I grew up in reasonably close proximity to farm fields, but I never got close enough to learn anything of consequence about them. I recall—but only vaguely—when the stubble remaining in the fields was set ablaze after harvest. Heavy smoke poured from the fire-line. The dry organic fuel was at ground level and limited in volume, so even when the smoldering embers of parched brush burst into flames, the fire was short-lived and never high enough to ignite the surrounding vegetation.
At least that’s what I believe I remember. I may be making it up, though, so if I were a person reading this paragraph, I would take the statements of “fact” with a grain of salt. I know that’s how I’m taking the words I write. With some skepticism. Born of experience with memories that arise not from experience but from stories others tell.
These ideas emerged response to my experience of driving through thick, smoky hazes on rural highways as the recently-harvested fields were set ablaze; readying the ground for the next crop. Mile after mile of fields of corn and soybeans and cotton smoldered and burned, reducing visibility and filling the skies with smoky agricultural pollution. As I drove down those roads—roads I grew up calling Farm-to-Market roads—I questioned whether the memories I felt welling up in my head were real or artificial. No, I decided, many of them must have been artificial. My memories of rural south Texas could not be quite as vivid as those I was experiencing.
The realization that at least some of my memories were “planted” in my head—inadvertently, I assume—causes me to question whether other memories were planted, as well. Perhaps my entire life, at least the snippets about it I think I recall, could have been programmed into my memory. The person I believe to be me might have been created in someone else’s head. In fact, the thoughts I’m thinking right now could have been slipped into my consciousness on a bio-magnetic card; a cross between a silicon chip and a self-replicating virus that configures tiny pathways in the hippocampus, the neocortex and the amygdala. No? Well, it is within the realm of possibility, is it not? Hasn’t science successfully blurred the lines between fact and fantasy enough in days past to convince us that hybrid biomechanical forms are not only possible, but inevitable? Might a deep dive into my genealogy reveal both human royalty and sweet corn-soy hybrids among my ancestors?
The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.
~ Salvador Dali ~
Science fiction is a genre of stunning possibilities. I think scientific breakthroughs follow on the heels of explosive literary creativity (or, at least, creatively-told stories). Stories provide the fuel for scientific exploration; without dreams, in the form of science fiction, humankind might not have evolved into the troublesome clot of mistakes we have become.
Several years ago, I read Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. I remember only microscopic bits and pieces of the novel, but I do recall how extremely impressed I was with Ng’s writing. This morning, I read a short review of Ng’s latest book, Our Missing Hearts. And I skimmed a review/synopsis of another of her books, the New York Times bestseller, Little Fires Everywhere. Based on my miniscule history of reading Ng’s work, coupled with my limited exposure to “selling words” relating to her other books, I know now I want to read more of her writing. But I’d rather “have read” her work than go through the process of actually reading it. One day, that possibility will come to pass. If I live long enough, I one day will be able to select literary experiences from an enormous menu of choices. After paying the requisite fee for what I’ll call “intellectual absorption,” the full text of literary works (along with the imagined experiences that text triggers) will flood into my brain. In a matter of microseconds, I will have “read” the literary work. Moreover, I will feel like I actually experienced the story. This artificially-created experience will feel just as real as any true experience I have ever had. But this experience will take place only at brain level; physically, otherwise, I will not have experienced the story. Yet my recollection of the experience will be just as vivid, just as real, as any experience I have ever had.
This just barely touches on what will be available to me in the time to come. I will be able to craft experiences based on a combination of actual interactions and pure fantasies. For example, I could retrieve from my memory innocuous snippets of an interaction with someone I find intriguing but who I know only in passing. That snippet could, thanks to the amazing power of “intellectual absorption,” morph into thorough engagement with the person. On my end of the interaction, I would experience deep involvement with the person. But that interaction would not cross over into that person’s experiences. Except that it COULD! Because my transformation could lead to actual interactions, which would of course change that person’s experiences. And those experiences would involve me. So, my selection of an innocuous snippet of an interaction could evolve from an imaginary exchange into an experience that could be recorded as audio and video reality.
There’s more. Much more. But I cannot write about it because to do so would cross the line between reality and fantasy. I would risk entering a level of “intellectual absorption” from which it might be impossible to return. And then where would we be? Exactly.
More coffee. That is what I crave. Among other things.