Architects of Memory

by Karen Osborne

Cover image

Series: Memory War #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-250-21546-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 350

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Ash is an Aurora Company indenture working as a salvage pilot in the wreckage of the Battle of Tribulation. She's been on the crew of the Twenty-Five and indentured to Aurora for about a year. Before that, she was an indenture in the mines of Bittersweet, where her fiancé died in an attack from the alien Vai and where she contracted the celestium poisoning that's slowly killing her. Her only hope for treatment is to work off her indenture and become a corporate citizen, a hope that is doomed if Aurora discovers her illness. Oh, and she's in love with the citizen captain of the Twenty-Five, a relationship that's a bad idea for multiple reasons and which the captain has already cut off.

This is the hopeful, optimistic part of the book, before things start getting grim.

The setting of Architects of Memory is a horrifying future of corporate slavery and caste systems that has run head-long into aliens. The Vai released mysterious and beautiful weapons that kill humans horribly and were wreaking havoc on the corporate ships, but then the Vai retreated in the midst of their victory. The Twenty-Five is salvaging useful equipment and undetonated Vai ordnance off the dead hulk of the Aurora ship London when corporate tells them that the London may be hiding a more potent secret: a captured Vai weapon that may be the reason the Vai fled.

I was tempted into reading this because the plot is full of elements I usually like: a tight-knit spaceship crew, alien first contact full of mysterious discoveries, corporate skulduggery, and anti-corporate protagonists. However, I like those plot elements when they support a story about overthrowing oppression and improving the universe. This book, instead, is one escalating nightmare after another.

Ash starts the book sick but functional and spends much of the book developing multiple forms of brain damage. She's not alone; the same fate awaits several other likable characters. The secret weapon has horrible effects while also being something more terrible than a weapon. The corporations have an iron and apparently inescapable grip on humanity, with no sign of even the possibility of rebellion, and force indentures to cooperate with their slavery in ways that even the protagonists can't shake. And I haven't even mentioned the organ harvesting and medical experiments. The plot is a spiral between humans doing awful things to aliens and then doing even more awful things to other humans.

I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that it was far less emotionally satisfying than I needed. I'm not sure this was intentional; there are some indications that Osborne meant for it to be partly cathartic for the characters. But not only didn't it work for me at all, it emphasized my feelings about the hopelessness and futility of the setting. If a book is going to put me through that amount of character pain and fear, I need a correspondingly significant triumph at the end.

If that doesn't bother you as much as it does me, this book does have merits. The descriptions of salvage on a disabled starship are vivid and memorable and a nice change of pace from the normal military or scientific space stories. Salvage involves being careful, methodical, and precise in the face of tense situations; combined with the eerie feeling of battlefield remnants, it's an evocative scene. The Vai devices are satisfyingly alien, hitting a good balance between sinister and exotically beautiful. The Vai themselves, once we finally learn something about them, are even better: a truly alien form of life at the very edge of mutual understanding. There was the right amount of inter-corporate skulduggery, with enough factions for some tense complexity and double-crossing, but not so many that I lost track. And there is some enjoyably tense drama near the climax.

Unfortunately, the unremitting horrors were too much for me. They're also too much for the characters, who oscillate between desperate action and psychological meltdowns that become more frequent and more urgently described as one gets farther into the book. Osborne starts the book with the characters already so miserable that this constant raising of the stakes became overwrought and exhausting for me. By the end of the book, the descriptions of the mental state of the characters felt like an endless, incoherent scream of pain. Combine that with a lot of body horror, physical and mental illness, carefully-described war crimes, and gruesome death, and I hit mental overload.

This is not the type of science fiction novel (thankfully getting rarer) in which the author thinks any of these things are okay. Osborne is clearly on the side of her characters and considers the events of this story as horrible as I do. I think her goal was to tell a story about ethics and courage in the face of atrocities and overwhelming odds, and maybe another reader would find that. For me, it was lost in the darkness.

Architects of Memory reaches a definite conclusion but doesn't resolve some major plot elements. It's followed by Engines of Oblivion, which might, based on the back-cover text, be more optimistic? I don't think I have it in me to find out, though.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-02-28

Last modified and spun 2021-03-01