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Memory Edit

Entry updated 1 August 2022. Tagged: Theme.


Term used in this encyclopedia for selective Amnesia and/or implantation of false memories, deliberately inflicted upon its victim – though sometimes self-inflicted. Early Proto SF examples include Dr Heidenhoff's Process (1880) by Edward Bellamy and "The Memory Clearing House" (July 1892 Idler) by Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) – the latter featuring both removal of one's own memories and "borrowing" of memories recorded from others via a quasi-scientific Invention: "the noemagraph, or thought-writer. The impression is received on a sensitized plate which acts as a medium between the two minds." Memory edits form part of the UFO mythos, where they are usually known as "missing time" experiences, and are a Cliché of extraterrestrial visitors' behaviour in sf. "Aliens always erase the memory. We have a substantial literature on that subject," the protagonist explains to a bemused Alien in Lloyd Biggle Jr's All the Colors of Darkness (1963).

Memory editing as a routine security precaution is practised by the Mule, a wielder of Psi Powers, in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire (April and November-December 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; vt The Man Who Upset the Universe 1955); by the titular shops of A E van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher (July 1941 and December 1942 Astounding; February 1949 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1951); by the rustic Utopia wishing to avoid City contamination 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); by the gestalt mind of "Baby Is Three" (October 1952 Galaxy) by Theodore Sturgeon, whose Telepathic protagonist edits the recollections of the psychiatrist to whom he has cathartically unburdened himself; by the Instrumentality of Mankind in Cordwainer Smith's "Golden the Ship Was – Oh! Oh! Oh!" (April 1959 Amazing), written with Genevieve Linebarger; by Villains in James H Schmitz's A Tale of Two Clocks (1962; vt Legacy 1979); by the Rigellian diplomat in John Brunner's The Long Result (1965), who time-locks sensitive information to be recalled by the protagonist many years after; by the "Forgetters" who protect guild secrets – again with Psi Powers – in Sheri S Tepper's The Song of Mavin Manyshaped (1985); and in many other sf works. The best known film instance is Men in Black (1997), whose eponymous guardians repeatedly wipe memories with a "neuralyser"; a closely similar device is employed in The Incredibles (2004). An earlier media example features in the Japanese television series Time Traveller (1972) (see Toki o Kakeru Shōjo). Aliens are responsible for mass memory-editing in Dark City (1998).

In the field of Crime and Punishment, memory edits and memory wipes may attempt to save something from the wreckage of a criminal personality. Examples include the process of Demolition in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953) and – seen from the viewpoint of a new personality contending with lingering traces of the old – Robert Silverberg's The Second Trip (July-September 1971 Amazing; 1972).

One specific form of sf security precaution is the removal of data which must not reach enemies. Thus, prior to a dangerous mission, a Lensman colleague edits the protagonist's mind in E E Smith's Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951) to substitute – temporarily – a less formidable and knowledgable persona. Likewise in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation (January 1948 and November 1949-January 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953), a member of the eponymous organization has false data inserted into his memory to fool an irresistible interrogator. Special agents of investigation or espionage are similarly rewritten: those in Piers Anthony's Omnivore (1968) begin each case as a near tabula rasa without preconceptions, while those in Joe Haldeman's All My Sins Remembered (fixup 1977) are reduced to "10 per cent of own personality". The protagonist of Charles Stross's Glasshouse (2006), embarking on a mission which will allow hostile forces the opportunity to scan his memories, must perforce abandon most of them. Glasshouse also features the "Curious Yellow" virus which infects Matter Transmission gates and performs memory edits on those passing through, apparently an Orwellian attempt to rewrite history. Foreign agents in Eric Frank Russell's With a Strange Device (June 1956 Famous Detective Stories as "Run, Little Men!"; 1964; vt The Mindwarpers 1965) do not remove memories but implant fresh ones via a mechanical Hypnotic device with Subliminal aspects: the object is to sabotage US research scientists by saddling them with a luridly guilt-laden remembrance of having committed murder.

Benign memory edits may take away recollections too traumatic to be endured, like the young hero's knowledge of his mother's Torture and death in Night Lamp (1996) by Jack Vance. An unusual example of such healing features in Sheri S Tepper's Jinian Star-Eye (1986), where the memory edit is carried out by physical excavation of the Great Maze (see Labyrinth) which is the Gaia-like planetary soul's Theatre of Memory, in order to excise a fatally harmful trauma. The edit in Isaac Asimov's The Currents of Space (October-December 1952 Astounding; 1952) is benevolently intended – the use of a "psychic probe" device to remove anxiety – but anxiety runs through the neurotic subject's entire consciousness, and near-total Amnesia results. Similarly, characters in John Barnes's The Sky So Big and Black (2002) suffer repeated and increasingly damaging memory edits as doctors work to erase the incursions of an invasive Meme. As with the Foreign Legion, men in Bob Shaw's Who Goes Here? (1977) join the Space Legion to forget, a service here provided by the "engram erasure" Machine. The multiple edits inflicted on one innocent in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999) are unbenign and amount to a form of sophisticated Torture, as is the daily memory wipe suffered by the protagonist of Gene Wolfe's Latro sequence beginning with Soldier of the Mist (1986).

Elective memory edits feature in Fredric Brown's "Crisis, 1999" (August 1949 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) as a way to beat the Lie Detector; in Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (already cited), where citizens nearing the end of another long instalment of life choose which memories to preserve in their next Technology-based Reincarnation; in Philip K Dick's "Paycheck" (June 1953 Imagination), filmed as Paycheck (2003); in Dick's wry story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (April 1966 F&SF), where false Mars-trip memories implanted as a cheap alternative to actual travel become complexly entangled with reality – this was filmed as Total Recall (1990); in Roger Zelazny's Today We Choose Faces (1973), whose multi-faceted narrator has progressively censored his original, robust but criminal, personality; in "Jamais Vu" (March 1991 Interzone) by Geoffrey A Landis, in which it is implied that a single blissful day is being relived again and again thanks to the partial memory wipe of an experimental Drug that simulates Alzheimer's disease; and in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). The concept is central to the Anime series Kaiba (2008). Like "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" but without the subject's permission, Inception (2010) features memory insertion (via Dream Hacking) rather than the more frequent erasure. A Videogame whose action revolves around memory editing/hacking is Remember Me (2013). Memory tampering is employed to erect a Chinese wall between home and office life in the Television series Severance (2022-current).

A grandiose instance appears in Jay Lake's Escapement (2008) – second book of the Geared Earth sequence – whose female protagonist creates a device which at the climax enables her to erase all traces of her and her friends' presence from the memories of her foes.

Memory edits are disturbingly common in children's Fantasy, as for example in Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (coll 1906) and its sequel Rewards and Fairies (coll 1910), in E Nesbit's Wet Magic (July 1912 Strand; 1913), and throughout Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence. [DRL]

see also: Psychology.

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