Book review: Architect of Memory by Karen Osborne

(cover image courtesy Pac Macmillan Australia)

Space is not a welcoming environment.

The stars may look pretty twinkling far above us on a blue-green ball but venture into the galaxy and you are confronted by a host of challenges, not least of which is humanity itself who in Karen Osborne’s Architects of Memory (A Memory War novel) are quite possibly the worst thing to happen to the outer limits of space.

Humanity as the creator of its own doom is hardly a new idea in any genre but it never feels more weaponised or dangerous in this novel which takes us to a future, several centuries at least hence, when people have escaped the gravity well of earth and made their way out into the stars.

The problem is that what was stylised in the Sixties as a grand adventure that tests humanity’s limits and finds us more than up to the task has become far more dystopian in nature as the space effort was handed over to corporations who turned every last aspect of their expansion into the galaxy as just another investment ploy.

In this dark and manifestly unjust future, slavery is front and centre of corporate investment efforts as Indentured people, who do not have the rights of normal citizens (a status which effectively must be bought through endlessly long years of hard work or callous privilege) are sent to work and die in asteroid mines, farm terraformed planets of spend their often short-lived days salvaging alien technology from wreckage sites in orbit.

“‘I feel fine. Why do you care so much anyway? I’m just an indenture.’

‘You’re not just an indenture, Ashlan. Not to me, at least.’ Sharma sighed. ‘But right now, I suppose I’m simply concerned that you don’t fall on your face on the way up to the bridge. Luckily for you, we have a captain who believes your health is secondary to listening to the whims of our chief executive.’ She gave Ash a once-over and pointed towards the bridge, the tools still dangling in her hand. ‘I’ll be waiting in the medbay when you’re done.'” (P. 22)

One such person is Ashlan Jackson, a terminally ill survivor of a mining operation who has little choice but to spend her days working with a crew from the Aurora company to salvage murderous weaponry floating in spaceship wrecks.

This detritus of battle is left over from humanity’s brutal war with the Vai, a race who routinely engage in savage genocidal attacks whenever and wherever they find people and who, before their mysterious retreat behind the White Line, were responsible for an horrific amount of death and destruction.

To most people, it’s an open and shut case – Vai evil, humanity not.

But as Architects of Memory unspools its grippingly muscular narrative, it becomes clear that the story being sold to people, one designed to embolden them and impel to fight and work and ever harder may not be quite as straightforward as many have been led to believe.

This ever-unraveling web of intrigue comes to the fore, enmeshing Ash and her fellow salvagers including Captain Kate Keller, when Ash recovers a genocidal weapon from the wrecked Auroran space cruiser London, a weapon so powerful it has the capacity to give which corporation owns it almost unlimited market power.

The use of the phrase “market power” is a perfect pointer to the brilliant worldbuilding in which Osborne engages, with her creation of a universe given over to undiluted capitalism sending a shiver down your spine on almost every page.

Karen Osborne (image courtesy official author site)

So powerfully is the author’s dystopian world realised that you soon realise why it is that people like Ash and Kate and a great many others are pushed to do whatever it takes to obtain citizenry.

They are treated like objects to be bought and traded, future serfs who have no value beyond what they deliver to a corporation’s bottom line.

You could, of course, argue that we are in that position today and certainly sitting in a cubicle it is easy to feel less human than drone but in Architects of Memory, capitalism rules all, with any semblance of basic decent humanity long gone and government long since ceded to profit motive and a forgoing of any notion of common good.

It’s brutal and dark and Osborne doesn’t once pretend otherwise, infusing Architects of Memory with a gritty reality that makes you despair for the future of the human race.

Thankfully ethics and morality haven’t taken a complete holiday and when Ash comes to understand what is at stake and what her role is in it as a possible living weapon, she does what she can with other like-minded souls to try and turn capitalism’s worst excesses back on itself.

Refreshingly Ash and her compatriots are not perfect so this is no simplistic story of good versus evil; having said that, there’s a distinct line drawn between what they stand for and what others stand for, muddied rather rewardingly from a complex narrative perspective, by decisions made that call into question the idea that there any such thing as good and evil.

If Architects of Memory lives anywhere, it is in the greys of real life where good intentions still live but are besmirched and compromised by real world decisions which involve staining your soul in order to possibly save humanity’s.

“The dead figure was vaguely humanoid, in the fashion of a bird or a gazelle; the floor was covered in a putrid, sticky slime, and the elven, clawed fingers had long since rotted to the bone. She couldn’t tell how long it had been dead. Ash forced herself to walk around it, observe the slack jaw with its sharp, silver teeth, see the graceful and articulated bones of its long-dead hands.

‘It’s a Vai,’ she said. ‘I mean. It has to be.'” (P. 216)

Filled to the immensely satisfying brim with startlingly rich and fully-formed characters, a rip-roaring narrative that still finds the time to be thoughtful and meditative on the damaged state of future humanity, and invigorating social commentary that makes a statement without once feeling laboriously polemic about it, Architects of Memory is a superbly good piece of sci-fi storytelling.

It is a space opera with heart, soul and muscular intensity, that takes a good hard look at what people want from life and what is actually available to them and the lengths people will go to bridge the gap.

It’s rarely pretty of course but then when is life ever as picture perfect as we’d like it to be, even when we are motivated and impelled by the very best of motives?

Ash is a stunningly arresting protagonist, someone who acts on her ideals but who is also painfully aware of what seh must sacrifice if she’s going to live those ideals out.

Thanks to the lengths Osborne goes to bring Ash vividly to life in all her aspirational fallibility, Architects of Memory is both epic and intimate, intensely idealistic and groundedly realistic, a story writ large with powerful emotion and rich thinking that exists often in the small, intense, very human moments that define day-to-day life, which knows that there is always more the story than meets the eye and that it is often an ugly and unforgiving one, even when angels dare to tell it.

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