So Clearly

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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So Clearly

In the end, it call came down to a few neurotransmitters and some natural electricity.

Humanity had been studying its own brains — the only things to ever name themselves, when you think about it — since we first realised that our consciousness was a phenomenon contained within those organs. The real progress, though, came when we could finally probe the chemistry of the brain in real time. From that point, advances were made rapidly.

Scientists were probably surprised that something as mysterious and insubstantial as memory was one of the very first things to be completely understood. We saw exactly how the multitude of impulses from sensory organs, the nervous system, and other signals from both the body and from elsewhere in the brain were then encoded in chemical links, all of them overlapping and constantly changing in intensity and connectivity. We were eventually able to create a wholly accurate computer model of the encoding and consolidation of a memory, and then we were able to watch it happen live, with suitable equipment. Then we learned to initiate the process deliberately.

The one wrinkle was that only new memories could be implanted; there was no way to either erase what was already there, or to change it. And within those caveats, the sole unusual fact was that the memory-implantation process itself was never remembered, like a computer updating its own operating system.

In retrospect, the applications for the technology were inevitable — as were the regulations controlling its use.

Private memory-modification was made illegal almost immediately, due to potential for altering virtually every aspect of society. As with anything illegal, it thus became the property of two groups: those who made the laws, and those who broke them.

There were prominent cases covered breathlessly in the media for years. As a method of torture, memory mods were incredibly effective. There was no need to actually threaten to do harm to someone’s family if you could make them remember it already happening. There was even one bizarre situation where a false memory of spousal abuse was implanted by a jealous suitor in order to break up a marriage. But such things were vanishingly rare.

Much more commonly, the purpose of memory creation was to punish within the law — or under exceptional circumstances, to provide rewards to citizens whose behaviour was seen as most beneficial. In all cases, though, there was an inviolable rule: for reasons of indemnity and more, no actual person could be the subject of manufactured memories. The loophole was that the prohibition only applied to the living.

Soldiers who were serving overseas when their loved ones passed away were given memories of an in-person goodbye, peaceful and fulfilling. The human mind took care of all the rationalisation to compensate for chronological and factual impossibility; the need to believe in the memories was much stronger than cold logic. Equally, society’s worst offenders were given vivid memories to haunt them; not of their victims, but of those they cared about most, expressing their shame and fury and horror at whatever the crime had been. Recidivism rates dropped to the single digits overnight.

There are whispers, of course. There always are.

Things that are called conspiracy theories, and paranoia, and the deliberate sowing of distrust and unrest. We hear about military use of memory-modification, to instil hatred beyond anything possible with ideology; the creation of vendettas and crusades. We hear about enhanced interrogation techniques that on one hand create memories of the worst torments, and on the other create memories of having been a double-agent all along, loyal in fact to the country now asking the questions. But our leaders deny all of it, scornfully and easily.

I grew up as part of a generation for whom the technology was ubiquitous and unremarkable. Anything can be unremarkable if it has been around for longer than your own recollections. I’ve even heard whispers that the technology is newer than is generally believed — or indeed recalled.

We first learn about it in school, for the most part, at around eight years of age. It’s frowned-upon to discuss it with children any younger than that. The curriculum is very careful to prefix the details with all of the many protections that exist to prevent any misuse or abuse of such a profound ability held by the state. And children, of course, accept it — just as they accept almost anything.

My grandmother still lived with us at the time when I had the much-anticipated hour-long class about the modification of memories. I came home from school that day and told her all about it, and she recounted the days before it was a daily reality, and the crime rates, and the lack of social cohesion and personal responsibility to others.

It was a good thing, she said, even though a child could find the idea frightening at times. Whatever flights of dark fantasy and paranoia the technology might inspire, in practice it was a positive influence in our culture, and she was very grateful for it.

She was wearing her pale green floral dress, and chopping vegetables at the counter beside the sink while she spoke. I could smell a chicken roasting in the oven. I was happy. I remember it all so clearly.

I just don’t know whether it really happened.

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