Material Archives

When the crew of an interstellar prisoner transport vessel in Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets (2015) learn that the ship’s memory store of precious data about life on earth is gradually being overwritten, their solution is to etch what material they can — from poetry to details of medical procedures to the very book we are reading — into the metal of the ship’s hull. As further back-up the ‘slow bullets’ — data storage devices injected into many crew members’ bodies – are wiped of their military-biographical data to be replaced by material selected from the ship’s ever-diminishing memory. The cultural legacy of the human race is preserved at the cost of each individual’s biographical past.

‘S—’, the amnesiac protagonist of J. J. Abrams’ and Doug Dorst’s S (2013) – or more precisely, of V. M. Straka’s Ship of Theseus (1949) – has already lost his past when the book opens. By the close of Chapter 1 he is a prisoner aboard an archaic looking sailing vessel. Later, when he tries to inscribe his story on his cabin bulkhead with a nail, he discovers that what he intends to write changes at the very moment of inscription. His personal story remains inaccessible as he commits to defeating global arms-dealer Vévoda. Meanwhile, in the spatio-temporal reality of Straka but some decades later, two students, Eric and Jen, use the margins of a library copy of The Ship of Theseus to inscribe their own material exchanges:



Although with different inflections, each text foregrounds the role of the material support in the archiving act: metal hull, wooden bulkhead, the yellowing pages of a library book. In each case the importance of the individual and his/her personal story is implicitly compared to that of a greater civic cause: a warning shot across the bows, perhaps, in the apolitical age of the selfie?


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