A theme in dystopian/utopian fiction is: How do we manage a society after things have gone so very wrong, so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated? What would you do to make a society that will not come to extinguish humanity for good, this time? And what is the dystopian price to pay? Do you engineer society so that everyone takes drugs daily to subdue their passions, as in Equilibrium? Have everyone die at the age of 21, as in Logan’s Run? Stratify society in a distorted and restrictive way, as in Brave New World? Place a sin-eater of a tortured soul at the dark heart of the city, taking the sins of the city and the people, as in Those Who Walk Away From Omelas? There is a common assumption in all of these works that for humanity to have a utopia of any sort, bounds must be put on humanity, severe ones at that.
And so we come to Sarina Dahlan’s novel, Reset.
The Four Cities are all that’s left, as far as anyone can tell, of humanity. A small slice of a world spanning society now lives in a quartet of cities connected by a public transportation system, three of the four enclosed completely by domes. The aforementioned Logan’s Run, the movie, not the novel, felt like such a touchstone again and again throughout Reset for me. Our action mainly takes place in two of the four cities: Callisto, the center, the heart of the four cities, where the society is controlled and managed, and the desert city Elara which is described as being the last of the cities to be built, and built with, rather than against the desert landscape. These two cities provide a pair of contrasting locations for the plot and character stories to unfold.
It’s a pleasant enough world on the surface. The Four Cities is a society where all basic needs are met (and this society does provide housing, education, medicine, and drudgery is done by droids). There is plenty for all, and there are mentions of credits and other bits of social engineering and structures to allow people to enjoy things that are necessarily limited, such as attending a public performance. It’s a communal, if not communist society. There are police, and law enforcement, but this is a society that is placid, benign, and presented outwardly as a wonderful world, and that is the story it resolutely tells itself about itself. The Natural History Museum and the main character, Aris’ sometime job as docent reinforces that story to children.
To maintain this utopia, the central idea, the central restriction of humanity in Dahlan’s Reset is a temporal and memetic one. Every four years, all adults (it is made clear children are allowed to grow up to adulthood) have their memories wiped. Every four years, people start again from scratch. In a society with a lot of automation, it seems possible that people and society could be engineered in this fashion although I was left with a few questions about how the changeover works, especially with the mechanisms of government.
Leaving those questions aside, and accepting the premise, this Utopia is built, and maintained and nourished by deliberate and recurring amnesia maintained by Tabula Rasa. Four years is a US Presidential cycle, an Olympiad, a period of time that in the Julian Calendar, and most four year sets of the Gregorian, includes a leap year. How much might you accomplish, what might you do, what freedom might you have to act, to do, if you knew you only had four years before being set back to the beginning? A better question, one that the novel probes lightly as compared to other questions, is what is lost culturally with a four year horizon. What can you not do with such a looming reset every four years?
Even if you can write a story, a book review, a novel, a musical work, take a photograph, paint a picture, after every four year cycle, such cultural advancements and innovations are collected and “become the property of the system. Innovations are shared for the benefit of all.”, how much can be created? The characters, at the beginning particularly parrot the idea that people are free to explore, create, invent. However, aside from music, it doesn’t seem that this creativity, this advertised utopia, really actually leads to a cultural flowering in practice. And even that music, as witness Metis’ concert, is awfully conservative. Metis is a concert pianist who plays in a replica of Carnegie Hall. The only book referenced from the period of the Four Cities is a story of the Planner’s ideology for Tabula Rasa, and that was written *this* cycle. It’s as if everything goes into the public domain every four years, what does get written, and then gets forgotten, lost in a sea of the past. The weight of past works outweighs and overwhelms the present. It’s a lesser age, but humanity, at least, survives.
The novel is rich in reference and allusion to those cultural touchstones of the past, not of the cycles of the city, but of the time before, the time that Tabula Rasa is, aside from some very carefully managed historical set pieces, has engineered society to forget. The Beatles, particularly the work of John Lennon, come up again and again throughout the work. Works by Proust, Schumann, Brahms, and others pepper the text and become the anchors for the characters As mentioned above, the impoverished society that has survived, and that short four year time frame to accomplish anything means there are not many new works means that this society lives on what has survived in the old.
The keystone work, though, the key that makes this novel complete and full in my mind is one that is referenced again and again inside of the text, and explains it all: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. That story of two teenagers in love, who come together, fall apart and live mostly separate lives for most of their lives does have parallels throughout the text in terms of characters, but more importantly, themes. I don’t think the book is essential to enjoying the book on most levels, but to get at the deepest themes and resonances that Dahlan is attempting here, I do think it is essential at least to read a summary of the book.
And I also think of the movie Equilibrium, in terms of the societal context. In that movie, humanity is seemingly restricted not to four cities, but to one, with a wasteland around it. An orderly society much like this one, but one that has the courage of convictions that The Planner did not: if you are going to break with the past, if you are going to manage humanity into a future, if you are going to create your Utopia by breaking a portion of what makes us human, leaving remnants of the past are a hideous danger and an invitation to return to the past that your Utopia is trying to wall off forever, leaving things of that past is dangerous. The Grammaton Clerics would and do burn the Mona Lisa.
By contrast, Tabula Rasa leaves the books and works of the past in place, and it is that cultural heritage that provides something of a seed in a supersaturated solution, providing a chance for discontent with this world and its system to find form. It allows the seeds for people to imagine a world besides the utopia they are presented with. Cultural works are a form of memory, of dreams, and their presence is a destabilizing element in society.
Or, to quote Yeats, as Equilibrium does:
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Ultimately it is memory, dreams, and recollections that escape the Tabula Rasa, brought through by secret means that have been carefully saved from cycle to cycle, that drive the personal and the overarching plot. Tabula Rasa does recognize the thread and the danger of the recovery of dreams and memories of past lives, and does have extreme methods in place to end that thread, if necessary: to destroy the dreams of a person entirely. It is a ruthless solution, and the novel does explore why Tabula Rasa would not simply do that to anyone, for it comes at a human cost that far exceeds merely resetting memories.
And so we come to Dark City. In that movie, the aliens who have put humanity on a city island with no way out to study what makes us human. That movie has everyone’s memories (and presumably, dreams) wiped every day in an attempt to study humanity in a series of endless nights. It is only the protagonist of the movie having his wiping going wrong, and remembering fragments of his previous cycle that provides the opportunity to end this limitless serial of nights. That movie, too, considers, like this book—if one’s time horizon as a personality, as a person, is so constricted down, wither humanity?
And if the characters in the book are representative of those who we don’t see, the “countdown” to the next reset is something always on the mind of characters. The ostensible idea behind the Reset, the Tabula Rasa, and all of its apparatus is to get characters to live for today, to live and act as if only today matters, so that jealousy, greed, fear, and the darker impulses of humanity never have the time to fester and grow. Four years, so that you live for today. And yet people are counting down the days. Characters worry if they will finish a work of art they are creating in time. (imagine THAT sort of deadline). But humans, as the species unbound by time and space, are always and were always going to press against the bounds of a limited timespan, be it in Dark City, or, to the point, in Dahlan’s Reset. But unbound to what? What is the key to that humans are unbound by time and space?
What Dahlan does in Reset is to ultimately foreground the answer that all of these works circle around, and make it the primary plot driver for all of the characters: relationships and love. It is love that makes us human, for all of the flaws and challenges that brings, and to deny and cut it off with the four year timeline is, ultimately a flaw in the system. The system of Tabula Rasa is ultimately, like all the dystopias here, built on fear. Love is the answer. You might even say that Love is All you Need. But with everyone’s memories wiped every four years, Love aint nothing but sex misspelled. Or is it?
The relationship between our primary pair of characters, Aris, and Metis, is one of love. It is a story of two people who have loved each other before, coming to learn that they had, and what to do with those facts of the heart once their souls are bared not only to each other, but to themselves. That love, once revealed, leads them to defiance of the system in the pursuit and exploration of that lost love, to try and recreate it, preserve it, and nurture it.
Still, the novel is not facile and starry eyed. Like Equilibrium, above, the novel recognizes that love, that passion, that humanity can lead to ends that the cosseting utopia of Tabula Rasa is trying to prevent, and the unleashing of dreams and memories leads to love, passion, abiding merging of souls…and also destructive ends when such love and passion goes wrong, or the response to that love and passion by outside forces goes terribly wrong. See, too, Brave New World, where Soma channels those urges and dulls them, and what we get when someone not of this society enters it.
Or for that matter, take the third major character of the novel, Thane. Thane is an instrument and an agent of the state, and as the novel unfolds, it is clear that he has a passion for Aris. As the novel unfolds and he realizes that Aris has remembered Metis and remembered her love for him, there is a tragedy and a conflict with him, and it is a metaphor, I think for the entirety of this book. Thane’s desire for Aris is of this cycle, of this moment, and while one might say it is a wan moon for the blazing sun of the relationship between Aris and Metis, is that passion that he feels, invalid? Is the limited and constricted society of the Four Cities, this attempt at utopia by destroying the continuity of memory, invalid compared to the dizzying heights and savage lows of the Old World? It’s not quite a romantic triangle per se, but Thane’s own passion helps push the narrative toward its ultimate outcome.
Sarina Dahlan’s Reset does not end with the overthrow and destruction of the society; this is not the kind of story that this novel wants to tell. For all of its questioning of humanity and what is needed to maintain and keep Utopia, what dystopic practices and choices and decisions need to be made to achieve it, what this novel wants to explore is how such a society’s strictures affect the relationships of these characters, and how there is a crucible, a cauldron, for change, for within and perhaps, without. The world may not change around them, but they do, and in a world resolutely determined to have a four year reset of everything and to prevent any such development, such change in characters, even for a little while, is not a whisper in a hurricane, but the shout of gods.
Reset is available from Blackstone Publishing.
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).