Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Standalone, Tom Doherty Associates, 2016, 85 pgs.

Katya makes her living off of Authenticities, interesting historical artifacts that were actually used by the people of the past, and Captures, recorded moments from her own life that can be remixed into videos or songs. So, it’s perfectly natural that, coming home from a pickup, she stopped to record the herd of deer clomping across the pavement in the sunlight. What wasn’t natural was being cut off from the cloud. Or being kidnapped by the man who appeared to be blocking her signal. Or being stuck for a week in the woods with him, with nothing but her own fallible memories to relate the experience. She has no proof of her story. But that’s what makes it so interesting, isn’t it?

As much as I like my slow builds, complex plots, and layered characterizations, every now and then you come across a story that doesn’t need much to be worth the while. Forest of Memory is definitely that book; honestly in most ways there’s not a lot to it.

The plot’s pretty simple, with no grand stakes, complex setup, or shocking twists. The characterization, prose, and world building are all likewise plain. We have one or two major traits for our whole two characters, one major change from our present reality, and little to no fancy language. At most we get a central mystery and a single narrative trick to distinguish the book.

It works here, though. At less than a hundred pages, that’s partially because this novella doesn’t have room to pull off anything fancy. Everything mentioned above takes the sort of time and space that 96 pages, including both covers, thanks and publishing information, and all of the flyleaves, just don’t have. But it’s also because the book asks an intriguing enough question to carry it through its short length.

Set in a world where every moment of most people’s life is recorded and uploaded to a central cloud to be rewatched, analyzed, and remixed, this book looks at how the fundamental experience of humanity changes when the foibles of human memory are no longer a problem.

Which could have been very bad. This is clearly something written in response to the smartphone and 3D printer era, and that sometimes can bring out the scaremongering. As someone who grew up as the internet grew into its own, I always balk a little at the Luddite notion that technology is making us loose human connection. From what I see, it’s only the particulars that are different, and people remain people.

There’s not much judgment call here, though. This is more of an exploration of how things might develop and how those particulars might continue to evolve. How does a constant record of everyone’s life change our culture? It’s a good question to ask, as well as a relevant one.

The answer Kowal seems to come up with is “we grow an unrestrained demand for the small, unique details of those lives and a need to constantly go back and analyze our past behavior,” which is something that I really feel does suit our current internet ethos. For example, our narrator, Katya, makes her living basically selling unique experiences. Whether it’s in the form of a used, scribbled in dictionary or an interesting moment from her personal life’s feed, the value of the things she collects is in the fact that they could have only come from a specific time, place, and person.

Which is something I think we already do. You can see that idea of people looking for something personal and unique in everything from Etsy shops to daily life blogs to Youtube videos. Mining your own experiences for widespread consumption is basically what we’re doing when we toss our thoughts out into the void of the internet. It’s basically what I’m doing now.

The more important track the novella takes, though, is the question of how a person deals with not having access to the public record of the events of their life that they’re used to. Cut off from the usual recording of her life, Katya mentions time and time again how much she wishes she could look back and analyze her facial expressions, actions, and surroundings. How much she wants a confirmation of what she remembers, because for most of the time span of the story adrenaline was taking over and she’s not entirely sure what she was thinking. She wants both clues as to why she did what she did and proof that all of it actually happened.

That divide between reality and memory, between experience and record is something everyone has to deal with. But I think the inability to just shrug off that uncertainty is pretty particular to a generation that is used to having some sort of recorded proof at their fingertips. I know when I’m wondering when something happened or who I was with at the time the first thing I do is try to look up the pictures on Facebook. And I do get disappointed when I don’t find the confirmation I’m seeking.

This is all extremely interesting discussion to me, and like I said, I think it’s enough to carry the story by itself. It does help that what structure the book has is well done, though. The plot may not be anything complex, but Kowal still knows how to load it with big moments and drama. And if the prose is fairly plain, then it still knows exactly what feel it wants to create and how to make that happen.

This comes mostly from the single narrative convention mentioned at the beginning of this review. The conceit here is that the story is being written down for an unknown customer by Katya, who is wracking her brain trying to figure out both what actually happened to her and what this person wants out of hearing it. So everything from Katya’s frustrated and brusque tone, to her constant digressions as new details are recalled, to the typos and reworded strikethroughs sprinkled through the text work in service of that.

Those little details really help to convey what the story is trying to do, and I love how they aid the theme of uncertainty. Faced with it, Katya still needs to have some record of her experience, even if it’s one created after the fact.

The best part is the characterization, though. We may only have two characters here and they may not have much room to develop, but again, what is here is well done. I’ve mentioned before how important it is for character reactions to feel real, and this book is wonderful on that point.

Katya’s imprisonment by “Johnny” is never treated as anything less than an actual hostage situation, and the two people involved react accordingly, even in spite of the grudging liking they take to each other. She never stops being afraid of him, even when he’s doing nothing threatening, and he never trusts her enough to even tell her his real name or show her his face. They may have some strange camaraderie between them, but they’re never made out to be friends.

So yes, this may be a simple story, but all of its simple elements are done exceptionally well. To the extent that there’s a small part of me that thinks it’s not simple at all, just clean enough to be deceptive.

Between that and the discussion fodder I’d say this is more than well worth your time. At three bucks for the Kindle edition and a length that can be read in a couple of hours, I don’t see why you wouldn’t at least give it a try.

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2 thoughts on “Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

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