We continue our SPSFC interview series by welcoming Jim Nelson to the Asylum! I spoke with Jim about his entry, In My Memory Locked, a cyberpunk noir novel “perfect for fans of Blade Runner, Raymond Chandler, Ghost in the Shell, William Gibson, When Gravity Fails, and Altered Carbon.”
Jim Nelson’s books include Bridge Daughter (Kindle Press, 2016), Stranger Son, and In My Memory Locked. He divides his time between San Francisco and Tokyo.
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They hired a cyberpunk detective to recover their stolen memories. They didn’t know his twisted past is the key to the crime.
Security expert C.F. Naroy’s investigation across a desolate San Francisco uncovers blackmail, political intrigue, family secrets, and a few dead bodies. Meanwhile, he has to keep tabs on a beautiful young programmer addicted to Blue Pharje, a substance used to forget your past in a world where nothing is forgotten. He also learns the hard way that the stolen data is so explosive, people are willing to kill for it.
Then Naroy discovers his own painful past is the key to the entire affair. He must choose between solving the crime…or burying it for good.
Hi, Jim, thank you for joining the Asylum for this SPSFC special! To start things off, can you introduce yourself in your main character’s voice?
C.F. Naroy, Nexternet security expert, has this to say about Jim Nelson:
“So, Jim Nelson has written a lot of this science fiction stuff, including The Bridge Daughter Cycle (Bridge Daughter, Hagar’s Mother, and Stranger Son) and In My Memory Locked. That last one doesn’t read like science fiction to me. In fact, it seems pretty close to the day-to-day particulars of my life.
“He’s also known for a book about the COVID Pandemic of 2020 called Man in the Middle. And he wrote a Cold War novel with the name—get this—Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. What kind of comedian does he think he is?
“Mr. Funny Guy splits his time between San Francisco and Tokyo, both damn fine cities by any measure. If you visit San Francisco, though, be sure to pack a raincoat and a bottle of bug spray…”
Can you describe In My Memory Locked bullet-style?
IN MY MEMORY LOCKED is a #CyberNoir that will blow your mind:
- Grizzled detective combing San Francisco for a killer? ✔
- Stolen memories on a data brick fenced to the highest bidder? ✔
- Murder, political intrigue, and neural hacking? ✔
What draws you to science fiction?
I grew up devouring the work of Asimov, Bradbury, Haldeman, and others, but was particularly drawn to early cyberpunk writers, such as William Gibson and George Alec Effinger. I view Harlan Ellison as proto-cyberpunk, in that he looked upon technology and progress with such a gimlet eye.
I’m drawn to the “what-if” element of science fiction. Storytelling is a kind of controlled experiment, a chance to live another life or in another time without the use of exotic technologies. Novels are rather like the Myst linking books transporting you to another age. J. Hillis Miller calls books “portable dreamweavers,” and speculative fiction is perhaps the purest distillation of that idea. That’s why I turn to science fiction time and again.
Mostly I love the idea that I can write a science fiction story and people can’t dismiss it with, “Oh, that’s not realistic,” or, “That would never happen.” Whether or not science fiction predicts anything, it opens our minds to possibilities and reveals truths otherwise overlooked.
While taking inspiration from those giants of the genre, how does your book both honor and freshen up cyber-noir?
I was in my twenties when I read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, reread Neuromancer, and realized a tremendous amount of common ground between the two. It was inspiring. I wanted to write In My Memory Locked, in one form or another, for something like twenty years.
My goal was to respect both genres without falling into their respective tropes. In most mystery novels, the detective is not deeply involved in the mystery he’s solving. For In My Memory Locked, Naroy is absolutely at the center of the crime—and he’s not sure why. He’s even uncertain he’s not the perpetrator. I couldn’t tell the kind of detective story I wanted to tell without science fiction.
Still, some of the tropes were too delicious not to toy with. One example is the detective being knocked out from behind and coming to hours later. In my book, it’s neural malware that invades his mind and renders him unconscious. Mysteries end with the detective explaining the solution to the crime. Without giving away too much, my book turns that trope on its head.
Cyberpunk’s appeal has always been that so much of its future is recognizable. I extended that idea for In My Memory Locked. Events from today intrude on its future world. The Internet has been replaced but not forgotten. Its influence lingers in the book like a rung bell.
What other themes do you explore in your wider work and what discussions do you hope they might spark in the minds of readers?
I never consciously set out to do it, but much of my work deals with dual or split identities. Memories encroach on all my characters’ lives. They seek to hide or obscure their histories and present a public face as a shield. I think that’s become an unexpected defining feature of our modern digital world. We adopt personas, whether we realize it or not, when we go online.
Another theme featured prominently in my Bridge Daughter books is a fluid definition of family and community. In the series, bridge daughters are surrogates to their parents’ real child. These young girls form underground networks to escape their biological fate. With community no longer tied to physical location, farflung self-selecting groups are now becoming a key part of our identity.
Mostly, my work deals with individuals caught in times of broad social change. How they react to it comes to define them.
Glad you brought up change, the great foundation of sci-fi. In In My Memory Locked, the internet has been replaced by a “supernet” “where emotions are sent like text messages and memories are hacked and stolen like contraband”, which, considering the current state of the world, seems eerily possible. Can you talk about the genesis of this idea and what you explored with it?
There’s always a moment when a successful technology has been patched, extended, and hacked to a breaking point and deemed it needs replacing. I wondered if and when that would happen with the Internet, and what its replacement might look like.
I imagined the next Internet as designed to give people what they craved, and not what the programmers and engineers thought they needed. I wanted to portray a seamless blending of hard reality with the virtual world, where the “buzz” of cyberspace is a persistent background noise. It’s a time when people are no longer online or offline. Reality is constantly edited by neural implants to enhance day-to-day life, to make it more pleasant or exciting or vivid.
At one point, a character is able to read thoughts by hacking the network, which exposes him to the expressions others are suppressing from online transmission. Hiding your raw thoughts becomes a form of lying, rather than a natural tempering of one’s psyche—we’ve seen this attitude online for years now. One of the characters has been what we could today call “cancelled” and forbidden from using the network. Public shaming has been codified in software.
All of this was inspired from events that have already happened. We’ve reached a point where we can now look backwards to imagine a future cyberpunk world.
I find it kind of frightening, actually. The blurring of private and public spaces is a trend I do not appreciate. One of my beta readers told me she wanted to live in my world, though—that’s when I knew I was onto something.
Touching on that, tell us about a piece of worldbuilding featured in the book you’re most proud of.
In my future, people of a certain bent consume a neuroliqueur called Blue Pharje. With their implants constantly flooding their minds with others’ experiences, they drink it to suppress memories: To forget in a time where everything is remembered, including your own past. This willful withdrawal from organic and digital memories is part of my speculation that there will come a time when online “fasting” will grow more common, especially as the distinction between online and offline evaporates and the online world begins to dominate.
One fun part of writing the novel was detailing the whimsical blue lounges the drink is consumed in. They’re essentially high-tech opium dens located across the future city. All the blue lounges in my book are inspired by real San Francisco bars I’ve patronized, most of which are now (unfortunately) long gone or remodeled.
I think I understand your beta reader’s sentiment now…As frigthening as I agree that future to be, it’s seems eerily fascinating. How else did your experiences in both San Francisco and Tokyo shape the story? Any particular moment you used as inspiration?
William Saroyan said San Francisco is a place where “every block is a short story, every hill a novel.” I wanted to impress on the reader that Naroy’s painful past is imprinted in the sidewalks and the crosswalks he treads upon. The terrain of downtown San Francisco influenced so many details in the book. There’s a reason my detective doesn’t own a car. I wanted him walking up and down Nob Hill, and taking mass transit out to the Richmond District.
Japan is a place of cadences and rhythms. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I’m not accustomed to its four distinct seasons or the daily routines of my Japanese family. And where Americans are infamous for baring their souls in public, the Japanese are careful about separating the public from the private. My detective lived in Japan for a period of time, and these are the cultural elements he carried back to San Francisco.
Like Naroy, the world of the book is a realm of contrasts. He describes this bleak city of constant rain, huge cockroaches, that classic cyberpunk mood then melded with lush green and reconverted prisons. How does the book play with these contrasts?
I’m drawn to the perverse consequences of well-meaning actions. The road to Hell really is paved with good intentions.
The cyberpunk mood in the book is due to such well-meaning actions. San Francisco is not beset with constant rain from climate change, but from a failed attempt to halt climate change. Rather than being overpopulated, as in Bladerunner, the city is mostly abandoned due to the damage. I don’t believe we can build or innovate our way out of every mess. Human ignorance and hubris are difficult to code around.
Reconverting the city to new purposes is, I think, just another example of the Bay Area’s continuous metamorphosis over the past 150 years. San Francisco has transformed so many times, such conversions are inevitable. Stage theaters turned into office space; cineplexes transformed into lounges; churches made into data centers. You really get a sense of what a strange place the Bay Area can be when a fashion shopping mall becomes an Internet server farm.
Before we say our goodbyes, where can our readers find you online and what are your writing plans for the future?
My website is at https://j-nelson.net, where I blog as well as offer more information on all my books.
Readers who wish to follow me can subscribe to my newsletter at http://bit.ly/jim_nelson_man_in_the_middle, where they can also pick up a free e-book as a gift.
Right now I’m wrapping up my next novel, a retelling of The Hounds of the Baskervilles from the perspective of the criminal. It’s a different kind of story for me, and one requiring considerable more research than my other efforts. It releases this week. I’m quite excited about it.
Grab a copy of In My Memory Locked by Jim Nelson