My story, “Memento Amicum”, about the passing of family and friends and the fading of memories in a time of AIs and climate change was published in the September 2020 issue of Cossmass Infinities and subsequently appeared in Rich Horton’s Short Fiction Recommended Reading list in the April 2021 issue of Locus.
I want to talk for a moment a little about the story’s background, starting with some of what led up to choosing the setting (while avoiding spoilers) and then move in closer to the story, at which time SPOILER notices will be provided.
My mother-in-law passed away in early 2018 (with her husband preceding her by a few years). Though the funerals were held for both at the time of their passing, for various reasons my wife and I were unable to lay their ashes to rest until the summer of 2018. We then traveled to upstate New York to perform this final task.
The town they’d lived in for around fifty years (before having to move in with my wife and myself due to their declining health) is an old, upstate New York “factory town” with a long working class history. While we were there for their memorial service we had cause to visit a couple cemeteries, and the reason for our presence obviously weighed heavy on us. All these monuments and names carved in stone, the quiet green lawns, flower arrangements, names and dates stretching well back into the 1800s.
There was a “graveshack”, a tiny wooden office out of which the middle-aged and senior caretakers kept track of plots, headstones, and cemetery upkeep. These individuals had likely been there for decades, watching over their silent charges and ensuring those few who came to visit and pay their respects to their loved ones were able to do so in a neat and well-maintained setting. We asked about a particular individual, and the caretaker went and retrieved an old ledger recording the burials for the year in which that person passed. By this time that paper ledger was at minimum sixty years old–and we don’t know when the first entry in it was recorded. The point is that the cemetery workers knew and cared about where they worked, kept things organized, and carried the responsibility to aid those who come to pay their respects, or just to…visit with those who passed before them.
This made quite the impression on us, and with the subsequent passing of my own father less than a year later became the setting for a story on loss, the fading of memories, and how technology waxes and wanes in this niche of our society.
One more thing, though, before I get to the spoilers.
Okay, this is just a little spoiler, but it’s just part of the background setting.
Over the years in which Memento Amicum takes place the world gets steadily warmer. Climate change is warming up the planet, and with it comes more extreme weather, more virulent pests; accompanied by mitigating technologies that attempt to keep a handle on the worst of it. Biological controls, genetically engineering plants and animals to withstand and/or combat an increasingly unbalanced ecosystem, moving away from fossil fuels. While these don’t play a central role in Memento Amicum, they are in the world in which it unfolds, and that reality at least needs to be acknowledged.
Okay, now… SPOILERS AHEAD!!
So that picture with the grave markers up above? From the closing scene of the Serenity Firefly movie? Yeah, that’s basically the image I had in my head when I came up with mementas. Start there, add conversational abilities–via an AI–and there you go.
I know, an AI simulacrum of a passed loved (or not so loved) one has been done before, but the tack I wanted to take on this story is that they–the AIs–may end up suffering the same fate as the loved ones they’re filling in for. And then telling this story from the perspective of that old-time dying breed of cemetery groundskeepers. Ordinary people transposed into an AI, ordinary people working to maintain them for those who have begun to forget; or are themselves moving on one way or another.
Then as technology continues to evolve, the technological means by which those who’ve passed away are remembered changes as well. Customized mementas become persona templates powered by social currency algorithms that are stashed on Mementa Familiam servers. (How long before Facebook decides to start mining its memorialized accounts and reconstructing passable personalities of loved ones? Just to test the concept of course!) Protocols and technologies become obsolete, and then…uh…end-of-lifed.
People, events, practices, and cultural touchstones pass away and slip into the past, kept alive only within the memories of those still around, and only for as long as they care to and can remember. In the future, we may not be the ones doing the remembering, our creations may end up taking on that responsibility–intentionally or not, until they too power down.