Memento Mori, Shariann Lewitt

Tor, 1995, 286 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85625-3

One of the curses of moderating panels at science-fiction conventions is that you’re expected to pretty much know everything about a panel subject and the life’s work of the other panelists. So when I found out, a week before the event, that I was to moderate a panel about neurobiology (!) featuring -among other authors- Shariann Lewitt (!!), well, I knew I had some catching up to do.

So I rushed to nearby bookstores and got copies of Rebel Sutra, about which I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic, as well as Memento Mori, which was an unexpected revelation.

I should probably explain that I’m not fond of moody goths, tortured artistes or pseudo-intellectuals posers. I can’t stand people pathologically unwilling to be happy. Doom? Gloom? Not for me, thanks.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by Memento Mori. At the very least, this is a novel that doesn’t waste a lot of time before fully embracing a downbeat tone. In the first chapter, a faraway planet cuts itself out of the rest of humanity for fear of spreading the local plague ravaging its population. The announcement is met with muted acceptance from our cast of characters, a bunch of young adults with nothing else to do but feel sorry for themselves. A toast is made to the Reis colony. Pages later, terrorists starts killing off those who manage to escape the plague, claiming senseless death as performance art. This is the end of the world, not just as they know it, and they don’t feel fine.

If Memento Mori had a soundtrack, it would be a funeral dirge. The novel steadily moves toward implosion, as characters are slowly picked off by disease, murder, bad luck and other assorted mishaps. But here’s the most remarkable thing: Despite my built-in resistance to this type of story, I quickly found myself looking forward to the rest of the novel. The characters simply fascinated me: I couldn’t wait to see what happened to them next.

Beyond the mystery of the plague (and the nutso RICE AI who, obviously, has something to do with all of this), beyond the surprisingly engrossing prose, beyond the intriguing portrait of a city falling apart under the strain of a common death-wish, I couldn’t get enough of the Memento Mori‘s characters. I found myself caring for the surprisingly vulnerable master of cool Peter Haas. I rooted for Senga Grieg, that precocious genius with nary a clue as to what what truly going on. My own namesake, Christian, had an intrinsic interest despite (or maybe because) him being a complete weakling. And what about poor Johanna Henning, stuck in a fatal crisis she understands all too well?

This is not an ordinary SF novel, and neither was my reaction to it. This bleak book works even when it should not. The despair, the gradual collapse of the society described in the novel is inspires more awe than pity. It’s a glorious catastrophe novel, a pretty good read and an unexpected page-turner. The attention to detail is stunning, especially when it comes to character-driven elements. Obviously, the book wouldn’t work as well if it wasn’t for the personalities described, and how they react to the collapse of everything they know. The ending comes as a relief for all involved.

In retrospect, my favorable reaction to Memento Mori may not be so strange as it may seemed. Even though the nihilistic poseurs of the book are poseurs, reality eventually sets in quite significantly. Ultimately, poseurs end up dying like the most heartfelt of them. Cool is not a salvation. And that, just maybe, may be the source of my satisfaction with the book. Hey, one of the side-benefits of moderating panels at a science-fiction convention is that sometimes, you get to make discoveries that you otherwise wouldn’t get to read.

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