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Literature / The City Without Memory

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The City Without Memory (Russian: Город без памяти; Gorod bez pamyati) is a 1988 novel by Kir Bulychev, part of his best-known series about Alice Seleznyova. One of the few books in the series to be a direct sequel to another, The End of Atlantis.

The Dnieper, a spaceship commanded by Alice’s old friend Captain Poloskov, is going to a planet called Krina. It used to be a great civilization, but for some reason the contact with it broke off completely two hundred and fifty years ago, leaving Krinian explorers stranded on Earth. The last descendants of the explorers’ group are now due to return home on the Dnieper.

However, the ship vanishes without a trace as soon as it reaches Krina. Alice, her best friend Pashka, Iria Gai (whose husband, a cosmic biologist, is also on board), and their own little sentient ship Gai-do decide to go to rescue them. Nobody is prepared for the shocking discovery they make after they land on the planet: two hundred and fifty years ago, the entire population’s memory had been wiped clean, and now civilization has taken the form of a twisted feudal system. The main memory-wipe field now lies at the altitude of about 8 km, but its remainders are scattered around the planet in lowlands and swamps.

The (relatively) civilized country is ruled by Lord Radiculitis, poklons ("poklon" meaning "a deep bow" in Russian), his vassal lords who are constantly at odds with each other, and vkushetses ("vkushets" being a play on words in the original, originating from "zhrets", the word meaning a pagan priest. A rough English analogy would be using the word "strongar" because a "vicar" is weak), the Priests of Oblivion. Knowledge and education are forbidden and punishable by memory loss. Only the wisemen can know some things (and even they get regular memory wipes so that they wouldn’t know too much).

In the woods, there is a rebel group, based in the Shelter – those who seek to restore the former knowledge and experience of the Krinians. Both the Shelter and the feudals have a huge network of spies.

There is also a race of avians (allies of the Shelter), and the atani pygmies (who mostly keep to themselves).

Alice and her friends get quickly caught in the web of local intrigues as they, still unsuspecting, go to search for the friends on the strangely unwelcoming planet…

The novel provides examples of:

  • Abduction Is Love: Deconstructed mercilessly.
    • Old Mole kidnapped his beautiful (and highborn) wife Centipede and was so set on keeping her that he withstood a long siege of his castle and lost an eye but didn’t give her up. He was fond of her right enough, but due to their differences in upbringing and character the marriage was never really happy.
    • Veri-Meri attempts to do the same with Old Mole’s daughter Squirrel. It is up in the air whether he is attracted to her, but he certainly wants her title.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: As hateful as he has been, Veri-Meri looks heart-wrenchingly dejected and desperate as all his plans come crushing around him, everyone turns away from him and he's sentenced to memory loss. Alice who has felt nothing but disgust towards him before is sorry for him and even tries to plead with the vkushetses.
    Veri-Meri: Losing everything – love, and riches, and reputation!
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: The Krinians have light-blue skin.
  • Amnesiac Resonance: The memory loss can be cured, but even without the cure the be-pe retain or quickly remember traits, skills and feelings from their past.
    • Captain Poloskov remembers basic arithmetics.
    • Mechanic Zelyony repeats his pessimistic catchphrases.
    • Both Poloskov and Zelyony feel themselves familiar with the spaceship's cockpit.
    • Tadeusz experiences a deja vu after he sees Iria, and remembers his love for her before Gai-do reaches Earth.
    • Aphrodite still loves to play with dolls and hates making an effort for any reason.
  • Anti-Climax: The war of the poklons and the rememberers is a grand event, with Large Ham poklons shown parading towards the city in the first chapters, the rememberers growing increasingly anxious, and secret messages being passed on both sides... and then Gai-do appears and scatters the entire army of Radiculitis in the course of a minute.
  • Bat Out of Hell: Giant bats (or bat-like creatures) are a dangerous predator species. It’s mentioned they are descended from alien fauna.
  • Blank Slate: The result of a memory wipe. However (see Amnesiac Resonance above) it's not as complete as it appears.
  • Blackmail Backfire: When Veri-Meri is captured, he boasts of knowing everything about the nobles and vkushetses… and says he’s got it all written down, signing his own memory-loss warrant.
  • Bribe Backfire: Alice and Iria promise Veri-Meri heaps of gold if he keeps silent about their location. He agrees and gives them away the moment he leaves: if he had been silent, he would maybe have had the gold (he isn't even sure Alice and Iria have it), but the storming of Nightmare's house would enable him to finally marry Squirrel, rise to nobility and gain access to the Moles' entire castle of treasures. Besides, he's already the richest man around.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: Averted. Iria is an expert on martial arts, but even that doesn’t help her much if she’s vastly outnumbered by armed men with ranged weapons.
  • Culture Clash: As Krina had been a highly civilized planet for thousands of years, at first Alice, Pashka and Iria (even with the children's experience with other medieval worlds) have trouble figuring out what is really going on. It doesn't help that River, the first helpful person they meet, intelligent as she is, can't grasp it that they don't know the most obvious things. Why, everyone knows how to recognize a rememberer!
  • Darker and Edgier: Especially among the later Alice books which are usually much more light-hearted. This one features the grim realities of a Medieval Stasis world and Anyone Can Die.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Veri-Meri will spy for anyone and on anyone if it means he can profit from that.
  • Escaped Animal Rampage: The Krinians used to have animals from other planets in their zoos. After the memory wipe, many of these have escaped, and their descendants are often very dangerous.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The city crowd loves watching memory-loss executions. However, when they see a child of twelve and a gorgeous young woman on the scaffold, they begin a violent protest, enabling Alice and Iria to escape.
  • Fallout Shelter Fail: It is revealed that the planetary civilization collapsed because one Mad Scientist believed people cannot achieve happiness because they cannot let go of the past, so he decided to flood the planet with memory-wiping field, wait in a shelter until it subsided, and then emerge to teach the people good. Due to the trope, only the first stage was successful.
  • Fantastic Racism: The Krinians and the atani pygmies. The atani don’t attack the rememberers because the latter have no part in it. Among the poklons, they are destined for slavery at best (if they don’t have the quick thinking and backstabbing skills of Veri-Meri).
  • First-Step Fixation: Pashka and a member of a local sapient bird species are trapped in an old abandoned kids' sanitarium. Pashka decides that they need to signal the people searching for them with a smoke column. There is a nearby medical office, so he decides that taking apart the microscope there and using the lens to start a fire is his best bet. The problem is, there are a few rather vicious bears between him and the office. He manages to find an old piece of tech with which he scares away the bears, and is preparing to go and grab the microscope... but then the bird asks if the item itself might not be better for signaling the rescuers. It's a fireworks launcher.
  • Fog of Doom: The remnants of the memory-wipe field on the surface of the planet are visible as a sort of white fog.
  • God Guise: Gai-do, once refueled, passes easily enough for a mighty Diabolus ex Nihilo – enough to scatter a couple of armies.
    • When the atani pygmies mistake Iria for their goddess come alive, she quickly makes use of it and demand they free her and her friends and return their things. However, it’s not for long as the pygmies are attacked by Left Mole.
  • Gold and White Are Divine: The atani worship a marble statue they call the White Mistress. Then they believe the golden-haired Iria to be an incarnation of her.
  • Hamster-Wheel Power: Rich Krinians use slave-driven ones for ship propulsion.
  • Hot-Blooded: Pashka, as usual, wants to do all the action. Preferably without the boring discussions that have to precede it. Alice and Iria have trouble restraining him.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Squirrel has No Social Skills due to her naturally reserved nature and the bullying of her father and brothers. She hides behind snark and haughtiness, but really she desperately wants someone to care for her.
  • Inventing the Wheel: Allegedly, the first rememberer did this after seeing an ancient clock. That's one (re)discovery that must have spread, since wheels are common even outside the Shelter.
  • Killed Off for Real: Mercury, Boar, Moro-Pari are only the more or less major ones. Mercury’s death is especially shocking since it’s so painfully absurd and preventable and he used to be one of the main characters in The End of Atlantis.
  • Mad Scientist: The initial memory wipe was orchestrated by a scientist who came to believe people aren't happy because they cannot let go of the past. He decided to make them.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Played for Laughs with the feudals’ names. The meanings of words are completely mixed up after the memory wipe, so Radiculitis means “Elephant”, Mole means “Wolf”, Cockroach means “Peacock”, etc. The wisemen are supposed to choose the prettiest names for nobles and assign the appropriate meaning.
    • Played for Laughs with the Krinian explorers from Atlantis as well. They took names from Greek mythology as it became clear they were stranded on Earth, but these names don't necessarily match their characters (except for maybe Hera, the Big Bad from The End of Atlantis). In particular, Aphrodite is anything but beautiful and flirtatious.
    • Played straight with the rememberers’ names, such as Bookreader and Dawn.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Pashka invokes the trope, mostly because he’s Brilliant, but Lazy, and doesn’t want to do boring stuff. He manages to burn the omelette in Gai-do’s automatic kitchen, which, according to Gai-do, is physically impossible.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: The unicorns belonging to Left Mole and Right Mole. After the rememberers come into power, the unicorns return to the Mole brothers.
  • Noodle Incident: One day, River encountered a skinchanger in the forest and barely managed to escape. She refuses to say more of that.
  • Nouveau Riche: Old Mole was a forest bandit who made his way into nobility after accidentally stumbling on an abandoned observatory and proclaiming it his castle. The nobles of the city still look down on his sons.
  • Odd Name Out: The poklon family has beautiful names: Old Mole, Centipede, Right Mole, Left Mole… and then there is the unloved and unwanted Squirrel.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The way a lizard on Earth can throw away a tail, they can lose a head.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: It starts as a proper Alice book, with light-hearted soft sci-fi. Then, from Iria, Pashka and Alice leaving the Dnieper to Pashka and Dr. Crack refueling Gai-do (around twenty-one chapters and 230 pages), it's practically Low Fantasy medieval drama not unlike A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • Post-Peak Oil: Pashka states it must be the reason for Krina's apparent state at first. Iria reminds him altenative fuel sources were plentiful on Krina.
  • The Power of Love: Alice believes it was the reason for Tadeusz to remember his relationship with Iria. Pashka believes it was thanks to Iria's strong character.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Less psychopathic than in The End of Atlantis, but still: Aphrodite is horribly spoiled, thinks of nothing but dolls… and she’s also ninety years old.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: At one point, Veri-Meri threatens Squirrel to get all her friends killed if she doesn't marry him (he mostly has eyes for her title and riches, but some of his phrases imply lust is involved as well); luckily for her, he is at least unaware of her budding romance with Brook. She is saved by Alice and Iria before she can give up, and later manages to escape the city altogether.
  • Scavenger World: Like with Radiculitis' personal guard using chamber pots for helmets.
  • Sequel Hook: The ending states that six years later, Alice had amazing adventures on Krina again – but that’s another story. The author never wrote any direct sequel, however.
  • Sibling Team: Several examples – the Mole brothers (who'd have been an example of sibling love if only they had treated their sister like they treat each other), the Worm brothers, and on the good guys' side Brook and River. Surprisingly for this world, Sibling Rivalry seems to be rare.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Iria is one of the most gorgeous women in the galaxy. Which means every man she meets wants to marry her or sell/buy her as a slave. The atani tribe mistake her for a goddess – which means they won’t let her go.
  • Spanner in the Works: The appearance of Alice, Pashka, Iria and Gai-do led to a huge change of plans for the villains (who, for once, are really clever, they just didn't expect random aliens popping up after centuries of Krina's isolation), not to mention a significant Genre Shift.
  • Spy Speak: The rememberers send each other messages in the form of braided grass.
  • Theme Naming: The siblings Brook and River.
  • Think of the Children!: The main accusation against the rememberers is that they kidnap and eat children. It's a Half-Truth, too – they do kidnap them. Of course, it's enough for the Angry Mob of the city to hate the rememberers with a passion and support the poklons' campaign against the Shelter. But that excuse is just for the mob, as Radiculitis is aware of the bigger picture...
  • Token Good Teammate: Lady Centipede and her daughter Squirrel are the nicer ones of the Mole family.
  • Translation Convention: Most of the dialogue actually goes on in Krinian. Whenever Alice, Iria and Pashka switch to Russian for the sake of secrecy, it's stated in the narration. The Atani language is also used in some episodes, but the main characters don't know it, and most of it is conveyed via interpreters.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A unique case among the Alice series, this novel has one, set six years later. Brook and Squirrel are married and have a son and a daughter. Brook is a builder, and the family lives on the seashore. The unicorns have returned to Left Mole and Right Mole, and the brothers are now forest rangers. Professor Crack is head of a science lab, where River also works. Veri-Meri has lost his memory completely (he says) and owns a fruit shop. Nightmare is a pensioner, has learned to read and loves playing with the children. Aphrodite has opened a boutique called Moscow Style and spends all the money she makes on her dolls. Hermes and Poseidon are still working, despite their extremely old age.
  • Wife Husbandry: Squirrel’s loneliness (see I Just Want to Have Friends above) is exploited by Veri-Meri who tries to manipulate her into agreeing to marry him and very nearly succeeds. Until she meets Alice and her friends, she thinks he is the only one who’d ever love her.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Pashka is prone to that. First he keeps making spectacularly wrong guesses about Krina's fate (he says outright that he picks ideas from sci-fi novels), and then, after the landing, he fancies himself an invincible superhero who can proudly walk in the jungle. He promptly stumbles.
  • You Are What You Hate: At least two of the really clever and dangerous people can read and write, which doesn't stop them from being the rememberers' bitter enemies. And it makes one wonder how many more of them there are.