By Alex Wallace
There is a small but steadily more noticeable trend of more ‘mainstream’ science fiction and fantasy writers using alternate history in works that are noticeably outside the traditional alternate history genre in which writers like Harry Turtledove and S. M. Stirling operate. The most famous of these works is Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series; other writers include P. Djèlí Clark and Lindsay Ellis (both of whom whose work I have reviewed for this blog). Here, I shall discuss a lesser-known example of such works: Bethany C. Morrow’s debut novel Mem.
The core narrative thrust of Mem is the existence of a new science that enables people to get rid of unpleasant memories. These memories are given physical form in ‘Mems,’ essentially clones of the people who got rid of the memories at the age that they underwent the treatment. Mostly, these mems are simple-minded, able to recount the unpleasant memory for which they are receptacles and not much else.
This state of affairs is interrupted with the creation of Elsie, a mem that, despite her standard origins, has self-awareness. She is capable of forming new memories and having new experiences, and is for all intents and purposes a fully functional human being, albeit one still in the care of the organization that takes regular care of mems. The plot then begins to resemble the likes of Blade Runner, asking questions about the meaning of personhood and memory.
Elsie is a fully-fleshed out character, one with far more concrete definition than Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard. She has to wrangle with a fundamentally liminal position in society, one that was never supposed to truly exist. There is a tension between her and her associates because of this, a perplexedness that never really seems to abate. As she tries to find something resembling family, this intensifies. Morrow succeeds masterfully in bringing out the pathos and the vulnerability inherent in that position; Elsie often feels far more human than the ‘normal’ humans she associates with.
The alternate history element of this book is an odd one: this entire story takes place in 1910s Montreal. Elsie has a love for early film, often comparing her surroundings to what she sees projected from film cameras. The book makes a big deal out of period-style debutante balls, as well as the opening of new buildings in Montreal in the period. Major plot points involve the novelty of automobiles and airplanes. What will come across as somewhat odd to the alternate history reader is that, despite all the occasional use of period signifiers, much of this plot could have occurred in the present day.
To the alternate historian, Mem is odd. It lacks many of the things that we traditionally consider an alternate history story, but uses it in service of its own aims. As a science fiction story, it succeeds very well as an investigation of the meaning of memory. More than anything else, it reminded me of Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End or Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham: it was never really for us, but it is worth reading all the same.