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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Mary Robinette Kowal: "Forest of Memory"

Author:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Title:  "Forest of Memory"
Plot Type:  Near-Future Science Fiction 
Ratings:  Violence2; Sensuality1; Humor—1  
Publisher and Titles:  Tor (3/2016)
Formats: e-book, paperback, audio

                 AUTHOR'S BIOGRAPHY                 
     Hugo-award winning author, Mary Robinette Kowal is a novelist and professional puppeteer. Her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor 2010) was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2008 she won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, while three of her short fiction works have been nominated for the Hugo Award: Evil Robot Monkey in 2009 and For Want of a Nail in 2011, which won the Hugo for short story that year. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in her collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press. 

     Kowal is also an award-winning puppeteer. With over twenty years of experience, she has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve.

     When she isn’t writing or puppeteering, Kowal brings her speech and theater background to her work as a voice actor. As the voice behind several audio books and short stories, she has recorded fiction for authors such as Kage Baker, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. 

    I discovered "Forest of Memory" though a four-star review in the March 2016 issue of RT Book Reviews, and it is the first work by this author that I have read—but definitely not the last. Kowal (pronounced Ko WALL, like the first two syllables in the surname Kowalski) is currently developing a new supernatural series that premiers in August 2016 with the novel entitled Ghost Talkers.

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                     
     Katya Gould deals in Authenticities and Captures, trading on nostalgia for a past long gone. Her clients are rich and they demand items and experiences with only the finest verifiable provenance. Other people’s lives have value, after all. 

     But when her A.I. suddenly stops whispering in her ear she finds herself cut off from the grid and loses communication with the rest of the world. The man who stepped out of the trees while hunting deer cut her off from the cloud, took her A.I. and made her his unwilling guest. There are no Authenticities or Captures to prove Katya’s story of what happened in the forest. You’ll just have to believe her.

                    MY REVIEW                     
     In this near-future world, everyone relies completely on their artificial intelligence (AI) devices and connections all the time—24/7. They live their lives in constant contact with intelligent systems (i-Sys) that speak to them through custom-fitted ear buds that they never remove. No one depends on personal, unrecorded memories because one's own unaided memory cannot be authenticated and is, therefore, unreliable. So when Katya finds herself alone on a road in an isolated forest, she can hardly believe it when she can no longer communicate with Lizzieher i-Sys. (Katya explains that she named her i-Sys after a character in a book, and it's pretty easy to figure out which book she means.)

     Katya is a dealer in Authenticities and Captures. Authenticities are obsolete items once used by earlier generations but now consigned to the custody of wealthy private collectors who are fascinated by evidence of their long-ago everyday use. As Katya explains, "My clients are most excited by wabi-sabi…It's a Japanese term. Something that witnesses and records the graceful decay of life." Captures are videos of scenes that give people experiences they can't have on their own. For example, a herd of deer running across a road with hooves clicking on the pavement and background sounds of singing birds and a rushing stream. Katya explains that her two specialties sometimes become interconnected: She Captured a "farmhouse in southern Oregon, where I found a nest of kittens in an old clothes dryer. The audio of their purring and tiny mews still gets mixed into dance scores, even after all this time. You should see what I got for the dryer itself, since after the Capture it had a popularity provenance to boot." Katya has amassed an enviable client list, and she makes a good living in her chosen career. 

     One day, Katya is on her way from a meeting with a seller from whom she purchased a typewriter and a well-worn paperback dictionary. The dictionary  is quite valuable because it has a solid provenance and is dripping with wabi-sabi: coffee stains, the names of former owners, underlinings, teeth marks from a pet dog, and worn page corners. Katya has examined both objects carefully to ensure that they are not reproductions and is satisfied with their all-important provenance. As she rides on her bicycle towards a public transportation connection, she passes through a forest where she is stopped by a herd of deer crossing the road. When a camouflaged, masked man shoots the deer with tranquilizers, she is surprised. But when she realizes that she has lost contact with Lizzie, she is shocked because she has never been without her i-Sys connection for more than a few moments. Then, the masked man kidnaps her, and things get very complicated.

     Katya tells her story in her first person voice, typing it out on the very same typewriter she purchased on that fateful day. If you have ever used a typewriter, you will recognize some of the frequent typing errorsthe transposed letters and cross-outs that were an ongoing problem back in the days before word processors made editing so much easier and cleaner. 

     This is a relatively short novella (85 pages), but Kowal packs it with a compelling plot and introduces us to two fascinating characters: Katya and her kidnapper. When he refuses to tell her his name, she calls him "Johnny" (and sometimeswhen he really annoys her"Bastard"). She is writing the account of her kidnapping for a client who is paying her well for the story. As she writes, she tries to figure out why that client would have any interest in her experience, which means that she asks herself questions and analyzes possible clues all the way through the story, adding depth and mystery to her account.

     The novella works well on two levels: the actual kidnapping experience, which provides in-the-moment suspense, and the underlying long-term reasons why Johnny is tranquilizing the deer and why his clients direct him to kidnap Katya. Just like Katya, the reader must make connections between the man's actions, Katya's loss of her i-Sys connection, the recent kill-off of deer in the area, and the possibility that her kidnapper and his clients may have set in motion a sinister plan. Or, perhaps, they might be the good guys. It's a wonderful mystery! 

     The underlying theme of the story involves this futuristic world's complete dependency on technology. Without technological back-up, a personal eyewitness account (like the one that Katya is writing) has no real value or authenticity because there is no technological data that proves the events really happened the way Katya claims they did. Early on, she poses a question to her client: "Have you ever tried to do this? Have you turned off your Lens, turned off your i-Sys, stepped away from the cloud, and just tried to REMEMBER something? It's hard, and the memories are mutable. The cloud is just there, all the time. You reach for it without thinking and assume it will be there." Through her story, Kowal is asking some hard questions: Is this where we are headedwith our ever-present smart phones glued to our ears, our Apple watchesour self-driving carsand the ever-hovering cloud? Does being alone mean being without technology rather than being without human contact? Because that's exactly what it means to Katya. "I was ALONE…Have you ever experienced that? Even in the middle of the night when I wake up there's always someone to talk to. There's always a witness." (And Katya's "someone"her "witness"is Lizzie.) Please note that Kowal is not heavy handed with this theme; it just hovers in the background awaiting recognition as Katya tells her story.

     If you have never read Kowal's writing, this is a fantastic introductionat least it was for me. She is a great story-teller and world-builder, and her development of fully realized characters is so masterfully and gracefully done that it's almost a surprise when you realize how well you know these two people by the end of one brief story. I'd love to read more stories about Katya and how this experience probably changes her life.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from "Forest of Memory" on its page by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

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