Entry updated 13 September 2021. Tagged: Theme.
1. Individual amnesia. Loss of memory, usually inflicted on the protagonist, is a recurring plot device in all forms of fiction; an early instance is the amnesia of a traumatized character in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens. In genre writing this has become a notorious Cliché: a combined technique of empathy generation and narrative delay, with amnesiac and reader beginning on an equally bewildered footing and together groping towards the character's Identity, empowerment and goals. Examples include Philip José Farmer's The Maker of Universes (1965; rev 1980), Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber (1970), Colin Kapp's The Patterns of Chaos (February-May/June 1972 If; 1972) – whose protagonist's initial amnesia seems arbitrarily imposed and has no particular justification beyond the traditional knock on the head – and Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle (November 1979-February 1980 F&SF; 1980), whose title character has been subjected to a Memory Edit by enemies. Sometimes memory has been blotted out by knowledge too awful to be retained, as in L Ron Hubbard's Fear (July 1940 Unknown; 1957), Fredric Brown's "Come and Go Mad" (July 1949 Weird Tales) and various tales of Horror in SF, especially the Cthulhu Mythos.
More science-fictional but often equally accidental is memory loss during Identity Transfer to a new body, as in the back-story of The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; rev vt The World of Null-A 1970) by A E van Vogt; in Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956), where memories of past incarnations eventually return after adolescence; and in Lord of Light (1967) by Roger Zelazny. Amnesia may also accompany radical transformation: the protagonist of Charles L Harness's Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos; rev 1984) is, unknowingly, a much changed version of a contemporary who will undergo Time Travel. Seeming amnesia conceals a case of Identity Exchange in H P Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" (cut June 1936 Astounding; restored in The Outsider and Others, coll 1939).
Typical sf presentations of amnesia take two forms, not always distinct. The condition may be imposed from outside – by the amnesia-inducing Ray of Thomas Calvert McClary's Rebirth: When Everyone Forgot (March 1934 Astounding; rev 1944), by the Aliens of Dark City (1998), or more usually by Drugs, Psi Powers or Technology capable of erasing or modifying the memory, a wide-ranging theme here discussed under Memory Edit. Or it may be concealing – perhaps by deliberate intention of the hidden self – a secret potential such as Superman, gifted Alien or Robot status. Examples of the latter trope are very numerous and include: A E van Vogt's "Asylum" (May 1942 Astounding); Ursula K Le Guin's City of Illusions (1967); Keith Laumer's Dinosaur Beach (1971) and The Infinite Cage (1972); Tanith Lee's The Birthgrave (1975); Philip E High's Fugitive from Time (1978) and others; the film D.A.R.Y.L. (1985); and Helen S Wright's A Matter of Oaths (1988). Mass amnesia is caused by Drugs in the public water supply in Robert Silverberg's "How It Was When the Past Went Away" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg); by an enigmatic alien satellite that strips away human memory worldwide – four days' worth at a time – in Philip José Farmer's "Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind" (in Nova 3, anth 1973, ed Harry Harrison); and by a quickly-spreading infectious disease in Geoff Nelder's ARIA: Left Luggage (2012). The titular plague of short-term amnesia – typically a day lost from recent memory – in Paul Levinson's The Consciousness Plague (2002) results from a synergy effect between flu and a new antibiotic.
Amnesia regarding recent events – loss of short-term memory – is logically the price of Immortality in John R Pierce's "Invariant" (April 1944 Astounding) and Algis Budrys's "The End of Summer" (November 1954 Astounding), where physical regeneration continually reverts mind and memory to the status quo. Another imagined immortality treatment has amnesia as its side effect in Christopher Priest's metafictional The Affirmation (1981). The protagonist of Piers Anthony's Mute (1981) achieves a kind of retroactive Invisibility through his Psi Power of inducing amnesia about himself; Priest's The Glamour (1984) offers a more subtle blurring of the line between amnesia and invisibility.
Outside sf proper, Gene Wolfe's Latro fantasy sequence, opening with Soldier of the Mist (1986), has a protagonist suffering from constant loss of short-term memories (anterograde amnesia); his aide-memoire accounts of recent actions, written down while he still recalls them, form the stories' text. A notable non-sf film based on this theme – with the added complexity of a Time in Reverse presentation – is Memento (2000) directed by Christopher Nolan. The theme is more traditionally deployed (protagonist begins without memories) in Cowboys & Aliens (2011). [DRL]
2. Collective amnesia. In the twenty-first century it has more and more frequently argued that the governments and peoples who have survived the trauma-ridden history of the West over the previous hundred years since the beginning of World War One have responded to that catastrophic and suicidal history through a collective amnesia: that they (we) have half-consciously thrown a veil of false normalization over the past: that an obliterating focus on Technological and scientific Progress has engineered a blankness about the losses consequent upon the untamed use of those technologies and that science to commit War on an unparalleled scale, and to distend the arguments of the Enlightenment into justifications of the Final Solution. That this argument runs directly counter to the affirmations of the dominant form of sf – that is, twentieth-century American Genre SF, for which the past is shrouded in ignorance, and in which Conceptual Breakthroughs almost always mark a transition between darkness and light – is obvious. In those instances where a twentieth-century sf novel deals with collective amnesia, its storyline is usually built around a conspiracy against us that must be resisted by Heroes. This exculpatory pattern of explanation – where amnesia does not represent an internal dynamic typical of Homo sapiens but an external oppression that stifles our native free spirit – underlies a large number of Post-Holocaust and Ruined Earth tales, which more often than not climax in a freed people re-engaging with a technological and scientific world unjustly barred to them. It is also typical of Dystopias whose inmates are monitored by thought police, and whose introjected amnesia is therefore outsourced.
Within the wider remit of non-American sf, and within the remit of Fantastika in general, a less forgiving presumption is common: that human nature is only capable of understanding so much reality, and that the cultural and moral devastation we have visited upon ourselves is too irrevocably real for us to wish to tolerate active remembrance. Central to the arguments of scholar and critics who press this perspectived on the past century are the events of World War Two, in particular the Final Solution (see Holocaust Fiction for a fundamental debate between those who feel it is obscene to attempt to say the unsayable, and those who feel it is mandatory to try). The European Year Zero that immediately succeeded World War Two provides the starting point for Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005) by Tony Judt (1948-2010), which along with his Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (coll 2008), make a sustained case that as a culture we have deliberately vacated our past. The essays assembled in Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (coll 2007) by Clive James (1939-2019) augment this reading.
Unsurprisingly, a subject matter so difficult to address at all is not in fact addressed frequently. One novel to do so unmistakably is Howard Jacobson's J (2014), as does – if it can be assumed that his myth-dazed ancient Britain provides an extended analogue of our own – Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant (2015). Austerlitz (2001) by W G Sebald (1848-2001) has no fantastic content, but is also essential reading. [JC]
- Clive James. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (New York: W W Norton and Company, 2007) [nonfiction: coll: hb/Peter Behrens]
- Tony Judt. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: William Heinemann, 2005) [nonfiction: hb/various sources]
- Tony Judt. Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008) [nonfiction: coll: hb/Werner Bischoff]
- Jonathan Lethem, editor. The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss (New York: Vintage Books/Black Lizard, 2000) [anth: pb/John Gall]
- Roger Luckhurst. The Trauma Question (London: Routledge, 2008) [nonfiction: hb/uncredited]
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