“The Sanguine” by Jim Grimsley

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While reading through Jim Grimsley’s “The Sanguine,” (from Asimov’s, March 2007) I found myself not satisfyingly convinced of the raison d’etre given for the story’s central conceit, and this nagging frustration at the weakness of its central premise has led me finally to conclude that it desperately needed a stronger explanation for the manner in which the sfnal “gadget” was used, in order for it to be the total success I was hoping the story would be.
Said conceit (i.e. the “gadget”) is the (not new) science-fictional idea of the memory wipe—in this case a government mandated reversible memory wipe, primarily used as a “palliative” for criminals, but also for those who have experienced traumatic events in their lives. Stories in past decades have employed this in various ways and for differing reasons to suit story requirements. The reason given for the specific type of memory wipe, and why it is used in the manner set out in “The Sanguine,” however, seems tossed-off and unconvincing to the alert reader—or at best not quite clear as to its ultimate usefulness. Without the thoroughly convincing bedrock explanation for this sociological “gadget” the story fails to achieve the high bar we set for our best practitioners.

In order to keep this inquiry to reasonable length, I work on the assumption that those desiring to comment have indeed read the story.

The protagonist, Morgan, works as a memory specialist in “recall.” He lives with other criminals and those “betrayers of good order of some other type as defined by the [government]” in the “Federal Security Compound” provided him by the “Southern Tier Government” as part of his compensation package. Why a compensation package in the first place? Because we eventually learn that Morgan has committed a crime. While driving drunk he was involved in an accident that killed his two small children. Because of his area of expertise, however, while he must live in the compound he has been given better dwellings and an opportunity to continue at his job. Said work being to administer the annual memory recall to the prisoners.

Here’s how memory restore works: for 51 weeks of the year the prisoner has no memory of his crime (or traumatic circumstance). Then, for one full week, his stored memories of that time are given back to him (“restored”), with a qualified administrator—and guards if necessary—present, for some react violently to these memories.

There are several things I don’t understand about the why of this procedure. Grimsley has Morgan explain what he tells his patients when they ask about it: “I tell them the removal of traumatic and psycho- or sociopathological memories is a great palliative but the original bearer of those memories is required by law and by good scientific practice to restore them at least once a year.”
This quick, single line is supposed to suffice for an explanation, but is in truth nothing but auctorial hand-waving the author hopes will satisfy the usual, non-critical reader. But not so quick, say I.

I have several questions concerning Grimsley’s “51/1” setup for his memory wipe/memory restore scenario. If the prisoners have no knowledge of their offense for 51 weeks out of every year, don’t they get angry and rebellious for being incarcerated for an offense they have no memory of? Even if they are told they have committed some crime and are being held for same, are they to take this bald statement from the authorities at face value, having no memory of said crime? I sure as heck wouldn’t. Would you?

One could say that reliving their crime for an entire week out of every year is some kind of punishment, but I disagree. What if the crime were not a murder (or something along the more traditional lines), but a crime of revolutionary or terrorist import, where the criminal might actually relish in reliving the destruction or death he has wrought? Is recalling a crime of impassioned ideology or strong belief a punishment? And if these sorts of criminals have no knowledge of their crimes for the remainder of each year, whither any punishment on that side of the question? Also, the story does not address the question of the individual psychological makeup of the prisoners and how merely wiping their memories would change their basic mental constitutions. So what if they have no memory of their crimes for 51 weeks out of every year. This would not change their basic tendencies toward crime or outlook on life, would it? Would not a pedophile still desire young children because he can’t help himself? Would not the radical Islamist terrorist still hate the West?

Then we have those incarcerated like the protagonist, Morgan, who is not inherently an evil man, but who has killed his children while driving drunk. Punishable, yes. But how does the 51/1 scenario help—or punish—him? For him, his one week of restored memories is punishment, for he feels guilt and remorse for his crime. But then whoosh, after a week of remembering his slate is once again wiped clean and he goes blithely about his day job of administering memory recalls to others.

Since neither type of felon is reformed or cured or rehabilitated, or in any meaningful way changed, I don’t see the point to restoring anyone’s criminal memories. Stories in the past have offered the solution of the simple memory-wipe and let it go at that. So why the “restore” angle, when it presents so many more possible (and hardly explained) complications?

If the author truly desires a tight story, where everything is woven together without a stitch missing, then wouldn’t it have been more productive to have offered the reader more than the superficial “required by law and by good scientific practice” line? It wouldn’t have taken but perhaps another two or three inventive lines underpinning the why of the “required by law” and the why of the “good scientific practice” to make the story “complete.” I can name a lot of writers who have gone to great pains to work out every last detail in support of the most outlandish ideas, or speculations, in their stories. Henry Kuttner was one of the best who comes immediately to mind [see the classic “Private Eye,” Astounding Science Fiction, Jan. 1949, by Lewis Padgett (aka Henry Kuttner & Catherine Moore)]. Jim Grimsley is a talented writer. He could have plugged these possible objections with ease—he could really have nailed it—if he had put his mind to it. Science-fiction readers should expect nothing less.