This week, Futures is pleased to welcome back Jeremy Szal with his latest story, Traumahead. Regular readers will know that Jeremy has contributed a few stories to Futures before in the shape of When there’s only dust left, Walls of Nigeria, System reboot and Daega’s test. For his latest piece, Jeremy heads to the battlefield in search of memories. You can find out more about Jeremy’s work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.
There’s no device like the human brain, but it’s pretty shoddy hunk of tissue when it comes to conscious memory. We remember events shortly after they’ve happened, but as the weeks, months and years go by, those memories become fuzzy and distorted. Other times, conversations, scenery, facial expressions and the details of a scene change. We become so certain of the sequences of events and the particulars surrounding them, so when we examine a picture, audio or video recording of the same incident, we’re surprised to find that our brains have been misleading, or sometimes lying, to us. Because the hardware we use to store audio/visual memory cannot lie to us. It’s objective. It presents exactly what was in front of us. Our brains do not. It’s scary to think that a $10 photo camera can do something better than the human brain, but it’s true.
I lived overseas in Austria during my early teenage years, and have a pretty solid recollection of the house I lived in, the people I knew, the streets I walked everyday for three years. I was glancing at some old photos recently, and was told a very different story about details I could have sworn my life on. A harsh reminder of the brain’s unpredictability. I take photos of almost everywhere I go for future use, because I know I can’t possibly remember every detail down to a tee. But the device in my pocket can. Even if something departs from human memory, it still lives on digitally through stored pixels and soundwaves. And if we can store a picture, why not a civilization?
This concept led me to building a story where a majestic warrior race of aliens use collected memories of their civilization to avoid mass extinction at the hands of humans. Humans have attempted to wipe out opposing peoples and tribes by destroying any trace of them or their cultural footprint. The logic being if no one remembers them, they didn’t exist. The Jhulivaans get around this cruel strategy by storing fragments of their memory that detail their accomplishments and peoples, letting them live on forever, hidden away until they’re rediscovered, despite the best efforts of humans. It’s the best and only form of revenge they’ll get. I like the idea of there being buried data caches of alien civilizations on far-away planets as proof of a wider, richer galaxy, both as a world-building device and a sense of permanency.
But with everything I write, I wanted to include a personal and emotional element to this — a way to experience the gravitas and tragedy of this mass extinction. And what better way than a first-person account of a battle-scarred warrior as he stumbles across the remains of the empire he once called home, now crumbling due to human greed. It had to be him, because data can read statistics and technical values, but not the emotion behind it, and these memories were founded on emotional, conscious states, an idea I’m also quite fond of.
He’s able to save the memories of his fellow warriors, marking their existence permanent, but not his daughter. Like incidents we vaguely remember but have no backup data of, her memory, her existence, is “written in pencil, not ink”. But that doesn’t stop him from holding onto her memory anyway, because sometimes it’s the value we place behind a memory, not the accuracy of it, that’s important.