The main character of K.J. Parker’s new novella The Last Witness has a special ability: he can wipe and transfer…actually you know what? I’ll just let him explain it.
When you need a memory to be wiped, call me.
Transferring unwanted memories to my own mind is the only form of magic I’ve ever mastered. But now, I’m holding so many memories I’m not always sure which ones are actually mine, any more. Some of them are sensitive; all of them are private. And there are those who are willing to kill to access the secrets I’m trying to bury…
MY [LITERARY] BODY IS READY.
I’m being silly. There is a complex story behind Parker’s character in The Last Witness, but what I kept coming back to were the astounding number of ways that the main character invited personal misery and certain peril! Ways like…
1. Gambling Addiction
Main Character—who may or may not have a name and if he does I’m not going to be the one to spoil it so let’s just call him MC—has exact recall as a side benefit of his memory powers. This exact recall can be really handy but it can also make things really dull because once you read a book or watch a movie then it’s in there forever and you don’t get to rewatch it, right? So you need to do more things to keep yourself occupied and one of those things is gambling.
MC is a gambler because, as I mentioned, exact recall. That means he can count cards at a game like blackjack with near-tedious accuracy, win a lot of money, and continue his epic quest to fill the emptiness inside him.
That emptiness is actually backed up by the latest research into how gambling affects the structure of the brain. From a 2013 article in Scientific American:
Research to date shows that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking. Just as substance addicts require increasingly strong hits to get high, compulsive gamblers pursue ever riskier ventures.
The service that MC provides keeps him well-paid, so he has plenty to gamble, but it also ensures that he’ll bore of gambling more quickly than most other folks would, since his exacting memory would be able to anticipate more possible outcomes of blackjack hands or poker showdowns. MC could transfer to games that rely more on random outcomes, such as slot machines, roulette, or horse racing, and he probably does, which is really just MC chasing a high, signaling that addiction has begun to change the architecture of his brain:
A 2005 German study suggests problem gamblers—like drug addicts—have lost sensitivity to their high: when winning, subjects had lower than typical electrical activity in a key region of the brain’s [dopamine] reward system. In a 2003 study at Yale University and a 2012 study at the University of Amsterdam, pathological gamblers taking tests that measured their impulsivity had unusually low levels of electrical activity in prefrontal brain regions that help people assess risks and suppress instincts. Drug addicts also often have a listless prefrontal cortex.
Further evidence that gambling and drugs change the brain in similar ways surfaced in an unexpected group of people: those with the neurodegenerative disorder Parkinson’s disease.
It’s interesting that this research is all relatively recent, considering how obvious gambling addictions can be to those who are addicted and those who are related to addicts. Casinos have been taking advantage of gambling addiction for decades, and are specifically designed to promote and nurture it, but the American Psychiatric Association only upgraded gambling addiction from a compulsion to a chemically-based addiction recently, in 2013’s release of the DSM V.
Gambling addiction can ruin lives, and in MC’s case, it can also ruin the particularly special brain he has. The very same one that allows him to transfer, recall, and delete the memories of himself and those around him. Although in the end, MC may wish to change the architecture of his mind, because in real life his ability to remember everything that has ever happened has incredible drawbacks.
The brain treats memory with an incredible complexity, and how memories are formed and how they are classified is an area of study that is still very, very active. MC’s abilities can manipulate this complexity, with one of the side effects being that his mind is capable of storing, sorting, transferring, and recalling memories with perfect clarity. MC remembers everything, even if the memory did not originate with him.
How memory storage works is that a short term memory is generated within the brain’s cerebral cortex. This is the outer layer of the brain, that squinched-up grey matter we visually associate with braaaaains. But for that memory to become long term it must be routed down through the depths of the brain–the hippocampus–and then routed back into the cortex, where my embarrassing karaoke rendition of “Time Warp” will live forever.
People who cannot hold long term memories usually have damage to the hippocampus, and become unable to recall anything other than short term memories. However, there are also folks on the other end of that spectrum, with an overactive hippocampus, who have nothing but memories. They have exact recall of all details and memories, because the architecture of their mind will not physically allow them to forget. These folks are a particular version of synesthetes.
Synesthetes are people who process memories with the entire sensory suite available to them. They see, hear, smell, touch, and taste memories. Each detail is fully vivid and comes loaded with associative detail. They experience full-blown everything.
Author Sam Kean tells the story of a particular unforgetful synesthete in his fantastic non-fiction neuroscience book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. In the chapter discussing memory, we read the story of Russian reporter Solomon Shereshevsky, who…
…experienced full-on scenes, full mental stage productions. This became handy when memorizing items. Instead of a violet 2 or a chartreuse 6, 2 became “a high-spirited woman,” 6 “a man with a swollen foot.” The number 87 became a stout woman cozying up to a fellow twirling his mustache. The vividness of each item made recalling it later trivial.
Shereshevsky could even control the minute and automatic reactions of his body, sweating on command, or slowing his heart rate just by thinking about it. His exact recall sounds like an enviable experience, until Kean elaborates on the difficulties that the reporter faced later in life.
When reading a book, synesthetic images would start multiplying inside his head, crowding out the text. A few words into a story, he’d be overwhelmed. Conversations took wrong turns, too. He once asked a gal in an ice cream parlor what flavors they had. The (probably innocent) tone in which she responded “Fruit ice cream,” he said, caused “whole piles of coals, of black cinders, to come bursting out of her mouth.”
As Shereshevsky’s life continued, the memories continued to pile up, making it harder and harder for him to locate the memories of value, or to sense the boundary between the world inside of his head, and the world outside of his head. He became hazy to speak to and more vegetative as time continued.
The ennui that MC faces in The Last Witness doesn’t seem so out of place, now. As a synesthete, MC’s world is one that never stops, while yet somehow becoming less and less surprising as time wears on. Although MC is not sidelined by his neurological condition in the same manner that Shereshevsky was, that specter looms nonetheless. How is MC even able to function? K.J. Parker’s answer is simple: it’s magic.
Although magic probably can’t protect MC from the next doom…
3. Being a “Mob Doctor”
The title of K. J. Parker’s novella says it all: “The Last Witness.” In Parker’s story, the mob figures out MC’s abilities and figures that having someone on the payroll who can take a witnesses’ memory of a crime is like being able to print your own money. (Which they also do.)
And the mob is right! You can’t testify to witnessing a violent crime if that memory doesn’t exist. MC is a valuable asset to the mob, and he should be very very worried, because the more valuable you are to a criminal organization, the less likely you are to survive the existence of that organization, regardless of whether you chose to be in that organization or not.
So you’re an irreplaceable asset to one of the mob families? Most likely one of the other mob families will try to recruit you, as well. Saying no probably isn’t an option. Saying yes gets you in trouble with your employers. How do you get out of that situation? Maybe you bring in a third party, turn state’s witness to a young Rudy Giuliani or the FBI’s “Donnie Brasco.” Except you hold all the incriminating evidence in your head, and the government can’t re-try the mobsters, but they can certainly bring you to trial. This is only one example. The details can differ but the objective is the same: You are valuable, and that value is a tool that all parties will seek to control or eliminate. You won’t simply be left alone to work.
This hypothetical assumes you’re working with an Italian “mafia”-type of organized crime syndicate, too. What if you’re working for the Cartel? If they do this to just their IT guys, what do you think will happen to you?
Even with the ability to snatch the memories of others, this doesn’t seem like it will end well for MC. (Don’t worry, none of this is spoiler material. There’s a LOT more to this story than has been mentioned in this article.)
MC has, literally, a lot on his mind in The Last Witness. It’s no wonder he dives into artistic obsessions. Although…
4. Obsession With the Perfect Beauty of Music
Well… we can’t all be Mozart.
K. J. Parker’s The Last Witness is out on October 6th. And it begins here.