How can love persist in a world without memory? That’s the question posed by author Sarina Dahlan in her debut novel, Reset.
A while back I received an advance copy of a this novel, and I’m happy to report that it’s a very good book indeed, with a premise that is haunting and intriguing.
The setting is a human future, set an indeterminate number of years from now, in which humanity has been reduced to living in just four very large cities after a cataclysmic conflict leaves most of the world a scorched wasteland. In order to keep the seeds of such a conflict from sprouting and taking root again, a devilish new process has become the norm: every four years, everyone’s memory is wiped. Children are not raised by families but rather in institutions. All this was set in place by a single figure, in an attempt to quell the natural passions that are apparently the root causes of the conflict that nearly destroyed everything.
But there are some in this world who don’t want to forget, some who simply don’t forget at all. There are some who are tortured by their dreams and by a constant sense of deja vu, and some of these people are cursed to remember who they loved the last time around.
Reset asks questions like “What point is there in love if you’re going to be made to forget it all?” These are hard questions, and it leads to a memorable and haunting read that doesn’t offer a series of pat answers at its end. The novel explores ideas of memory and its permanence; it’s hard to separate the idea of Reset‘s “tabula rasa” (the process by which all memories are erased every four years), a science-fictional concept, and the very real-world problems posed by neurological conditions that rob people of their memories in a slow and inexorable process.
Dahlan is very focused here on love and the question of how it can endure when so much of our concept of love is bound up in memory. Are we simply going to move from one partner to another the next time around? Is what we feel actually love, if it’s so easily removed like a stone is removed from one’s shoe? Dahlan keeps the focus on the love story and the small cast of characters centrally involved within it, which is probably a wise choice. Some of the standard dystopia-story tropes are here, like the secret society of people who want to defeat the dystopian regime and restore something of the earlier world; at times the novel has chase scenes that put me in mind of Logan’s Run and THX-1138. But those aren’t the focus of the book; the main focus is, in fact, on lead character Aris and her confrontation of the idea that “tabula rasa”, which she has always supported because it’s simply what she knows, might have a dark underbelly to it.
Reset walks a fine line, in spinning a dystopian story in which the people are actually not slogging through grim lives of despair in wrecked cityscapes of bleak filth. The world of Reset is actually appealing in some ways, though I am not always clear on how everything works in this world. It seems to me that an essential part of a functioning society is continuity, and even if many of the underlying mechanistic jobs of society are handled in automated or robot fashion, the erasing of all memories every four years would damage that very continuity. I found the world-building of Reset not entirely convincing, but then…that’s not really the kind of tale Dahlan is trying to tell, in the first place. Her focus is on just a few characters and how they live and confront the issues posed by the very world they inhabit. If you’re looking for the kind of dystopia story in which the heroes lead a revolution against the powerful (or The Machine), this isn’t that book. If you’re looking for a solid love story set within the framework of a cold and rather heartless dystopia, Reset may well be your cup of tea.