‘MEM’ Is a ‘Black Mirror’ Episode Set in Jazz Age Montreal
Author Bethany C. Morrow discusses her speculative fiction novel and the ethics of cloning memories
What if scientists could extract memories from your brain? Sure, it sounds like a nice way to forget the worst parts of your past, but what if each extraction created a cloned version of yourself, doomed to re-experience that memory over and over again?
That’s the conceit behind Bethany C. Morrow’s debut novel, MEM, a clever work of speculative fiction that reads like a Black Mirror episode set in Jazz Age Montreal. In this version of the 1920s, extracted memories live sequestered in an underground vault while their wealthy “sources” run around care-free in the city above.
Things get complicated when one of these “Mems,” officially known as Dolores Extract #1, somehow remembers every moment of her Source’s life before the extraction, and every moment of her own life as a Mem thereafter. She adopts the name “Elsie” after her favorite movie character and lives independently in an apartment outside the Vault. Like her counterparts on Star Trek and Black Mirror, Elsie forces us reconsider what it means to be a person when she becomes in danger of being “reprinted.”
I spoke with Bethany C. Morrow over the phone about living as a Black American in Montreal, omitting the institution of whiteness in her book, and whether or not she’d go through with a memory extraction procedure herself.
Adam Morgan: Where did this concept of memory extraction come from?
Bethany C. Morrow: Wishful thinking. I was laying in bed thinking about how science isn’t as interesting as science fiction, which is really disrespectful to scientists. I remembered how big of a deal Dolly the sheep was and how people were like, “We’re cloning a sheep!” But I distinctly remember the short shelf life of Dolly’s clones. They’d say “We did it!” and then, “Nevermind, it died.” These sheep didn’t have anything in common. They didn’t think the same thoughts. They didn’t remember the same things. So I thought, “Why isn’t cloning about the actual memories instead?”
I thought, “Why isn’t cloning about the actual memories instead?”
AM: Have you ever wanted to remove a memory? Would you ever go through with a procedure like this?
BM: People might assume that MEM is a cautionary tale, but I think I would absolutely have to know what it feels like to know that you don’t remember something. It’s a horrible experiment, because if the consequences are as far-reaching as you suppose, there’s no undoing it. But I would definitely want to know, how much does this memory impact other memories, and other aspects of my personality. So until I actually met a Mem, I would absolutely want to do it.
AM: The publicity blurbs for MEM mentioned “the shadow of Montreal slave trade.” Were you thinking about that at all while you were writing this?
BM: I wasn’t thinking about it when I was writing Elsie’s story, but I think something that’s really important for people to understand — especially as somebody who does sensitivity reading and talks a lot about own-voice representation — is that I am Black. Elsie herself is very much a product of the version of the 1920s that she lives in, but I wrote the book, so my prior knowledge and my lived experiences and my socio-economic understanding is going to come out.
When I was first decided I was going to move to Montreal, one of the things I started researching was the proliferation of the culture of omission in a country that had 206 years of slavery, but claimed that it didn’t have slavery. So my confusion was, why wasn’t there a huge exodus to Canada? Because all you hear is “Canada was at the end of the Underground Railroad,” and, “There was never any slavery or Jim Crow in Quebec.” So I started doing some research on it because this doesn’t make any sense. If that’s true, where are all the Black Canadians? Where are all the Black Quebecois? Of course, it’s not true.
And also, as a Black American who has lived in two other countries, I can say this: when you leave America, you become American. As a Black American, I don’t necessarily face the same things that I would face in my own country because I’m seen as an American. But you see that the same racism you experienced in your country is still happening to African French people and Black French people. It’s just not happening to you because you’re seen as an American.
I guarantee you that people will see some parallels to enslavement, and in an essay I say that the only thing I’ve actually omitted from MEM is whiteness — as an institution, not a heritage or a race. So we still have enslavement in this book. We still have these hierarchies. We have the supremacy, the ownership. The thing that makes it speculative is that they’re happening in the absence of whiteness.
The only thing I’ve actually omitted from MEM is whiteness — as an institution, not a heritage or a race. We still have these hierarchies. The thing that makes it speculative is that they’re happening in the absence of whiteness.
AM: What drew you to 1920s Montreal?
BM: Elsie was wearing a cloche hat every time I imagined her, so that was the first thing. And living in Montreal, I don’t know anybody who’s not obsessed with the Art Deco architecture. And another thing was the Persons Case, where Canadian women activists were trying to overturn the law that said women weren’t legal persons. That wasn’t overturned until 1929, so I knew I didn’t want the story to reach that point.
I think that the first thing that Americans don’t usually understand is that living in Quebec does not feel like living in Canada. It’s the same country, but culturally it’s completely separate. It’s immediately different as soon as you cross the border from Ontario into Quebec.
AM: Elsie encounters a lot of real-life arts and culture that would have been around in the 1920s. Why did you include the movie The Toll of the Sea, for instance?
BM: It really goes back to what was happening in Montreal, because Montreal is this strange hybrid between North America and Europe — or like a frozen snapshot of a different Europe. So I actually wanted to figure out what sorts of things were they interested in at the time, and The Toll of the Sea was on a short list of movies that seemed likeliest to be shown in Montreal. I watched all of the movies, and The Toll of the Sea just grabbed me because almost felt too modern in terms of its commentary. Knowing how slow society is to recognize its own flaws and white supremacy, it was really startling to watch that movie. It’s about a Chinese woman who falls in love with an American man and they have a child together. I already knew who my character was and I thought, “This is a movie that Elsie would absolutely become obsessed with.”
AM: Does the magazine The Delineator appear for similar reasons?
BM: The Delineator appeared because it had a really pretty cover. I connected so much with what’s inside of that [October 1906] issue, but I knew there were certain things I would just have to ignore because they would not work with my world. Elsie would notice that there are only white people in this magazine. She would notice that there are caricatures of little tar black children in the advertisement section. She would notice all of those things because it’s not something that is normalized in her fictitious version of the 1920s that I placed her in. But I did want to read the stories and the fiction and see what I could use, and the fact that there was so much that I loved, and that Elsie quotes herself, was really just happenstance, because I literally chose that issue based on the cover.
AM: What’s next for you? You’ve got a YA novel coming out with Tor, correct?
BM: I’m very, very excited about The Sound and the Stone. I just got my editorial letter last night and my stomach hasn’t recovered. It’s a contemporary fantasy set in Portland, Oregon. It’s about two black girls, sisters, who both have a supernatural identity, one of which is known and has to be hidden, and one of which is beginning to reveal itself. One of the sisters, who’s named Octavia after Octavia Butler, is a siren, and it’s in a version of the world where only black women are sirens. It’s not romantic. It’s not beloved. It’s not attractive. It’s hated. So within the black community, there’s a network that keeps them safe from discovery.
My sister lives in Portland so I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I’m from the West Coast, and I really want to see more representation of Black American kids who are West Coast, who don’t necessarily have any known ties to the South, or to their roots in the African diaspora. I think it’s a very different experience, because a lot of literature that read, it’s almost like every black person is from the South, and every Black person is aware of where their family is from. But I don’t know that. There are a million reasons why we don’t know that, slavery of course being number one, and also just having a family that’s racially diverse. I feel like those kids don’t necessarily get represented a lot, who still do have very strong community ties, very strong family ties.