by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]
Memory Lane - Enter Slowly
I fondly remember the first time I read Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. I was still in my teens, and the series had been out for years already. I read the first 5 books over the course of a summer -- what was for me the last of those lazy, idyllic childhood summers -- about a year before my grandfather succumbed to some form of dementia that was not Alzheimer's, but which had similar symptoms of short-term memory loss and disorientation, only with a more rapid onset and progressive decline.
Volume one of the Amber series, Nine Princes in Amber (1970), opens with the narrator awakening in a hospital bed. He has no recollection of who he might be or what happened to him. His legs are in full casts, but he feels pretty confident that there's really nothing wrong with his legs. He manages to divest himself of the unnecessary plaster and break out of his confinement. When he learns that his sister (whom he also doesn't remember) had him placed under care at this pseudo-medical facility, he tracks her down to learn what he can of his past. Then the real fun begins, as he meets other members of his unusual family who seem to be afraid of him, and bluffs them into thinking that he has regained his memory, when in fact he knows nothing at all about himself or them. He's still just playing along at this point, in a desperate effort to fill in the many massive blanks in his head. It's a real delight to follow Corwin's adventure as his past history slowly unfolds and his memories eventually begin to return. It's a brilliant series -- at least for the first few books. You can safely stop after volume 5, The Courts of Chaos (1978).
Since reading the Chronicles of Amber, I've always been drawn to stories about characters suffering from some form of memory loss. These tales can be a great deal of fun because they allow the reader to share in the character's self-discovery. After all, as the reader, you have no knowledge of who this character is when the story begins. If the character shares your ignorance, it forms a little bond between you, and you and the character are able to share any discoveries about his (or her) past. When used effectively like Zelazny does, it can be a wonderful little trick.
But most people are not Corwin, Prince of Amber. And a great many people who suffer some form of memory loss, are not lucky enough to regain what they have lost. Their stories, however, can still be interesting. And the same literary trick can still work.
Remember, this predated movies like Memento and Fifty First Dates by many years. Damn, what a cool idea. And what an awkward constraint for an author to impose on himself -- a first person narrative related by someone who can never remember what just happened. But Wolfe is a good enough writer not only to pull it off, but to make it look easy. When Soldier of Arete was released in 1989, I lined up for a first edition and devoured it eagerly.
When I first heard Soldier of Sidon was coming, I couldn't wait. I bought my first edition copy and read it... more than a year later. Honestly, I don't know how it kept getting bumped from my "Read me" list, but when it won the World Fantasy Award recently, I decided it could wait no longer.
Latro, our memory-impaired narrator, is now in Egypt, on a quest to find a cure so that he might remember as other men do. He's also on a mission into unknown territory of the upper Nile, on behalf of the foreign Prince currently ruling in Egypt... when he can remember what that mission is about. Oh, did I mention he also sees gods? Yes, in addition to the mist that devours his memory, Latro has also been endowed with the ability to see supernatural beings invisible to most others. A trip to the local temple is always a treat with this guy around.
Latro is a stalwart character, honest and brave, and something of a stoic. He's also rather likable. He has some valuable friends who stand by him and, knowing his disability, assist him as much as they are able. Others, of course, try to take advantage of him. His writing style is very simple and direct. Wolfe's style, however, is not at all what could be called simple. He maintains an exquisite balance between telling a good story and keeping it just plausible enough (with the requisite willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader) to be Latro's actual words, recorded millennia ago and translated only yesterday. The resulting story is nowhere near as straightforward as Latro's style and purpose aim for. On the contrary, it can be challenging at times to determine exactly what's going on. But that's the joy of this kind of writing: the reader shares some of the character's challenges, and the alert reader will be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together and feel a sense of accomplishment at having been clever enough to have done so.
I think the fact that this novel, a sequel nearly 20 years after the last book in the series, earned a World Fantasy
Award, is an indication that the WFA isn't just about popularity; it's often about true artistic merit. And that reminds
me: a good yardstick of artistic merit is often the degree to which opinions are polarized. I loved all three of these
books, and all of them were nominated for the WFA. A couple of people have told me they utterly despised Soldier
of the Mist -- thought it was unreadable, wouldn't go near the rest of the series, and wouldn't be caught dead with
a copy in their possession. Yep, I think when you get such radically differing opinions, you know you're looking at
a real work of art.
"Her name is Alohilani. You and she were very much in love. You must take her back to the house. Keep walking east until you get to the river. Follow the river downstream to the house. East is the direction of the rising sun. They will help you when you get there."The story unfolds in short episodes, jumping to various points in the past and back to the present. It soon becomes apparent that the young man, Sandor Courane, is suffering from some fatal and debilitating illness which manifests in, among other symptoms, progressively worsening memory loss. Obviously, by the point at which the book opens, he's already pretty far gone.
When the blanks are filled in, we learn that TECT is an all-knowing, all-powerful computer that pretty much controls all human life. Sandor Courane is ordered to become a Basketball Star, even though he's never played before and isn't entirely sure what the game is all about. He gives it his best shot, but TECT feels his performance just isn't good enough. He is given a second assignment: become a best-selling science fiction author. TECT even outlines the plot of his first novel. He writes the book, but sales are underwhelming, and TECT declares a second failure. After a third strike, Courane is sent through an interstellar gate to a sort of prison planet. The colony on this planet has existed for more than a century, but there are only about a dozen inhabitants. The reason soon becomes apparent: everyone who comes here gets ill and dies within a couple of years. One of the early signs of the illness is memory loss. This becomes progressively worse, until... did I already tell you this part?
Anyhow, the clever effect of the story is the episodic revelation of events, similar to how you can imagine Courane's memories drift in and out of focus. Sometimes he remembers something for a short time and then it's gone again. One of the things we discover is that Courane has been striving since his arrival on this cursed planet to find out what exactly is happening and how to stop it -- if not for himself, then for future arrivals. Eventually the reader fits all the puzzle pieces together, and we get the whole story.
On the Golden Gryphon website, Wolves of Memory is described as "a powerful, poignant yet sardonic story." I can't imagine three more fitting words to describe this work. At times it is quite humorous, but the humour has a distinctly bitter edge to it. At times, it is very moving. The combined result is indeed a powerful and -- dare I say -- memorable tale. This is certainly one of the best stories I've ever read featuring a theme of memory loss. Of course, it's about far more than just that. But whatever you read about this story will not do it justice. For that, you have to read the story itself.
The remainder of the collection A Thousand Deaths includes seven other Sandor Courane stories. All of them are worth reading too, although they are very different in tone -- frequently much lighter and funnier. For what it's worth, this book was number two on my own personal top 10 list of books from 2007.
What's This Column About?
Right. Is one of these two books I've been discussing overlooked, and is one of them over-hyped?
I definitely think Wolves of Memory is overlooked. I, for one, had overlooked it; I hadn't even heard of it before, and I only stumbled onto it by accident. I don't believe it garnered any awards -- certainly no major ones. But what a terrific little novel it is. With last year's A Thousand Deaths still readily available, you have a great opportunity to get hold of a genuine overlooked classic, with some wonderful bonus material.
And what about Soldier of Sidon, is that over-hyped? No, I don't think so. It may not be a better book than Soldier of the Mist or Soldier of Arete, but it stands up to my recollection of those works and it makes a very welcome addition to the series. It's definitely extremely high quality speculative literature -- a work of art and well worth reading, although it will make more sense if you start from the beginning of the series. There are some references to past events that you won't catch if you haven't read the earlier books. (But really, you don't need to worry too much; the narrator won't understand the references either.)
I explained above why it is that stories about memory loss can appeal to readers. I just want to say that I fully understand and appreciate that this is an example of art not even approaching an imitation of life. Stepping outside of the world of fiction for a moment, let's look at the brutally cold truth of the real world. If you've every had to deal with memory loss in real life, you know that it's pretty much the farthest thing from fun. It's painful for the sufferer, and it's painful for family and friends trying to cope with it. I watched someone I loved and admired as he was utterly destroyed in this way. He went from a strong, confident, intelligent, self-reliant individual to a weak, frightened, and ineffectual shadow of a man. It was the ugliest thing I've every witnessed, and no fictionalized account could pretty it up in a meaningful way. He died more than 20 years ago, and I'm still haunted by the memory of his dehumanizing journey.
In many ways, all we are is the collection of our memories. When those are gone, what's left is just an empty husk. Now when I think of him, I prefer to remember my grandfather as the intelligent, capable man I first knew, rather than the empty husk he became. But neither will I dishonour the truth about his life by deliberately forgetting what happened to him. Nor could I if I tried.
Neil Walsh is clearly a deeply disturbed individual. He reads obsessively, presumably to fill some void in his life that no one has been able to identify definitively. Perhaps he just misses his grandfather, who was also an avid reader. In addition to the books discussed above, in the past six weeks Neil has also read the following: novels -- Ha'penny by Jo Walton (2007); The Guardener's Tale by Bruce Boston (2007); Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (1977); The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' by Joseph Conrad (1897, 1921); short works -- Yellow Dog by Charles de Lint (2007); Under the Penitence by Mary Gentle (2004); A Voice in Every Wind by Don Sakers (2003); Lyra's Oxford by Philip Pullman (2003); collections of short works -- The SFWA European Hall of Fame edited by James Morrow & Kathryn Morrow (2007); Typhoon and Other Stories by Joseph Conrad (1903, 1921); non-fiction -- The Seventy Great Battles of All Time edited by Jeremy Black (2005); Skye by Derek Cooper (1970, reprinted 1995 -- still pre-bridge); Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (2007); and Signspotting 2 by Doug Lansky (2007 -- great bathroom reading).
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