Science Fiction, Memory and Trauma

Roger Luckhurst


Brain Memory

Science fiction has long been interested in the possibilities of technological developments that might manipulate memory. According to historians of shifting patterns of memory like Eric Hobsbawm or Pierre Nora, memory in the West was increasingly located as the core of personal, collective and national identities through the nineteenth century and beyond. The language of ‘sacred’ memory, something utterly intrinsic to the self, has been elevated, suggesting that our ‘true’ selves lie in our memories and that any form of forgetting is unhealthy.


As this has become intrinsic to the way we think about identity, so the anxiety over the malleability of what we remember has intensified.

Psychologists developed an extensive range of terms for the illnesses of memory from the 1870s onwards – amnesia, fugue, dissociation, repression, traumatic forgetting. This was a radical idea, that people could be made ill by their own memories. Sigmund Freud, famously defined a hysteric as someone ‘who suffered mainly from reminiscences’ in 1893 and proposed that the most powerful memories were often those that, paradoxically, we could not voluntarily remember. A fascination with multiple personalities – people who might have different identities with entirely separate memory chains – began around the same time. Popular culture, meanwhile, has since been awash with evil foreign medics and Mesmerists who might steal our memories away, hypnotise us or control us, particularly in lurid Gothic figures from Count Dracula via Fu Manchu to those evil Chinese Communists who trigger ‘the Manchurian candidate’.

Modern technological manipulation of memory, and thus the potential to rewrite our essential selves, has intensified in the digital revolution of the last thirty years. Now the language of random access memory, programming and re-programming, downloading and uploading, and viral corruption or memory hacking, has modelled our fantasies and anxieties about this new terrain of what it means to remember and forget in the contemporary era.

Dianetics and Memory Erasure

There aren’t many utopias where memory editing is presented as a virtue, although there are some (check out the Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s excellent entry on ‘The Memory Edit’ as a trope here: Edward Bellamy’s early novel, Dr Heidenhoff’s Process focused on a method to remove painful memories to restore patients to health. It appeared in 1880, ten years before his more famous utopia Looking Backward, but just about the time that the leading French psychologist Pierre Janet was publishing papers about a similar technique in his actual practice where he claimed to have ‘cured’ hysterical symptoms by changing or erasing troubling memories in his hysterical patients. In a way, this is what L. Ron Hubbard’s science of ‘Dianetics’ proposed in Astounding Science Fiction in the early 1950s. At the core of what became Scientology was a process of erasing debilitating memories in the psyche and thus releasing the infinite potential of the human mind. Fantasied superpowers are often about memory enhancement or the peculiar skillset that comes with having an eidetic memory, like Sherlock Holmes. In the 1950s, Scientology was a system built out of Golden Age science fiction ideas of memory and selfhood, but with added booster rockets.


Mostly, though, memory manipulation in science fiction is usually part of a dystopia, that genre invented in the dark passages of the twentieth century. The great humanist defences of human integrity in dystopian fiction involve acts of memory as modes of resistance. In Fahrenheit 451, literature is preserved by people embodying the memory of a book (there’s a similar idea in Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, where the ‘Cycs’ embody volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica). In Orwell’s despairing Nineteen Eighty-Four, the regime relentlessly edits and rewrites the official memory of the state while Winston Smith tries to find levers of resistant remembrance in dream, illicit diary-writing, and ultimately futile attempts at recovering a past different from that imposed by the totalitarian system.

Paycheck: Memories for Sale

The greatest American reflection on memory and forgetting, and native to the science fiction pulp tradition, was in the work of Philip K. Dick. From his early stories like ‘Paycheck’ and ‘We Can Remember it for You Wholesale’, the manipulation of memory is central to his queasy sense that identity is no longer fixed, but malleable and subject to outside manipulation or control by the state, large corporations or other shadowy agents. He was brilliant at suggesting how states might do this, but was also able to locate it in the troubled psychological condition of so many of his protagonists – bringing these large scale post-war transformations into intimate dramas of personal breakdown and crisis. You can see this flowing into the many adaptations of Dick’s work, and down into TV series like Fringe or Mr Robot.




Perhaps this is why Blade Runner, the film version of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep entered instant classic status on its release in 1982. Ridley Scott’s film re-locates the focus of the plot to centre on the replicants coming to discover the fabrication of their childhood memories out of the flimsiest of photographic props and a few prompts.

Rachel’s discovery is a horrifying unravelling of the certainties of the self. The novel implies the replicants are more human than human because they have empathy, but the film, released on the threshold of the digital zeitgeist, makes them our point of identification because we too have embraced a sense of our memorial identities as glitchy programmes, written and over-written by corporate programmes. Now, our memory seems mainly prosthetic, located in devices rather than in ourselves, guided by prompts for LinkedIn anniversaries or the memories pre-selected for us by Facebook algorithms. Try actively editing or deleting your Facebook timeline; the programme positively recoils at the intervention into your own memory.

What has always interested me in science fiction is the genre’s symbiotic relationship to models of selfhood as they shift emphasis in psychology. Science fiction is often date stamped not so much by the technology it imagines as the idea of the self its fictions inhabit. In the late nineteenth century, new ideas about a dynamic ‘subliminal’ or ‘unconscious’ self – visible in hysterics, and accessed artificially by hypnosis – produced lots of science-fictional ideas about the hidden potential of the mind explored by early figures like H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle or Marie Corelli. In the 1920s and 30s, new behavioural models in the studies of Pavlov in the Soviet Union or B. F. Skinner in the States, produced a slew of both utopian and dystopian projections (again, we tend to remember the dystopias like Brave New World or Clockwork Orange over behaviourist dreams of well-trained societies).

Most recently, science fiction has explored the effect of digital technology on the self as directly related to notions of trauma. In my history of the idea of trauma, The Trauma Question, I tried to explain the emergence of the category of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ in 1980 as a category meant to be capacious enough to include the psychological after-effects found in Vietnam veterans and the consequences of childhood physical and sexual abuse. What followed was a whole theory of traumatic memory that suggested that extreme events were remembered and registered in the brain in an entirely different way and were often walled off by total amnesia. This in turn led to the rise of ‘recovered memory therapy’ in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the strange phenomenon of many people recovering ‘memories’ through hypnosis of crucial, life-changing events of which they had no conscious knowledge until the treatment began. This went very science fictional at times, as there was a slew of people who recovered memories of being abducted by aliens, those famous little greys who were apparently experimenting on human reproductive systems. The fantasy and horror writer Whitley Strieber came out as an abductee in his extraordinary account of his ‘visitors’ in Communion (1987), a book that sold over 2 million copies. As many readers have pointed out, there seems a remarkable continuity between this ‘non-fiction’ account and his earlier genre fiction. This kind of recovered memory of abduction featured very heavily in the X Files in the 1990s, and has never really gone away in certain conspiratorial sections of popular culture.

Westworld: Brain Complex

A good indication of the persistence of models of traumatic memory in science fiction is the case of the TV reboot of Westworld. The original film was mainly about fears of automation and ‘revenge of the machines.’ That is still bubbling along in the TV version, although the technology that creates those who populate Westworld is now organic wetware not mechanical hardware. Yet the main theme of the updated Westworld is hardly this AI takeover narrative any more.



Instead, the series seems to be proposing that subjectivity itself is the product of traumatic memory – that to live the same extreme end, over and over again, as the core ‘hosts’ of the park are compelled to do by their heartless corporate creators, is ultimately to produce a spark of self-awareness, of continuity between ‘wiped’ identities that no amount of re-programming and re-booting can erase. This is what will allow the robots to overcome their programming in the end: the self is in fact produced from a traumatic kernel, the series proposes.

Science fiction is consistently about speculating on the weird interactions of technology and selfhood. In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote a book called Future Shock about the psychological pressures building up in a world undergoing rapid acceleration. This was a decade before the digital revolution began to transform everyday life in the West and around the world. Human subjectivity has been changed by the personal computer, by the smart phone, by the tablet, by the internet of things, in such rapid order that there is now even a philosophy of ‘accelerationism’ that seeks to make sense of this sense of speed. In this context, the reflection of science fiction on the effect of this unending revolution on subjectivity has never felt more urgent or relevant.

Bio: Roger Luckhurst teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has just edited Science Fiction: A Literary History for the British Library Press.


2 thoughts on “Science Fiction, Memory and Trauma

  1. Beautiful well writtrn piece. If you cant trust your own memory whi are you? SiFi has asked this question in alot of books some referenced here. Very enjoyable read.

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