In Young adult sci-fi novel by Nashville author Julian R. Vaca The Memory Index, a plague-like disease known as the Memory Killer is devouring the memories of people around the world. A device called MeReader scans everyone at 16, discerning the degree of memory loss in each. It separates people into a caste system of ‘memories’ and ‘degenerates’. Lose too many memories and you’ll need a dog handler to accompany you in public. Lose even more and you will be institutionalized in the mysterious and malevolent Fold.
A major company provides the means of artificial recall – a process in which people use devices to regularly experience old memories that they have lost or are at risk of losing. It’s a thrilling sci-fi premise with plenty of opportunities for global consequences that speak to the loss of privacy and the proliferation of data mining that plagues us today.
Here’s what’s most surprising about this premise: the year is 1987.
By situating the novel in the pre-internet era, Vaca takes advantage of opportunities to surprise us. It also creates a rich atmosphere dotted with cultural touchstones. He even created a playlist of all the songs the characters listen to, and the book has an original song, “Remember me,” by Nashville duo Jessie Villa and Stephen Keech.
The Heroes of Vaca are four high school students who have been enrolled in a study as test subjects for a new device believed to advance artificial recall. But they are not going to participate without a fight. I enjoyed Vaca’s take on the cinematic tropes of ’80s teenage characters. The central teenager is Freya, a 17-year-old Mexican American who mourns the recent death of her father. Vaca, who is a first-generation Mexican American himself, says exploring the character of Freya spoke to her own heritage and history, and the result is a degree of authenticity that brings the heady themes to the ground. .
Following The Memory Index, The recall paradoxdue out in April 2023. I spoke with Vaca about his books, the 80s and the theme of grief.
I absolutely loved all those 80s touchstones in the novel. What drew you to this decade?
The first thing that really interested me about the setting of the book in the 80s was the fact that if there was this kind of plague-like phenomenon like Memory Killer, how would an analog world cope something like that. In many ways, the story almost doesn’t really work in 2022, where smartphones are everywhere, and there are advancements with micro-technology… and certainly on the medical front too. There was this excitement and intrigue of taking that kind of idea, but putting it in an analog world. [With] my experience in film school, I really love those kind of old fashioned VHS camcorders and all that analog technology. And so immediately, that was one of the first things that drew me to that decade. Then the other thing is the atmosphere. I like a novel that has a rich atmosphere, where it feels like the setting and all the different elements of the places and the culture somehow become a secondary and tertiary character in the story. And there’s just something very familiar about this decade. And so I thought, “Man, if I could do this right, it might give readers a sense of grounding.”
Obviously, there’s this risk that the 80s has been in vogue for a while – you don’t want it to feel fancy. … If I do this, I have to make sure it’s intentional. I would certainly say that the other important element of this atmosphere is that the music, the soundtrack must be authentic. And then also, finally, I was born in 87, so I was a child of the 90s. However, I grew up in a family where… my father was a big movie buff. And so we consume and devour a lot of 80s movies and music.
What are your favourites?
Oh darn. Well, I think there’s only one perfect, perfect movie, and that’s the first. Back to the future. … At film school, we talked about [how] this script really executed an interesting concept. … Edward Scissorhands was one of my favorite movies of all time. … And then of course, who doesn’t like all the films of John Hughes? … 16 Candles, breakfast club. With my story, I tried to make it a kind of cocktail of all these different elements.
There’s a whole philosophy of memory in the book – the characters even take a course on it. How did you come up with this philosophy and what type of research did you use to develop it?
So I certainly scoured a lot of rabbit holes and researched medical blogs and did actually pass … the fourth draft of the manuscript to a medical professional friend of mine. I absolutely wanted to make sure the research was there. But honestly, the seed of the idea came from my fascination with childhood amnesia and this idea that we don’t really remember anything until, like, 3 1/2 years [years old]. This fascination is where it all started. I started confronting philosophical questions about memory. One of the characters in the book asks a question – she says, “Are we more than the sum of our memories?” as a matter of identity. And then, in the second book, one of the questions I’m faced with is, “What’s the more terrifying thought – losing your memories or facing the tougher ones?” And so I just realized that while I was thinking about the story and writing the manuscript, memories play a vital role in our daily lives. … All these different types of questions and interests led me to design the story. There’s just a lot of interesting stuff about how our brains store memories, and all the different research that has looked at how many memories we actually retain on any given day, and how many we actually lose.
All friends have experienced some kind of loss that they still mourn. Why is it important for young adult readers to meet characters who experience this?
in many ways with The Memory Index, there was this opportunity for me to talk about my childhood and my heritage. … Then there was this other element of my interest in memory and how it interacts with our daily lives and our identities. The third [element] is certainly grief. Grief, and more specifically the loss of a child, plays a huge role in my story. Writing this has become an exercise in many ways to process this grief. I’m thinking of some of my favorite young adult novels: looking for alaska by John Green. More recently I read Jeff Zentner The snake king. And then he also wrote In the wild light recently, which is a stellar book, but there is a whole series of books for young adults that address grief and loss very well. It was really important for me to be able to talk about it, because I lived it. And I found that when I was younger, talking about vulnerable things like loss and grief was kind of taboo. And it really is our generation now, I feel like the pendulum is swinging. And we seek to empower young people to come to terms with grief and loss, and mental illness is at the forefront of the conversation. So that was super important to me.