nación; trans Anthony Kerrigan as "Funes the Memorious"), whose gift is something of a curse since the clutter of specific memories makes it difficult or impossible for him to generalize; the Microfilm Mind in Charles Harness's Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos), who "uses the sum total of human knowledge on every problem given him"; the protagonist of Robert A Heinlein's Starman Jones (1953), who after once reading through a multi-volume set of mathematical tables is able to recall them in detail for Starship navigation; the Psi-Powered E'telekeli of Cordwainer Smith's "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (October 1962 Galaxy), who is able to parse and memorize long sequences of images displayed at blinding speed by a Computer system; the Mentats of Frank Herbert's Dune (December 1963-February 1964 Analog as "Dune World"; January-May 1965 Analog as "The Prophet of Dune"; fixup 1965), whose powers of recall are greatly enhanced if not actually total; Severian in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols), whose recollection is total but who does not share everything with the reader; Brutha in Terry Pratchett's Small Gods (1992), whose feats include saving the Discworld equivalent of the Library of Alexandria by hastily scanning its contents before the inevitable blaze; and the head of Imperial Security in several of Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan adventures, whose total recall derives from an implanted biochip which in Memory (1996) is biologically sabotaged, leading to a nightmare of Time Out of Sequence flashbacks.

A perfect memory is often regarded as an inevitable side-effect of optimizing human thought processes, as promised by Dianetics and Scientology. Such effects are achieved through study of Husserlian phenomenology in Colin Wilson's The Philosopher's Stone (1969) and through a virally reproducing Drug that reduces or eliminates inattentiveness in John Brunner's The Stone that Never Came Down (1973).

Further examples of mnemonic prodigies are found in T S Stribling's Teeftallow (1926), Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996), M A Foster's The Warriors of Dawn (1975) and its sequels, Piers Anthony's Ghost (1986) and Artemus Shelton's I Hope the World Can Take It (2007). Comics characters with the ability include Batman, Sage of the X-Men, and some though not all later versions of Superman. In Cinema, drug-induced eidetic memory features in The Road to Hong Kong (1962) and, with temporary effect, in Limitless (2011); there is a character with the talent in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). The preservers of literature introduced late in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (February 1951 Galaxy as "The Fireman"; coll 1953) are rather more limited, each having memorized one entire book; in Neal Stephenson's Seveneves (2015), the tiny enclave of humanity in a deep mine that waits out the millennia until Earth's surface is again habitable includes a caste of "Cycs" who have each memorized one volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica and take its name (e.g. "Sonar Taxlaw"). Computers and AIs, whose perfect recall and access to data may be taken for granted, are not listed here.

The classical Art of Memory, devised in ancient Greece and developed through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the seventeenth-century hermetic and alchemical tradition, is a system of memory training that associates vivid images with real or imagined architecture – memory palaces and theatres of memory – to keep needed memories appropriately filed and accessible; The Art of Memory (1966) by Frances A Yates (1899-1981) is the definitive study and has inspired several authors of Fantastika. In fiction this Art lends itself particularly well to fantasy contexts, as in John Crowley's Little, Big (1981) – where it is imagined with some rigour as a method of divination by fruitfully organizing and correlating the contents of one's own mind – Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Arete (1989), Jack Dann's The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo da Vinci (1995) and Gill Alderman's The Memory Palace (1996); it also features in Hannibal (1999) by Thomas Harris (1940-    ). The world of Sheri S Tepper's True Game sequence features a "Great Maze" (see Labyrinths) which in Jinian Star-Eye (1986) proves to be the memory theatre of a Gaia-like planetary consciousness, in which old traumas are endlessly replayed; a Memory Edit is attempted. Ian Watson offers an ingeniously metaphysical sf treatment in The Flies of Memory (September 1988 Asimov's; exp 1990), in which visiting Aliens – who lack all mechanical data storage including writing, and have no further conceptual space on their own world for mnemonic associations – eagerly adopt Earth's architecture for new memory palaces that prove to be dangerously linked with reality: when an alien who has memorized Munich dies without communicating this complex of memories to its central Hive Mind or God-mind, the City itself abruptly vanishes. In Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide (mid-December 1990-January 1991 Asimov's; 1991), the interstellar agency known as the Puzzle Palace resembles a Renaissance theatre of memory housed in Virtual Reality. [DRL]

see also: Identity.

further reading

  • Frances A Yates. The Art of Memory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966) [nonfiction: hb/]

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