Set in an alternate 1920s world, MEM (2018) is a short novel about a woman who is the physical manifestation of a memory extraction process. If someone has a traumatic memory they want to get rid of, Professor Toutant can remove it. The memory then becomes a physical person who lives in the “vault” below the health center at a university in Montreal. (The vault is very similar to a mental or convalescent care ward.) Most of these “mems,” whose brains carry not much beyond the extracted memory, sit around being cared for in the vault until they eventually pass away. Some of them are able to interact in the world better than others. Some even visit with the person whose memory they’re from.
Our protagonist, a mem who was the first extracted memory ever created by Professor Toutant, seems to somehow have retained a copy of the brain of the woman named Dolores from whom she was extracted. None of the other mems are like this. Elsie (as she calls herself) is so much like a real woman that the professor has let her out of the vault. She loves to meet people (she’s a bit of a local celebrity), make friends, and take in the art deco culture of Montreal.
Problems arise when Elsie is called back to the vault. Her owner, Dolores, wants to erase her and reprint a new memory on her (there is a limit to the number of mems someone can have). An identity crisis ensues as Elsie and the professor attempt to prevent her destruction.
There were many things I loved about MEM, Bethany C. Morrow’s debut novel. First of all, it’s beautifully written and emotionally impactful. Elsie is the most human character in the whole book and I was worried about her being erased. With its unique premise and plot, MEM is also highly imaginative, one of the features I look for most in a speculative fiction story.
It’s also relevant to current ethical concerns that we as a society may have to deal with very soon. When we have the capability to erase bad memories, what will we do with it? Morrow makes a compelling case for not erasing bad memories and, agreeing with her, I really liked that aspect of the novel. MEM also addresses the issue of personal empowerment. Elise has no power in her society and, therefore, struggles to pursue justice for herself.
Due to the beauty of the prose, the interesting and imaginative concept, and the likeable protagonist, MEM could have been a 5-star read for me, but I had one issue with the book that I couldn’t get over ― something that bothered me on nearly every page. I never believed any of it. The set-up never made sense to me. Why would this memory extraction process result in a physical clone of the person? What could possibly be the biology behind that? It wasn’t explained satisfactorily (it’s hard to think of an explanation that makes sense) and, even if it did make reasonable sense, why would anybody think that’s a good idea? The ramifications are so obviously horrific that no scientist, nor layperson, would ever think this was a good thing to do. Why is Elsie different from other mems? A hypothesis for this is eventually supplied, but it wasn’t enough for me. The event that happened with Elsie’s love interest at the very end of the novel was totally unbelievable. It was supposed to be sweet, but it made no sense either.
These kinds of questions occurred to me constantly as I read. I do not mind a bit of hand-waving in my science fiction, but if the novel’s entire weight is built upon such a shaky foundation, I can’t manage to relax and just go with it. Readers who don’t mind the implausibility of it all are likely to love MEM. As I said, it’s a beautiful story.
I think Morrow had a great idea about the importance of bad memories and the problem of powerlessness. I like where she was going with it and I admire her skill as a writer. I can’t wait to read more of her work.
The audio edition of MEM was produced by Blackstone Audio and read by Soneela Nankani, who gives a lovely performance. MEM is 5 hours long.