The Last Witness is another of K.J. Parker’s novellas in which an unreliable first-person narrator tells us the story of his unfortunate life. This technique worked brilliantly in Blue and Gold, and it does so again here.
The Last Witness is about a man who, when he was a boy, realized that he had the magical ability to remove people’s memories from their brains. This is a useful skill. When he was young, our narrator used it to remove incriminating memories from those who might punish him or testify against him, but later he begins to earn a living by selling his services to others.
For example, someone might hire him to eliminate a particularly unpleasant personal memory from their own brain, but more often they hire him to destroy others’ memories that might implicate them in a crime. One particular father-and-son duo are regular clients who keep needing his services as they ruthlessly climb the social ladder.
The memory-erasing job pays really well, but there are a couple of catches. One is that, because he is “the last witness” to the crimes he deletes the memories of, he is constantly being trailed by assassins. The other is that while the memories get erased from the client’s brain, they don’t actually get deleted. Instead, they become part of our protagonist’s memories, even to the point that he can’t always tell which memories were originally his and which were acquired second-hand.
Parker’s story is told in a non-linear fashion with lots of flashbacks, a technique that he masterfully employs (as I’ve seen him do before) to keep the plot mysterious, unpredictable, and twisty. The story never lags and its short length helps with this, too.
The protagonist is not a nice guy, but his cleverness, wit and cynicism is appealing and, by the end of the story, most readers will feel at least some sympathy for him. It turns out that even though his ability can make him a rich, talented, and powerful person, it has some major disadvantages and sometimes he really suffers.
My favorite aspect of the story was the focus on memory, history, and truth, and Parker brings up some fascinating ideas. If the neural trace of a memory is removed from one person’s brain and implanted into another, whose memory is it? (It was interesting that Parker makes an analogy here to the Christian doctrine of Atonement). We like to think that “truth” is what we remember happening, but if memories are so easily altered (and science shows us that they certainly are), how do we know that what we remember is true? Can we change “truth” by changing the brain? To what extent can we change our own histories and personalities merely by changing brain activity? It’s actually a scary thought.
The audio version of The Last Witness, produced by Macmillan Audio and narrated by P.J. Ochlan, is wonderful. Ochlans strikes just the right tone for our cynical and disturbed memory engineer and I totally believed in his performance. The audio version is 3.5 hours long.