Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Type: Fiction, short story
I read it: May 2016
This review was originally published on The Stake.
What happens when every instant can be recorded and transmitted? The most sought-after items become those previously found at antique stores. And what happens when connectivity ceases and you are thrown back into a purely sensory world? Memory becomes the dim, shifting forest that our ancestors knew.
Trim in length as it may be, science fiction institution Tor has published the standalone short story Forest of Memory from Hugo winner Mary Robinette Kowal. It centers on Katya, who bikes through a picturesque slice of Oregon to purchase a typewriter and a dictionary for the purposes of reselling them to wealthy clients. These affectionate nods to the physicality of the written word underline the form of the story, which is itself an item created and sold by Katya because of the uniqueness of its content. You see, Katya’s expertise is Authenticities and Captures. When she is unexpectedly captured on her ride home, she becomes a potential authenticity when she goes offline for three days. But there is no objective evidence to support her narrative.
In this world, three days offline is its own form of being “missing,” of coming unhooked from the safety of society. Kowal does not try to present Katya as a pathetic example of modern internet addiction, but rather just a regular citizen getting by 100 or so years in the future. When her AI ceases to talk into her ear it’s jarring, but the main reason she freaks out is because the loss of connection coincides with an armed man in the woods who won’t let her leave.
Katya learns that this man, whom she simply dubs “Johnny,” is also in the service of employers. He has downed a couple deer on the trail, though apparently not for killing purposes. He immobilizes her and offers no information, and the most Katya can piece together is that Johnny’s mission with the deer seems to correlate with the fact of her being off the grid, which is unheard of. She is forced to reflect on her bodily sensations and the fear of realizing she is one person, alone, with only her brain and no answers.
No answers: that’s what you have to be okay with by the last page. But isn’t that the case with so much great speculative fiction? There are hints at answers, and some fascinating questions. This little slice of sci-fi is the perfect accompaniment to a camping trip on an unplugged weekend. Peruse it in the midst of our subtle world in which not every tree is recorded, and when you look away you can’t be fully certain which trees were even there at all.