The Science of Forgetting

By James Treadwell

Posted on May 8, 2014 in Books with tags James Treadwell, Science

Anarchy, the second novel in James Treadwell’s extraordinary Advent trilogy, publishes in paperback today. We’re delighted to welcome James to the blog to discuss memory, magic, and the power of forgetting.

Remember answering machines? Proper answering machines? Thumb-sized buttons, miniature cassettes of magnetic tape, that not very sleek grey styling which passed for high-tech in the analogue Eighties? Their heyday was brief. If you’re under thirty you may have missed it altogether. But they were everywhere for a while, until taking messages became the first of those things phones could do by themselves. If you do remember them, it’s probably without much fondness. Not because they were clanky and whirry and fiddly and came with pages of printed instructions — clankiness has its own nostalgic charm, after all (hence steampunk). No, the distaste more likely comes from remembering what turned out to be the primal trauma of the answering machine: that moment during the setup phase when you had to listen to your own “welcome message.” Answering machines introduced a whole generation of us to the particular ghastliness of hearing what one’s voice actually sounds like. Until they came along, the vast majority of us only ever heard ourselves from the inside, where (like people singing along to their headphones) we all think we sound perfectly pitched and tuned. Or at least normal. Or at least not like the terrible stilted quacking impostor revealed by the magnetic tape, who made us ask ourselves, Is that really what I sound like? Really?

There’s something of the same quality to the experience of reading one’s own writing in print. A couple of weeks ago, courtesy of the lovely people at Hodder (no, they don’t make me put that bit in), I was sent some copies of the paperback edition of Anarchy. Pausing only to admire its terrifically baleful cover, and when no one was looking, I did that thing I’m always telling my kids not to do and opened it near the back to see how it ends.  Almost at once I came across a phrase which gave me a weird jolt, that same alienated recognition we children of the answering machine era used to get from hearing ourselves instruct callers to leave their messages after the beep.

adventThe phrase is in a passage describing the general debris and squalor of a landscape where some kind of squatter camp has until recently been in residence and there’s been no organised rubbish collection for a very long time. Surveying a roadful of litter, the book calls it

 testimony to a catastrophic failure of the whole science of forgetting.

The particularly odd thing about discovering those words was that I suddenly remembered spending half an hour or so copying them out over and over again in the basement of a bookshop in Covent Garden, months past. The shop had asked me to come in and sign a couple of shelves-worth of the hardback edition of Anarchy. As well as a signature, they like the author to inscribe something more distinctive: a date, perhaps, or (someone suggested) a phrase from the book. And that was the phrase I’d chosen. (Something shorter might have been more sensible, though — fortunately — I write with a pen anyway, so my wrist was never in danger of seizing up.) I’d completely forgotten about it.

Which is apt, I suppose. And characteristic: in my case, forgetting isn’t so much a science as a habit, or maybe a reflex. Still, I wonder what I was thinking. I must have felt that those words somehow came to the heart of the matter, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered writing them on title page after title page. But — did I really write that? Really?

Apart from anything else, you’d have to say that “a catastrophic failure of the whole science of forgetting” doesn’t sound all that terribly catastrophic. Catastrophes — especially in fantasies like the Advent Trilogy, in which the world suffers some kind of invasion or alteration — tend to look a bit more … well … dramatic. You know the sort of thing. Aliens arrive and go on the rampage. Or zombies. Or the evil government takes over and compels nine-tenths of the population to serfdom. Or if not the evil government, the Dark Lord, released from his millennia of imprisonment. Now that’s a disaster that can get its teeth into you. What’s so terrible about a “failure of the science of forgetting”? What is this “science of forgetting”, anyway? Is it just an overwrought euphemism for “regular rubbish collection”? Admittedly, it’s annoying when the bin-men don’t come, but still, it seems like an awfully prosaic way of talking about what happens when magic returns to the world.

anarchyIn fact, the more I skimmed through my fresh-minted paperback, the less I could help noticing how often characters in Anarchy insist that what’s happening to the world isn’t actually an invasion or an alteration at all. They keep talking about magic as if it’s something that was always there. As if it’s to do with the actual nature of things; as if the fact that we don’t believe in it, that its return is terrifyingly strange and threatening to us, is somehow our fault, a category error on our part; as if we’d forgotten something we ought to have known all along. More than once, it turns out, the characters who appear to know what they’re talking about say that magic is, simply, the truth. It was lying there all along, like all that rubbish in the road, and the only thing that’s changed is that there’s no longer someone coming along once a week to sweep it up and truck it out of sight and dump it in a hole in the ground to be buried forever, or burned to help power our phones.

Really? Anarchy describes a world in which (among other implausibilities) technology ceases to function properly for no reason, there are fairies under the bed, and you can talk to dead people. How is any of this the result of a “failure of the science of forgetting”? It sounds more like the exact opposite, doesn’t it? You’d normally say that you can only have all that stuff, all the fantasy stuff — magic and fairies and necromancy and the inexplicable — because of forgetting, not in spite of it. You have to forget that magic’s not true in order to read fantasy at all, unless you’re going to treat it all as a joke, which doesn’t seem to be what’s happening in Anarchy. Some people — a lot of people, perhaps — might go so far as to say that the whole pleasure of fantasy lies in a certain kind of forgetting: basically, forgetting that there’s no such thing as dragons.

We live in a world founded on the conviction that things are either true or they’re not. That’s the basis of scientific rationalism, and scientific rationalism is what makes our cars go and our houses stay up. In what sense does distinguishing between provable truth and provable untruth have anything to do with “forgetting”? Surely it’s because we know so much about the fundamental structure of the universe, and because we remember that we know, that we can do all the things we can do. Survive diseases. Travel thirty thousand feet above the sea. Talk to people on the other side of the world as if they were standing in front of us. Know what the weather’s going to be like before it happens. Touch a rock which was once part of the moon. All of us (I say “all” because if you’re not on the internet, you’re not reading this) live partially immersed in a computational universe, and computers are basically gigantic symphonies playing out the difference between truth and not-truth: ones and zeroes, billions of them, flicking back and forth between their two states. On or off. True or false. If magic has a place in this scheme, we all know where it belongs. Magic is zero, false, off. This all seems perfectly straightforward. What could we possibly have missed? What was there to forget?

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