Katya makes a living off of memories. To put it plainly, she sells antiques—items from a bygone era when life accumulated in the form of stains and dust and imperfections. Her own memory is as spotless and certifiable as they come—with her AI to track her every move, she can replay her life as often as she’d like, and know exactly what she said and how she said it. So when a mysterious stranger kidnaps her and forces her off the grid, Katya’s physical well-being is only half of her concern. How can she know what’s real, after all, if she can’t trust her own mind?
Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novella, Forest of Memory, is as much a whispered question as it is a sci-fi adventure story, as subtle as it is fast-paced. If you’re drawn to Victo Ngai’s ethereal, dynamic cover art, the story it represents won’t disappoint you. Told in the form of a typo-ridden, written report, Katya’s story is every bit as fallible and mysterious as human memory.
Wabi-sabi, or the “graceful decay of life,” is at the heart of Katya’s work. She is not so much selling a dog-eared book or a recording of an approaching deer, as she is selling a visceral experience. Her clients’ desire for authenticity should be familiar to us—every time we grow giddy at the smell of an old book, or even harken back to a time when we were more connected to nature, we’re buying what Katya is selling. But in a world where every moment is recorded and relivable, where human minds and AI are on the verge of becoming interchangeable, this search for authenticity is multiplied ten-fold. Even the format of Katya’s story is a testament to that. Written at the request of a mystery customer, her report of her kidnapping feels true because it is flawed, because it is riddled with misspellings and interjections—it’s closer to the truth, somehow, than a mere recording could ever be.
Katya is recording a group of deer when she is kidnapped, and watches one of them fall when her soon-to-be-kidnapper (dubbed “Johnny” or “bastard” depending on the circumstances) shoots it. From that point forward, she lives off the record for three days, with no access to other people in the network—her only potential help—or to her own recordings. It’s this, more than anything Johnny actually does to her, that makes the experience tense and even traumatic. Katya is not just unsure, she’s not used to being unsure. She is forced to doubt herself, to doubt Johnny, and even to doubt the deer that they follow through the forest. Ultimately, though, Katya asks the reader to doubt themselves and their own perception, and to break down the barriers that we’ve built around ourselves, our tech, and the natural world.
Kowal brings the same sensibility to her sci-fi as she does to her fantasy, which until now is the only thing of hers I’d read. With no-nonsense prose and stark beauty, she immerses you into Katya’s world with incredible deftness and subtlety. Of course, there are many small, delightful pieces of Forest of Memory that are best left unspoiled; Katya and Johnny’s awkward, stilted relationship, for instance, is better experienced first-hand. The deer at the heart of the story, as well, carry an air of quiet mystery that would be impossible to explain without giving up the ending. Kowal makes full use of the novella form here, creating engaging and relatable characters and a fascinating, open-ended story in a reduced space. While I could easily read a novel set in this world, I am more than satisfied with the questions it leaves unanswered.
Emily Nordling is a librarian and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.