“Dead Memory,” a prescient story

I must have acquired Dark Horse’s English translation of Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 2000 graphic novel, Dead Memory, more than 15 years ago. I’ve pulled it off the shelf to read several times over the years, I’m sure. In general a somewhat quirky, interesting, slightly vague work of science fantasy very much in the European style.

Upon the most recent re-read, however, I was surprised by what feels very much like a graphic novel for our own time.

The early sequence in which a conversation is visually implied to be a traditional meeting, then after a page-turn revealed as basically a Zoom meeting, really got my attention. Videoconferencing was by no means a new idea even in 2000, but discovering its use by such humdrum pedestrian people as was the case here is—from the perspective of 2021—a little surprising.

Also, everyone in Dead Memory is inseparable from a smartphone every bit as creepy as our own have become. The “black box’s” UI differs a little in detail, but people’s relationship to it is functionally much like that of ourselves with the smartphone. The story even implies that going anywhere without your black box is literally against the law, and when a couple goons of the state stop the main character and demand ID, naturally his black box is what they mean.

All of this seems pretty impressive foresight for the year 2000, when smartphones didn’t even exist and even cellphones were still mostly a specialist item.

The larger story does not map as precisely to anything contemporary, but much of it feels applicable. The walls going up, the sense of general system failure and breakdown, the bizarre syndrome which gradually impoverishes everyone’s vocabulary. The central computer ROM, at once all-powerful and a miserable captive to unasked-for fate, seems very much akin to the Frankenstein’s monsters of our era’s social networking sites.

I find myself reading again and again a few lines from ROM’s lecture-confession to the human main character:

That’s typical of your kind. You always want to know what’s next… if you could only learn to read the present, your memory might be of some use to you.

Telling you what the future holds won’t help you. Change occurs when systems reach their breaking point, and then it’s too late.

And a bit later, ROM’s posthumous final testament, beginning “Systems are living forms… They, too, are born and die.”

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