Tuesday, April 22, 2014

YA Guy Takes a Trip Down Memory Loss Lane

Querry Genn, the narrator of YA Guy's debut novel Survival Colony 9, is a fourteen-year-old boy who suffers from traumatic memory loss. Recovering his lost past is made even more critical by the fact that he and his colony are fleeing from the monstrous Skaldi, identity-stealing creatures that appeared on the planet after war turned it into a desert. In this world, where most of humanity's cultural memory has been wiped away--and where knowledge of the Skaldi is essential to evading them--a boy without memory poses a grave risk to himself and his people.

Querry's memory loss was always a part of the story, from the day I first dreamed it up. The mechanism and implications of this plot element changed as I drafted and revised, but the key element remained the same.

And there's a reason for that. YA is all about identity. (Or not all about it, but you get what I mean.) Teen readers are testing who they are, trying new identities, discovering the value and limitations in what others have told them to be. So it makes sense to have a teen narrator who quite literally doesn't know who he is.

Which explains why amnesia, total or partial, is such a common element in YA literature. Consider a few of the books that feature forgetful narrators/main characters:

The Maze Runner. In James Dashner's coming-to-a-theater-near-you blockbuster, Thomas wakes up in an elevator that deposits him in a sheltered Glade surrounded by an impenetrable Maze. His past has been erased, and he must try to piece together who he is and where he belongs. Sounds a little bit like high school, no?

Tabula Rasa. That term literally means "blank slate" (or "blank tablet"), and it comes from John Locke's now-exploded theory that human beings are born with empty minds upon which sensory impressions gradually impose the building-blocks of cognition. It's also the title of Kristen Lippert-Martin's 2014 debut, which features a narrator, Sarah (also known as Angel), who finds herself in a secret facility where doctors extract memories from patients' brains. At novel's start, she knows next to nothing about herself--which is a real problem, considering commandos have stormed the facility intent on killing her. In light of recent news stories, this sounds, tragically, exactly like high school.

The Program. Suzanne Young's novel is set in a near-future society where teen suicide has become an epidemic, and where the only cure is a memory-modification program called, simply, the Program. The narrator starts the novel with memories intact--but about one-third of the way through, she and her boyfriend are subjected to the Program, causing them to lose all memory of each other. A romance as well as a critical examination of today's mental-health system for young people, the book follows the sundered couple as they struggle to regain their sense of themselves as individuals and as a team.

Glitch. Memory loss isn't the central plot device in Heather Anastasiu's sci-fi thriller (first in a trilogy), but it plays a key role. When the novel's narrator, Zoe, seeks to escape from a society that controls its citizens through virtual-reality implants, she's taken in by the renegade Adrien--only to lose her memory of him immediately thereafter. In a Matrix-like world where the line between reality and fantasy is never clear, can Zoe recover a life (and a love) beyond the sanctioned illusions of her society?

Arclight. In Josin McQuein's post-apocalyptic novel, humanity has retreated to a small circle of light--the Arclight--within a world of darkness dominated by mysterious creatures known as the Fade. So far as she knows, narrator Marina is the first human being to be rescued from the Dark--but so far as she knows isn't very far, as she suffers from memory loss so severe she can't recall anything about her past. She's convinced the Fade are at the heart of her lost identity--but the Fade aren't discussed in her society, and no one is allowed to venture beyond the Arclight to confront them.

I could go on (but you wouldn't want me to do that, would you?). The point is, when I decided to make my narrator memory-impaired, I joined a robust tradition of YA novels. As a means of exploring issues of identity, memory loss is a powerful tool--and in all the above novels, the science fictional elements make it possible to play with the idea of memory loss without straining credulity. In fact, at their best, the mechanism of memory loss (and recovery) becomes the very crux of these novels, the point at which individual identity and social expectations meet and wrestle with each other.

I've only scratched the surface of memory-loss YA, so I'd love to hear some more titles, especially those that aren't in the sci-fi realm. So leave a comment--I promise I won't forget you!

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