Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal
“My clients are most excited by wabi-sabi-” I paused as the confusion on his face deepened. “It’s a Japanese term. Something that witnesses and records the graceful decay of life. See? Someone underlined ‘autocratic’. The ink is the same green as Leopold Wesselman’s name, so he probably did the underlining. It’s a tiny peek into his thoughts.”
Mary Robinette Kowal’s Forest of Memory (2016) is a thoughtful look at our relationship with technology, both analogue and digital, and how that relationship is superseding our relationship with nature and changing who we are. The novella is set in the near future, where everyone is continuously hooked up to a network, with a personal A.I. that assists them and provides a complete record of their experiences. It is told from the point of view of Katya Gould, a dealer in Authenticities and Captures, who upon returning home through a forest finds herself cut off from the network and the technology that connects her to the rest of the world, and captured by a hunter, who is performing some kind of experiment on the dwindling deer population. The novella is framed as Katya’s typewritten account, commissioned by one of her clients. Kowal deftly explores our dependence on technology, and our helplessness when it is removed, and what that might mean for the natural world around us.
Forest of Memory is essentially about the fallibility of human memory, the transient nature of our experiences. Thanks to her A.I., Katya is used to being able to instantly replay and have access to information from her memories. Her experience of being captured in the forest stands out in sharp relief to the rest of her life not just because of the terror and fear of being kidnapped, but due to the fact that it’s the one part of her life that she has no external validation of; all she has are her own memories. Being disconnected from the network makes her realise both how quickly memories fade, but also how inadequate recordings are in capturing the subjective reality of an experience – the emotions, the feelings that give the experience its realness, its lived-in-ness. This is cleverly reflected in the framing mechanism. The novella is written as Katya’s manuscript of her experience, requested by one of her clients, written on an old typewriter, complete with typos, spelling mistakes and crossings out, as Katya gets caught up in her memories and struggles to adequately convey to a faceless stranger the nature of the things she has been through.
Katya’s manuscript is just one example of the kind of ephemera she collects for her clients. The digital nature of the future the story is set in has created a heightened nostalgia for obsolete physical artefacts – Authenticities – such as physical books and old typewriters. The appeal of these objects, as Katya explains in the story, is that unlike digital media, which can be stored remotely on a cloud and never physically seen, they display their use and their age in how they physically decay. The creases on an old book, the worn out buttons on a typewriter – both are a marker of age and use. These old objects convey the history of their lives, hint at their relationship to the people who owned them before – something you can’t get from a digital file.
Kowal’s novella extrapolates from the fetishisation of nostalgia that we see in the current enthusiasm for obsolete formats like cassette tapes, in a way that is quite pertinent. In the digital age we mourn the loss of physical formats, despite all their drawbacks, largely because of the relationship we have with them as signifiers, the memories and experiences they bring to mind.
Katya’s clients are also interested in Captures – clips and photos of unique personal experiences. Before being captured, she tries to create a Capture of seeing the deer walk across the forest road. In a world full of digital noise – social media, instant messages, phone calls, an A.I. never more than a thought away – these small unreproducible moments of quiet that symbolise a particular snapshot in a particular life provide an oasis away from all the sensory overload. Again, when people have access to everything, these moments highlight the importance of memories filled with personal significance, of uniqueness, of something that simply cannot be produced on demand at your whim.
Katya’s job may revolve around a love and appreciation of old technology, but when she is cut off from her access to modern technology by the hunter’s jamming signal, she realises how reliant she is on it. The tech in Forest of Memory is an extension of the tech we have today. Without access to the net, Katya has no idea where she is or how to get back to civilisation, has no way of finding out more about her current situation or sending for help. In the story, all this can be done by a device implanted in the ear, but in reality this is a fair approximation of our relationship to our smartphones. A similar thing is going on with Katya’s outsourcing of her memory to the cloud – already we are quite comfortable not remembering phone numbers or addresses, we rely on our GPS to get us around, we rely on Facebook to remind us when our friends’ birthdays are. We romanticise old technology, but we depend on modern technology to an alarming extent.
While Katya finds technology comforting, the forest becomes a source of terror. Kowal explores how our relationship with technology has in many ways replaced our relationship with nature. Forests are sources of growth, of food and water and life, however Katya lacks the knowledge to fend for herself or to navigate through the forest, and becomes totally reliant on her captor. Kowal portrays the forest as both a source of great natural beauty, but also as the inconvenience and cage that it is to Katya. The scenes describing her capture and her captivity in the company of a mysterious stranger whose motivations we never find out are frightening and intense. While the hunter never hurts Katya, and from what we see of his actions, where he bargains for her safety with his unseen superiors, he does seems to want to get through his mission without hurting her, but Kowal never downplays the fear, discomfort and powerlessness that comes from being in someone else’s control.
Because Katya never meets the agency in charge of the operation, she never finds out what the hunter’s mission is, but upon her return to civilisation she begins to put together a theory that combines all the themes of the story, and connects the novella to the mythic. Forest of Memory‘s ending implies that the deer are not truly dying off, but merely being taken off-line, for the creation of a natural network that mirrors our own, and comes closer to making the forest a unified living, intelligent being. This inversion sees our natural world becoming its own form of technology, perhaps one that will make our own digital networks as obsolete as the antiques collected by Katya’s clients. Perhaps the technology we create will one day outgrow us before we outgrow it.