The Memory Police – By Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police is an interesting book. After reading it through, I think it can be summed up in one word – mournful. 

This is a book about loss. It’s a dystopian novel on a nameless island, at an indeterminate time. The world building and setting is intentionally vague.There is a dreamlike and haunting quality to it where nothing is firmly set and things could shift at the slightest touch.

I was drawn to this book by comparisons that I’d read online that likened the book to a cross between George Orwell’s 1984 and a Haruki Murakami novel. I love dystopian novels, 1984, and adore Murakami so that comparison sent this to the top of my to read list. Given that this was a common contrast made by those who read the book I had pretty high expectations going in. Having finished it now, I’d agree that it does match this comparison, but not unilaterally – there are some concessions to be made. 

I think where Ogawa’s book begins to share traits with Murakami’s style is in the strangeness of the book. As the plot evolves there are moments that brought to mind Murakami stories where things diverge from the beautiful mundanity of his primary worlds and begin to descend into the surreal and strange. The comparisons to Murakami are more apt in that regard, as The Memory Police felt more firmly rooted in the strange than the mundane. 

For all of its light and vague qualities however, the dystopian aspects are quietly horrifying – this is a harrowing book and the haunting nature of it brings with it a hopelessness that I wasn’t expecting. Hopelessness, horror and harrowing events are part and parcel for a dystopian novel but they’re usually a sledgehammer – there is a message, a cautionary tale, and it is hammered home with brutality. The Memory Police is different. It’s a poisoned needle on a silk pillow. There is a real delicacy to the book that was of profound importance in not only distinguishing it from other dystopian novels, but also to the overall success of the story. 

To elaborate on that point, the plot surrounds memory (obviously), the presence of it but also the absence of it. The titular Memory Police are a shadowy organisation that appear to rule all inhabitants of the ‘Island’ and are responsible for overseeing the people living there, but more significantly, they’re the ones who enforce the disappearances. Nothing can be taken for granted in this world because the memory of something could simply disappear one day, taking with it all concern or recollection of it. When something that has been forgotten is not willingly surrendered and disposed of by the residents, they will step in to ensure that it is removed. Once something has been forgotten it simply ceases to register to the people living there, even if it rests in their hands. 

The real mystery of the book is the nature of memory and the purpose or design behind the progressive selection of things that vanish from memory. There is no way for most to know how much they’ve lost, just as they fail to recall an object, concept or its purpose once it is gone. The delirium in these moments deepens the dreamlike quality. There is a unique and keen hopelessness when one cannot comprehend what has been lost, while continuing to lose things. They are helpless to stop it. It’s a terrifying prospect and an insidious exercise in control. These voids leave a deep emptiness for the reader. You’re left to mourn the losses of the people, even as they forget and move on. Yoko Ogawa toys with the notion of how much one can lose while still remaining yourself – how would you even know that you’ve changed.

Most of what we are is memory. The totality of ones life and experience is deeply rooted in memory, in your own and that of others. It is vital to our sense of self.The concepts that Yoko Ogawa plays with here are truly haunting. There is a very good reason why dystopian novels often explore concepts like identity, individualism, freedom, and self determination. The loss of that sort of autonomy, the loss of what is irreducibly and uniquely you, is intolerable. The fact that this book is as beautiful and sad as it is, is a testament to that. 

It is a light and dreamlike read that is equally haunting, vague, and strange. If you enjoyed books like Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, you will definitely enjoy this. I highly recommend it, but make sure you have something cheery to read as a follow up – you’ll probably need it. 

Pandemic Page-turners: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Sci-Fi? Aliens? First Contact? Check, check and check.

Axiom’s End is the first book in a new series called ‘Noumena’ by Lindsay Ellis. The second book ‘Truth of the Divine’ is due October this year, so now is the perfect time to tuck into Axiom’s End and join me being hyped.

I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi and have been since I was a kid. So any book that purports to be about Aliens and first contact are irresistible to me, regardless of execution. Name it and I’ve probably read it, the good and the bad. So given my preponderance of Sci-Fi books what did I think about Axiom’s End?

I loved it.

This book scratched a lot of itches. I realised that I haven’t read a really gratifying book about Alien life in a long time. There are a lot of great ideas in this corner of the genre and Lindsay Ellis explores some of the most fascinating ones.

First is the concept of Aliens. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise the idea of Aliens. It’s in our nature to do it. To visualise another intelligence, that could very well be unknowable, it is reasonable to assume that we would apportion these existences familiar anatomical landmarks. But in reality intelligent life out there could be so unfamiliar and unknowable to us that we wouldn’t know it if we saw it. I love that mystery. It is something that is utterly out of our comfort zone and experience. I think the book addresses this concept while also moving along a narrative vector that abides it. The concept of Aliens is, well, Alien.

One of my favourite ideas from the book came about from a discussion between two characters, that I won’t spoil, but it concerns the concept of the ‘Great Filter’. This is in relation to the Fermi Paradox, named after Physicist Enrico Fermi. I won’t go too deeply into it, but the gist of it is this: Given the enormity of space, the billions of potential of stars and planets that could theoretically support life in our galaxy, why have we not already encountered intelligent species beyond our own? The contrasting lack of evidence of other intelligences lead to the argument that there is a qualifying process that a species must pass through before extending beyond their star – a great filter for civilisation. It begs the question: when is this obstacle encountered, and when found, what is required to pass it?

This is heady stuff and I love that the book delves into these concepts.

Amongst these broad themes is the main character Cora Sabino and her family. The book is their story amidst tidal undercurrents of global change. Given how significant the events in the book, focusing on a family was an incredibly clever way to ground the story and make it relatable, while also exploring the deeper implications of Alien life and what that might do to our civilisation and our view of the Universe.

Through Cora we determine how prepared we are for the appearance of Alien life while also reconciling how we might go about quantifying it and understanding it. We have the contrasting needs of Cora’s granular concerns regarding her family and their wellbeing and her own safety and the overarching security of state and the governments mandate to protect and insulate the people in the face of something that nobody really understands.

Cora’s struggle between the immovable forces of government, the unknowable and unfathomable depths of Alien life and her own estranged whistleblowing father make for a dynamic and multifaceted conflict that explores the primary questions surrounding the idea of Alien life such as disclosure and freedom of information versus the need for security, preparation and the public’s ability to deal with this information.

And beyond all of this is the actual process of communicating and even understanding an Alien intelligence.

I’m inclined to keep talking about it but this post is more to nudge people toward reading the book, and not to break it down and spoil things. It’s better this way.

The more books we have on this topic the better and Lindsay Ellis have given us a great one. I’m looking forward to the next.

You must read SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson: Here’s why

sevenevesNeal Stephenson is a challenging and erudite author. He is the writer responsible for Snow Crash, one of my favourite books, along with classics like The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle and Anathem. Lauded, celebrated and awarded – Neal Stephenson has many laurels. When SEVENEVES hit shelves around the world Barack Obama, then POTUS and leader of the free world, earmarked it for his summer reading. When the POTUS dedicates time to kicking back and reading a Sci-Fi novel, you know that it isn’t an ordinary book.

Read More »

You must read Sleeping Giants

sleeping-giantsSleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel is the first book in a series that he has dubbed The Themis Files. I found this one entirely by chance while browsing a bookstore, and after reading the blurb I knew I had to experience it. At this stage it is looking to be at least a trilogy, with Sylvain Neuvel implying that there could be more. Sounds great to me. The sequel, Waking Gods, is due for release in April this year. So this is the perfect time to jump in and grab this one. The wait will be far less agonising for you.

Like glimpses of bafflingly advanced alien technology? Giant robots? Ambitious scientists? Enjoy enigmatic G-men with complex agendas and suspiciously vast resources? This book delivers.Read More »

You must read Stranded By Bracken MacLeod

Stranded by Bracken MacLeod (published by Tor Books) drew me in immediately. The book is complex, dark and unapologetically cryptic. The book is atmospheric, tense and mysterious in the tradition of some of the greats in horror fiction. This book will sneak up on you, twist you with dread and suspicion, and then fade away leaving you wondering if it’s truly gone or still out there in the darkness.Read More »

The Lazarus War: Origins – A Retrospective

I haven’t written about the same series twice before. I like to write about them once they are completed, so that I can come at the review and analysis with the full picture and a resolved plot. It is definitely a neater way to do it so I’ve tried to maintain that. This becomes a problem with a series, especially an ongoing one, so I suppose this will be something I face on this blog again in the future. Especially when I read a book that is so good, that gets me so excited about it, that I just have to write about it, to tell people about it. The Lazarus War: Artefact was one of those. You can read my initial review here.

So, I blasted my review off after finishing Artefact, in the afterglow. I was immensely excited by the knowledge that the third book in the trilogy had recently been released. The full trilogy was ready for me to binge on. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but now that I’ve finished Origins, I need to come back to it and write about it again, as a whole. Read More »

You must read The Lazarus War: Artefact

The Lazarus War is a Sci-Fi trilogy by Jamie Sawyer. The first book is called Artefact, published by Orbit Books.

Artefact is a pure, concentrated page-turner. It is compulsively readable and incredible fun. Sawyer is clearly a huge fan of Sci-Fi subculture, and that works just fine for me. He evokes the tense and powerful Marine group dynamic of Aliens, the interstellar travel and stacked odds of Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, while tossing in the awesome notion of armoured space marines fighting repellent and hyper aggressive alien civilisations. It soars.

The first book is an explosion of conflict, intrigue and world building. Read More »

If you loved The Stand, you must read The Dead Lands – Here’s why

The post-apocalyptic novel, since 1978, has lived in the shadow of a titan – Stephen King’s The Stand. Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands is the first book that I’ve truly felt had temerity to pick up the gauntlet. I’ve been waiting for a book like this. It is a reinterpretation of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition in a post-apocalyptic United States, a United States that has been decimated by an epidemic and twisted by radiation. The land is crippled, broken and mutated. Creatures have evolved and changed. Hairless wolves, giant spiders and other nightmares stalk the boundaries of human settlements. Humanity cowers inside their walls. It is a compelling premise, and Percy packs an incredibly ambitious work of imagination into just under 400 pages.Read More »

No Man’s Sky is destroying my productivity

I’ve been playing No Man’s Sky on the PS4 recently. And it is destroying my productivity. Between work, life and exploring the solar system my reading and writing has fallen onto the back burner. This is bad. But the game is amazing. There has been a lot of negativity surrounding it, especially the PC port, but so far the PS4 seems to me a calm, clear island in the storm. It’s free of the game breaking issues players on the PC have been experiencing.

I tried not to buy into the hype in the lead up to the game’s release, but I was expecting something pretty amazing all the same. Thus far I haven’t been disappointed. Read More »

You must read Station Eleven

“Survival is Insufficient”

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is a beautiful and evocative funeral for the modern world. It is a reflective wake, a melancholic and introspective analysis of what it means to be alive now, and how rapidly and irrevocably life can change. St John Mandel creates a substance and beauty in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of her world that I’ve rarely experienced when dealing with these themes. She champions humanity. We see how people face their end, and how people treat with what is left behind. We see the far reaching implications of decisions made and actions taken, their ripples and the resulting effects. We see that there is good in people, and hope, even as the world falls to ruin. This book is the finest novel of this type that I’ve encountered since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.Read More »