Imagine this, if you would: you’re designing a Generation Ship. The goal is to have living humans when the ship gets to wherever it is going. If knowledge is lost, if people don’t know how to fix things when they break—everyone dies. If the population is unbalanced, with a too large percentage of senior citizens and a too small percentage of young people, resource allocation becomes destabilized and everybody dies. If people have a negative view of the way this society is designed, life becomes unstable and everybody dies.
The goal, the only goal, is for the generations of humans to survive. All other needs and wants are far secondary to this primary goal.
How would you do it?
Clones? Hibernation? Only allowing pregnancies when someone else dies? Ultra-strict rules about everything?
What about fish?
If Philip K. Dick had written the 2014 TV miniseries Ascension (through the magic of time travel and undead-ness, of course!), he just might have come up with something approaching “The Pulse of Memory” by Beth Dawkins.
This tightly-focused story was born from a single scene that was rolling around the authors head: a woman being devoured by fish who were ravenous for her memories. I see you scratching your head! How in the world will fish keep a generation ship running? This, my friends, is why science fiction authors are worth their weight in gold. Not only did Dawkins ask how fish would keep a ship running, but she also asked (and answered!) how different generations would respond to this, how a precocious child might view it, how certain parts of the society might attempt to rebel against it.
There’s something about this story that has proven difficult for me to put into words. I’m drawn to the main character, Cal, and at the same time I know his opinions aren’t shared by everyone in his community, so I want to play local newspaper reporter and just walk around the ship, asking everyone a million questions. Questions a little like these: Is it okay to eat multiple fish? What if you get the memories of someone you don’t like? Does everyone feel differently about upcoming birthdays, when they get older? Cal reveres his grandmother, and she was a darn cool lady. What was she like when she was younger? I’m not looking forward to diving into the fish tank, but I sure would love to dive further into this fascinating world.
“The Pulse of Memory” is a clearly defined stand-alone short story, but Dawkins has subtly packed this story with enough world-building, the value of memories, mortality, fantastic ideas, and fake memories for an entire series of space operas, if she so chose. And unlike last month, I promise you can get through this short story and this interview without crying.
Beth has fiction forthcoming in the anthology If This Goes On, edited by Cat Rambo. She lives in Northeast Georgia, with her husband and their two dogs. As a child, Beth built castles out of hay bales and leapt from front porches while fighting imaginary monsters. You can follow her on Twitter @BethDawkins.
APEX MAGAZINE: I love all the brilliant concepts in this story! The biological way of passing information and memories to children, the seemingly randomness of who gets what information, the way some people view the rites with reverence. What inspired this story? How did you pull all the concepts together?
BETH DAWKINS: Thank you! A friend of mine asked me, on the fly, for a story idea. The first thing that came to mind was a generation ship that stored information in biological life. She didn’t like the idea, and weeks later I had this scene of a woman diving into a tank where fish would eat her and take her memories. The story grew from questions I had about the scene. I wanted to know why she jumped, how her family and friends felt about it, and how this society functioned.
AM: Fish with a taste for human flesh are pretty creepy, but Cal views the rites with reverence, so it makes perfect sense that he grows up to be a Keeper of Memory. His mother is uncomfortable, both at Cal’s grandmother’s funeral rite and at Cal’s coming of age rite. Why is her view of these required rites so different than his?
BD: Cal’s ready to become an adult, and by eating a fish, there is a chance he could also keep his grandmother alive inside of himself. In contrast, Cal’s mother has just lost her own mother and feels that loss, even if society prizes information over life. Her days are numbered, and her son’s rite cements that fact. She’s a representation of futility. Her life is more than half over and her fate is sealed. She offers to talk to Cal about his rite, but this is a reflective need, stemming from the fact that she sees Cal as her son and not information.
AM: Cal receives a variety of memories. It seems that who gets which memories from which people is completely random. What are people supposed to do with the memories they receive? What was this community’s original goal for passing on information in this manner?
BD: The ship will never break down. Someone will always know how to operate it. Keeping the ship going is also a reflection of memory, just like information a loved one is never truly lost. Their memories go into future generations, connecting the communal bonds of society as tightly as family units. The past whispers in the ears of the future, keeping the status quo and never letting it change.
AM: So, what’s on the chip? How many times has Repair tried to get someone to do her bidding?
BD: I like to think that Repair is on the chip, waiting for her chance to toss a wrench into the entire system. Cal wouldn’t be the first, but because of his position, he would have been valuable to the organization.
AM: Your short story “Tasting Bleach and Decay in the City of Dust” appears in the Kickstarted anthology If This Goes On. What was it like to be involved with a Kickstarted anthology? Did they buy the story before the anthology funded? What would have happened to that story if the Kickstarter had not funded?
BD: It’s awesome! Cat and Colin are an amazing team and I’m excited to be part of it. Honestly, it never crossed my mind that it wouldn’t be funded.
AM: What are some of your favorite themes to write about?
BD: Lately, I’ve been writing about small towns, the people that live in them, and how overlooked situations can spark changes for a small group of characters, or the entire world. In all of these, there is an undercurrent of rebellion that’s accidental but fully personal. Most of my adolescent years, I spent letting other people define my limitations. I spent a lot of time writing stories in secret, and now I bulldoze through those limitations without apology. Before small towns and rebellion, I focused, and still do, on the unknown. I usually use death as the concept. I think Cal’s story is a mash-up between these themes. People come with an expiration date, and we know people’s memories are recycled and repurposed. It’s the rebellion that holds out hope against the cycle favoring identity and the unknown.
AM: What’s next for you? Do you have any current projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
BD: More writing. I’m at the end of a very long project and I’ll be looking for representation soon. I’m always working on short fiction and I’m about to draft a cyberpunk short story.
AM: What were some of your favorite experiences of 2018? What are you looking forward to in 2019?
BD: We purchased a house, our first. I’ve sold stories and got to visit out-of-state friends. I hope to finish more projects in 2019 and look forward to reading what others are working on. I also hold out hope that we will be able to get off the alternate reality roller coaster ride.