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“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”: Matters of Memory

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 29, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 29, 2012 |

This includes hints of events and revelations within Robin Hobb’s books. If such words spoil you, then go read the books before you bloody well read this.

It’s always wonderful when you discover an author worth reading who has somehow escaped your notice for the previous years of your life. When you’re young, every author you read tends to be that way. Oh, there will be a few who are cutting their teeth on writing just as you are cutting your teeth on reading, but most books you pick up will be gateway drugs into another dozen books by the same author. So finding an author like that, is like being young again, like being twelve again at the used bookstore and finding an entire bookshelf by the same author that you take home for a couple of dollars.

I wrote about this before, and it’s not the main thrust, but the introduction here. See, a couple of months ago, I started ripping through Robin Hobb’s various Farseer series (starting with The Assassin’s Apprentice, and having devoured nine books like an addict finding a forgotten stash). Hobb weaves thoughts on memory throughout the novels, subtly at first, but in mounting metaphor until the novels truly hinge on what memory means as much as they do upon the particular maneuvering within their fantasy domain.

Her work features inanimate objects that are given some form of life by taking on the memories of people. Mere piles of rock become dragons, mere wood becomes a talking ship. And on a deeper level, her characters are constantly at war with their own memories, with a childhood unremembered, with torture and betrayal that echoes forever, with voices of long dead companions that still echo as if they are there. The memories of individuals are intertwined with each other, so that one so imprinted forever keeps alive the dead in a literal sense.

And the dragons, oh the gorgeous dragons. They look down on humanity, not because it is different, but because it is so insignificant. And not simply because we are small and short lived, but because we don’t remember. My gratitude, a dragon offers, puzzled at the notion of a bargainer wanting more out of an exchange. The gratitude of an immortal is worth more than anything that can be obtained in present value, for it is a gift given for time immemorial.

Serious academic sorts have their own sub-niche just on memory studies. There are of course the psychologists and brain research folks, who have shined lights into the way that people think, both from a bottom-up biological approach, and from a top-down psychological approach. These approaches have yielded the fantastic insights into the way our brains work, little nuances that make sense poetically even if we don’t understand the science that went into their discovery. When we remember, the part of our brain that fired off at the original event, fires off again in exactly the same way. When we remember, our brains are literally reliving the past. And when we empathize with others, our brain fires in the way that it did when we experienced what they are experiencing. Empathy is the same mechanism as memory.

But an interesting adjunct to such work is the research into the way social memory works. That is, the way that groups of people remember over time. This is very distinct from history, as it draws more on the narratives we tell ourselves over and over, the stories we mold over the actual historical facts to streamline the complexity of the past into a succinct and identity-driven picture.

If every cell in your body was replaced with a simulacrum, with some magically hand-waved technology, it would not necessarily be you. If this simulacrum could think exactly at you do, if it had your mind, it still would not necessarily be you. It is your memories that would animate it, that would make the mere structure and central processor animate. Our memories are what we are. That’s part of what horrifies us so terribly about the diseases that prey on our minds. We can lose every part of our body and still retain our identity, but even a brush of fingerprints upon our memories and we can never be sure of anything again.

There’s the old Greek myth about Tithonus, and how he was granted the gift of eternal life while neglecting to ask for the corresponding gift of eternal youth. It was a mistake to be sure, but in the end it cost him merely his body. I’ve always thought a more horrific fate would have been to be granted eternal life but not eternal memory. So that every day you forget more and more. You live a thousand years but never remember more than a day. Living forever might not be fun without eternal youth, but it is the definition of hell if you cannot remember that eternal life, without that memory you’re just a particularly talkative Joshua Tree.

Is it any wonder then that immortals look down on us so much in our fictions? We are thinking beings whose memories die with us. Is there anything more tragic and terrible? Anything more wasteful?

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.