The pressure to forget
What did it feel like, the first time you fell off your bicycle as a kid? You probably don’t remember. We all forget things on the personal scale. But there are also two ways in which populations at large forget events and emotions.
I call them social amnesia and cultural amnesia. In social amnesia the population has simply forgotten something, perhaps because it happened long ago. In cultural amnesia the population has been encouraged to forget.
A good way to understand cultural amnesia is to think about repeating patterns in popular culture — how movies, fine art, advertising, or any of the other aspects of our culture seem to endlessly recycle themselves.
Let’s take pop music as an example. The conveyor belt of pop is roughly seven years long. Kids step on the belt when they’re ten or eleven years old and are able to begin buying music for themselves. They step off the belt when they’re seventeen or eighteen, the age at which they’re supposed to graduate to the ‘adult’ music they’ll continue to buy for the rest of their lives.
What this means is that if you sell one generation of kids a pop song, you only have to wait seven years before you can sell the same pop song again (repackaged, of course, with a new face on the poster) since after seven years there’s now a completely different population of kids on the conveyor belt. The ephemeral nature of pop means that nobody cares about the last time so there are no beans to spill.
If songs aren’t enough, then think of the other things your music industry could sell, such as teenage rebellion (aren’t we due another punk?) or discotheques.
In a wider sense, cultural amnesia helps society recover from every atrocity it suffers, only to ensure that atrocity will be repeated. You will eventually forget the classroom shooting and send your kids back to an unguarded school. You’ll forget Aberfan and Deepwater Horizon and go back to the corporations that failed you. You’ll forget how bad the last Democratic or Republican President was when it’s time for another regime change.
The point of cultural amnesia is that lessons are never learned, which is why it’s such a desirable state of affairs for that gun manufacturer, coal or oil company, or political party. And why all of them conspire to induce it in you.
Come the next war, you’ll fall for exactly the same propaganda that herded you into the last one, since you’ll have forgotten just how disastrous and wasteful it was. The whitewashing of Vietnam, for example, has been so effective that most American kids know next to nothing about that conflict, and certainly have little understanding of what actually happened there.
As I write this, a perfect storm of social and cultural amnesia is at work in Japan, where its current Prime Minister has scrapped 70 years of pacifism and set this country marching on the road toward its rightful place as the ruler of Asia, maybe even the world.
How did this work out for Japan last time? Does nobody remember that? Of course not: in 70 years, even in long-lived Japan, the population has finally almost fully renewed itself, and those who lived through the horror are no longer around to warn about it.
Science fiction has often talked about social amnesia. In H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine both the Eloi and the Morlocks have forgotten they used to be civilized thinking humans. In Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop the inhabitants of a multi-generational spaceship have lost touch with their true state and no longer even realize they’re on board a ship.
In each case, the amnesiac society rediscovers the truth via a shattering moment of conceptual breakthrough. That breakthrough might come from outside (the arrival of the time traveler) or from within (a protagonist stumbling on clues) — it doesn’t matter. The whole point of the story is to break the amnesia, and hence release the society from its victim mentality.
Cultural amnesia is much harder to break. Just ask Winston Smith.
When I decided to write my own story about a multi-generational spaceship, A Thousand Years Of Nanking, I decided to explore cultural rather than social amnesia. What if, I suggested, the amnesia was intentional because the spaceship’s steering committee had determined that an ignorant population was more stable than one which understood its proper place in the scheme of things?
After all, the whole point of a multi-generational spaceship is that the vast majority of its inhabitants are only there to push the species forward a few more years.
A Thousand Years Of Nanking is a vehement rejection of conceptual breakthrough and redemption. Indeed, the title precludes any chance of it.
My spaceship has an immense back story, as that title suggests, but this back story is poorly understood by its passengers, who have not been allowed an adequate system of organizing and recording their history. There have been periods of intense violence and self-harm. Its ruined infrastructure is evidence of brutal uprisings and equally brutal repressions. But if the steering committee was doing its job well, the population wouldn’t remember them. And hence the abuse could continue.
No longer capable of summoning up energy for another coordinated attempt to escape the prison they’re in, and anyway driven to the depths of what human beings can endure, the inhabitants spend most of their time gathering the basics of survival, and the rest in the oblivion of drugs, which are also fed them by the steering committee.
Children are born to this place, and grow up and die here. Generations of them.
A Thousand Years Of Nanking deals with life that knows it has no reason to exist. What do you do when there is no destination to reach, and no promise of rescue or salvation, just a winding-down clockwork that may keep stubbornly ticking generations into the future?
A colony of rats on board a listing, deserted ocean liner will continue to reproduce, even though it is doomed. Of course, it has the benefit of ignorance. But a colony of humans that is in the equivalent situation and understands its fate may well drag itself through every possible level of despair – accompanied, indeed, by periods of intense violence and self-harm – but eventually, after all those things have worn themselves out, it will also continue to reproduce, and it will carry on.
A Thousand Years Of Nanking is about the carrying on, past the point where everything else has been drained out of it.
The story is intended to raise uncomfortable questions about faith, retribution, and the human spirit. The longer you think about them, the more uncomfortable those questions may be.