MEM by Bethany C. Morrow (Alternate History SF Novel, 2018).
In this version of the 1920’s, we’re a couple decades into an odd new technology where doctors can remove selected memories from patients. In the process, these memories are brought to a separate life. These artificially created people, called ‘Mems,’ are exact duplicates of their ‘Sources’ in appearance, yet seem trapped in the singular moment of their creation. They rarely if ever react to or even seem aware of their surroundings. And most tend to fade away and die (the euphemism used is that they ‘expire’ and society refuses to accept these shadow people as anything close to fully human).
Is this condition some sort of fictional metaphor for the most extreme and low-functioning types of autism? This occurred to me and I don’t intend it as a rhetorical question or even criticism. I’m still uncertain if this played any role, conscious or otherwise, in the author’s planning for this, her first novel.
In any case, the central character here is the seemingly lone example of a Mem not trapped in the past and capable of creating new memories (and therefore a separate life/identity for herself). Whether the outside world is willing to accept her full humanity or not, the self-named Elsie (aka Dolores Extract No. 1) seeks to carve out an existence beyond her unusual origins. Created about 20 years ago, she is physically a perpetual 19-year-old (the age of her now-semi-senile Source when the disturbing event the original Dolores and her family wanted removed occurred).
As a special case, Elsie has known more freedom than other Mems. Able to function like a ‘normal’ person, she doesn’t require constant care and supervision like other Mems. While others are kept in an underground hospital/research center called the Vault, she has been granted time above ground in Montreal, Canada, in the gentle custody of the somber Professor who invented the technology and his wife. They are sort of surrogate parents to Elsie. And yet she is not free, but still considered the legal property of her Source and Dolores’s family.
As such, she can be ordered back to the Vault at any time, for possible ‘reprinting’ (when a new extracted memory would be forced on her, replacing her current persona with something completely different).
The book presents an interesting and subtly blended examination of two ways ‘different’ people can be marginalized: Literal slavery (Mems are owned outright) and the impulse to lock out of sight/out of mind the mentally and/or developmentally challenged. In both cases, the denial of a person’s full humanity is the result (even if not always the conscious intent).
Overall, this is a highly successful and multi-level book. While not the primary focus of the novel, it also contains a slow-developing love story that feels entirely appropriate to the wider theme of denied but undeniable person-hood.
Depicting it happening almost a century before our time (as opposed to in the near-future) is, however, a slightly odd choice–especially from a technological standpoint. If the author feels the Roaring 20’s mindset would more readily accept the ideas allowing for this finally selfish and dehumanizing tech to be not only tolerated but fashionable, she may have a point. It is at least a debatable matter.
More of a problem for me was that, not withstanding that Morrow’s focus is more on a single character (and rightly so), I didn’t get much at all of the effects of this revolutionary new science on the broader society. A slightly longer book could’ve addressed this lack and probably have been more satisfying to me, providing more context and a better ‘feel’ for the world Elsie finds herself in.
Yet again, this is in sum a fine and worthy effort. I enjoyed it and look forward to more from this obviously talented and thoughtful newer author.