The Forgetting Curve

What connects terrorism, memory, and consumerism? Angie Smibert's excellent dystopian series, Memento Nora. In the first book, we learn about a shadowy corporation, TFC, that has set up centers where witnesses to the rampant terrorism plaguing this near-future society can go to swallow a pill and forget--enabling them to resume their oh-so-glossy lives as good consumers and obedient citizens. In The Forgetting Curve, Smibert introduces a new character, Aiden, who has the hacker chops to expose facts that TFC would prefer stayed hidden, and thus takes us deeper down the rabbit hole of this twisted dystopia.




Now, I've argued here before on several occasions that the true subject of dystopian fiction is our current society, not the hypothetical future worlds these novels portray. The Memento Nora series is no different. What makes these books unique among the current bumper crop of dystopian YA and special to me is the connection they draw between terrorism and consumerism. Smibert posits a future world in which services related to terrorism--security and forgetting pills--are marketed directly to consumers, monetizing terror.

Sadly, that's not so different from today's society. We've monetized terror indirectly, consuming prodigiously via our government. The U.S. currently spends roughly $75 billion per year fighting the so-called war on terror. We've outfitted dive teams in Nebraska, funded communication hubs in North Pole, Alaska, and bought thousands of lapel pins in West Virginia. We've spent billions more on private security--at the latest estimate there were nearly 10,000 firms in the U.S. alone providing private security services.

Nothing is wrong with being safe, of course. But at what cost? In the Memento Nora series, the cost is literally free will. We're certainly headed that way via the curtailment of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. But there's also an opportunity cost to the terror spending. In the worst year, 2001, terrorism killed fewer than 3,000 Americans. Heart disease, on the other hand, kills almost 600,000 Americans per year. Yet we spend less than 2 billion dollars a year researching heart disease. Does anyone seriously doubt we could save more lives spending to prevent heart disease than we do with the billions spent on terror? The problem, of course, is that there's no profit in preventing heart disease. Food companies, restaurants, and cardiovascular specialists all stand to lose if we take on heart disease in a serious way. Terrorism prevention, on the other hand, makes money for everyone involved.

Your odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in the U.S. are something on the order of 1 in 3.5 million. Would you accept an increase in those odds to, say, 1 in 2.5 million to gain an hour of time every time you board a plane? I would take that trade, and I posit that any rational person would as well. (If I die in a terrorist attack, I lose about 350,000 hours of life, so an added 1 in a million chance of death pro-rates to a value of about 20 minutes. An extra hour for every plane flight will be worth something on the order of 400 hours to me over the remainder of my expected lifetime. No contest.)

My fervent hope is that--like in Smibert's books--we'll wake to the fact that our interests are not being served by this "war" and change things before they get as bad as in The Forgetting Curve. Perhaps protest art will be one important vehicle for change--just as it is for Nora, Aiden, and Velvet.

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