New Speculative Fiction That Covers the Past and Near Future

Two recent books of speculative fiction examine the past and the near future using technologies that purport to help humanity. They raise questions of the nature of happiness and person-hood through compelling characterization and subtle world-building.

Mem: A Novel explores a Montreal of the mid 1920s, fully integrating a scientific discovery that allows the wealthy to extract memories that they find too disturbing to relive. The memories are physical beings, humanoid in appearance, but stuck in a time loop, without a way to attain their own thoughts and feelings. They have a short lifespan within an underground vault. All except for Elsie, a Mem who has lived for 18 years in the world, able to take care of herself and in most respects a separate entity from the mind of her origin. Called back to the vault and in danger of being reprinted, she begins a friendship with her doctor in order to find out why she is different and how she can prove that she is a person.

Tell the Machine Goodnight, set in the Bay area in about 15-20 years or so, imagines a multinational corporation that has developed technology that can read DNA and recommend actions to make the holder of that DNA happy. Told through multiple perspectives centered around an Apricity technician named Pearl, the book examines what semi-guaranteed happiness plans for those who can pay would do to the everyday fabric of life. Williams has a sharp eye for place and an empathetic but dry-witted voice that makes this an immediately absorbing novel.

Mem: a novel

In the imagined past of Montreal in 1925, scientists have been able to extract memories from humans that exist as separate beings, called Mems, who live in the loops of time that their creators have chosen and then eventually die. Elsie is an exception, a Mem who has survived for 18 years, well beyond the projected lifespan of an Extraction. When her sponsored existence is called into question, she needs to find out what makes her different to justify her ability to live as an independent person.

Tell the Machine Goodnight

The Apricity Corporation owns the patented technology that can, with a swipe of the cheek, analyze your DNA and let you know what you need to do to be happy, in a list of suggested actions. Pearl, a technician at Apricity, provides support and readings to Apricity’s corporate clients, and dutifully follows the suggestions of her own Apricity scan. Following Pearl, her son who is struggling with anorexia, her ex-husband, and her obnoxious manager, the book examines how this technology has influenced people’s lives and their perceptions of what happiness means.