Immortality and memories

Martin Gill

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I'm pondering ideas for a new thing in which the central character is immortal. For context, modern-day magic/urban fantasy-esque. Either the MC or a major plot character is cursed to immortality as a result of a spell, lives 1000 ish years and a core of the story is about unlocking the binding.

I'm thinking that he doesn't know his backstory. He partly remembers it as PTSD style dreams, hallucinations and the like. He's spent years evolving a lifestyle where he just resets himself every 30 years or so, moves on, reinvents... possibly tied to the memory thing, so maybe the curse does this to him, conspires to wreck whatever life he's built.

In parallel I'm also thinking psychologically that maybe his brain "fills up" - that humans aren't built to handle a thousand years of memories. There's probably immortal beings around that can (in fact, there will be for the story to work) but they are born immortal, or with huge lifespans, so they are genetically capable of remembering.

I'm kind of riffing on this as the idea is unformed yet - I wanted to see what ideas it sparks. Plot wise, I like the idea of this broken, immortal guy, but I feel it works less well if he remembers everything. My opposite concern though is that leaves him with no family ties, but it does mean he can have friends he knows he's lying to.

Thoughts?
 

Mouse

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Sounds good to me. If he's having memory flashbacks, might he think they're 'past lives' if he's not aware he's immortal? I have an immortal character in the WiP I've just finished, but she's just at the start of her life and is only 20s/30s ish, so she's at the stage where she knows she'll have to watch everybody she loves die.
 

Biskit

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In parallel I'm also thinking psychologically that maybe his brain "fills up" - that humans aren't built to handle a thousand years of memories.

I don't think we're built to handle a handful of decades of memories. How much detail of your past do you really remember? For me it is just the highlights, and I bet that if only I could remember, there would even be highlights that I've forgotten.

So, purely stuff learned:
I did three languages at O Level - French, Greek, Latin. I can remember odd bits and pieces, but that's about it.
Maths/Physics/Chemistry - I took those to degree level, but these days I would have to look up all but the most basic things to be sure I was getting it right.
I spent three years doing a PhD, and I can give you the broad strokes of what I did and how it worked, but for the fine detail I would have to get my thesis out and spend some time re-learning.

Life in general:
There's plenty of times the Biskitetta says something to the effect of "remember when we did XXX" - nope, total blank. Yes, I know I was there, but the actual incident is gone.
Our wedding - yikes, I know I was definitely there, and have a vague memory of the registry office, and... and... Well, it was a good day.
The first time my mother was seriously ill, hospital/intensive care level of ill - that was only just over ten years ago, and I remember driving up to Bristol, possibly a couple of times, but the detail is distinctly fuzzy.
I've had two graduation ceremonies - definitely big days, and I sort of remember them, but only highlights. On the first one, I accepted a bet that I wouldn't dare attend the departmental reception in fancy dress. I won the bet, but there was a bit of a panic over getting into the proper gear for the formal ceremony. And the second one, that's a total blur, and all I really remember now is that my mother grumbled that I hadn't had a haircut.

When you start poking, our memories are not overly reliable.
 

Parson

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I've read a book with something like the hook you're describing. In this case the MC could only remember even highlight events for no more 300 years, but once in a while a memory from further back would be resurrected. Soon it would be lost, but he would remember that he had physically remembered and not just read about or something.

Pretty good hook!
 

sknox

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I'm not convinced there's such a thing as a memory. After all, everything we process is in the past, even if it's only a microsecond ago, so we're really only talking about distance in time, plus clarity. If something happened and we "don't remember it" we nevertheless perceived it at some point. There's a good deal of evidence that a memory can be recovered--through trauma, psycho-chemistry, or even simply an external visual or auditory or olfactory stimulus. Is it a memory when it has yet to be recalled? Is my knowledge that 2+2=4 information or memory?

One could make a case that there's no such thing as memory. There is only knowledge. Perception. Information. Whatever we are currently aware of.

I don't mess with immortals. To me, having a lifespan is part of what makes us human. Remove that, and we are no longer fully human. We might be (pace Sturgeon) more than human, or less. But not the same. Which makes writing about an immortal problematic.
 

Martin Gill

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If he's having memory flashbacks, might he think they're 'past lives' if he's not aware he's immortal?

Interesting angle. That could work.

To me, having a lifespan is part of what makes us human. Remove that, and we are no longer fully human.

I agree - which is why I'm angling towards he's basically broken, and saving him will be about throwing the curse and becoming human/able to die. Not in a Highlander "I've won" kind of way. but I'm thinking the antagonist will be whoever cursed him in the first place, who finally tracks him down, and his only way out is to die. I've considered maybe he's had a few run-ins with the bad guy over the years, each culminating with a catastrophic event.

One could make a case that there's no such thing as memory. There is only knowledge

So... a deeper level of detail is I'm starting with the premise that MC is viking, which gives me Hugin and Munin/Thought and Memory as a nice theme (Odin's ravens, in case people don't know). I wasn't even going to mention that at this point as I didn't want to steer things too much, but since you brought it up :) But theres a nice "quote" from Odin "Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory) fly each day over the spacious earth. I fear for Hugin, that he come not back, yet more anxious am I for Munin." So it seems like this could work as a theme.
 

Martin Gill

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When you start poking, our memories are not overly reliable.

Agreed... but what I'm trying to work out is does he know he's say, at least 100, 200, 500? Even if things fade. Or does he just "fill up and reset" every so often, so he's left with no real memories other than haunting shadows. Story wise, it works if he's aware he's special, but doesn't know how or wy to begin with.
 

Overread

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I'd agree that memory is a strange thing and that it seems a lo of it becomes inaccessible as we get older; however alzhiemers patients often show remarkable ability to recall some very early memories that previously they could not remember. This supposes that our minds do record a lot more and that its more an issue of accessing that thought than it is actually having it within our minds. In addition people vary a lot, some have near photographic memories others have a very poor capacity for recollection.

In part it can also be trained into a person; you can train your mind to remember stuff (most of us did it for school).

I would say someone with a super long life could become mentally broken in multiple ways and a lot would hinge on their view of life. If they had, say, a great love and a family early on and yet they can't recall even a face, but have a hazy recollection that they were married; then those thoughts could torment that person. If their mind isn't naturally brilliant at recolection and they never taught themselves they might well feel very vulnerable which could further stress them out and thus hinder their ability to store and recall information from their mind.

In addition I would suppose such a character would, having learned to read and write, likely keep copious notes and a diary. A paper record to help jog their memory. They might also keep items and likenesses as well. Of course a fire could destroy all that; not just destroying their family history but their history. A great plug right there for someone to be tormented by the loss of their own past (esp if they were not a great lord and thus could not rely on historians to at least cover some details).



Memory aside the other big aspect is how they manage to keep living without being discovered. Even in the past people would notice if "Old Bill" hadn't been dead ever or never seems to age. Indeed a lynch mob approach (much the same as in Highlander) might well be a major issue. There's legal documents to consider and the whole aspect becomes harder and harder to hide as time advances and as civilizations become more stable. Ergo your protagonist might well want ot hide in less civilized places or to topple or cause issues if they use their long life to engineer themselves into a position of influence and power. This might well tie into their memory aspects; if they've got a huge cartload of old books they've got to be protected and hidden; or a cartload of trinkets and items to preserve etc... An ever growing body of stuff (indeed even normal people build up a lot of stuff through life).

There's even a dark side to that, esp as things get more civilized. A home schooled child taken in and raised who is then "disposed of" or otherwise lost to the system; thus allowing the main character to be "reborn" as a new person every few decades so that they can continue to hide.


Of course another angle is that their immortality might plague them totally and they could be the perpetual wanderer. A hermit of no fixed abode and no tracking. Unable to carry books and trinkets to help preserve access to what memories they've got.
 

Edward M. Grant

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Icehenge did this. From what I remember, the characters had lifespans of a thousand years or more but could only remember maybe a century or two. So someone finds a henge of ice on Pluto with an inscription from the crew of the first (and previously unknown) starship to leave the solar system several centuries ago, but none of the people left behind in the solar system who supposedly built that starship can remember whether it really happened. The whole book is basically about them trying to figure out whether it was real or a hoax.

I think it's highly likely that our memories will decay over centuries until we only remember a handful of things in the distant past. Even today, I don't remember a great deal of detail about most things that happened twenty years ago.
 

Overread

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One further thought - I notice that I remember things if I have a reason to remember them. Ergo skills I use every day I recall, whilst those I might use only once a year if that I don't. For example at one point I could do trigonometry, however as I've had no reason to use it in the last 10 years I can't recall how to do it now.

So if an immortal person made this realisation they could become very set in their ways. Trying to live life in a very similar (not necessarily simplistic) way year to year. The monotony of a repetitive life shored up a bit by the fact that they can at least remember (or feel they can remember) what's come before because its so similar. Therefore finding a degree of sanity. As a result the ever advancing pace of society and research could well irk them. Especially if their chosen simpler way of life is being pushed out of viable existence; and even more so if their chosen way of life was very "in the background" as opposed to one that gave them power to have real influence.

Indeed they could be a most talented farmer and orchard grower; renowned for their keep knowledge and green thumb. Yet mechanisation would challenge their world views far far more so than they did the farmers of generations past (this also gives you some neat real life research material you can work with as you could study the social effects on people of technology change in a chosen area of industry/interest/life).
 

Martin Gill

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Ergo your protagonist might well want ot hide in less civilized places

Yep, and as society becomes more electronic, that becomes even more of a problem. So I'm kind of seeing this tension between him wanting to go to more and more remote places, but being drawn back to places he remembers as pivotal somehow, even if he doesn't know why, which essentially gives me a way of him doing something self destructive.

I had thought about keepsakes and the like. Tattoos. I need to re-watch Memento.
 

Ihe

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I'm guessing these immortals aren't like the ones in Gulliver's Travels, who keep aging endlessly, with all the horrific declines of progressive old age. I'm still waiting for someone to explore this amazingly nightmarish concept! I'm sure someone must have and I just haven't caught wind of it...
Yep, and as society becomes more electronic, that becomes even more of a problem.
I'm assuming that in thousands of years the man will have amassed a substantial fortune in many forms. But even if he isn't very rich, once CCTV and electronic face scanners become more widely used, he could have appearance-altering surgery every decade or so.
Also keep in mind tattoos can fade over time, more so over centuries. And if the guy's immortality has anything to do with super-regeneration etc, tattoos would fade much quicker. And the regeneration thing also brings to mind issues with fatal external injuries or mutilations. Can the man die from external trauma? Does this immortality only prevent natural aging? What happens if you cut off the head? Is there any re-growing of limbs? The cyclic memory loss could be the body over-regenerating brain cells. How much does he forget? Languages learnt? Muscle memory as well? Will he forget how to walk and talk? Just how magic is this immortality? What I'm trying to say is: be careful with the consistency of your "immortality rules". And if in the story you're gonna venture a more biological attempt at an explanation about this immortality, you'll need to do some research!

If memories are such a problem, always remember the dude can keep diaries, paintings, photos or videos when the tech becomes available.

My opinion on immortality is that you would have to make it VERY fresh to escape the shadow of so many books/comics/series/movies with immortals so far. A forever-amnesiac immortal holds some promise indeed, but you'd have to make this cyclic memory loss the main conflict-driver/throughline. External antagonists should be more of a sub-plot IMO, otherwise you'd risk eclipsing the most interesting part of the story with more mundane conflicts. As a reader, I feel that this type of story would have to lean quite heavily on character-study for it to work, but I don't know what your intentions for the story are, so I'll stop here :D.

My 2 cents.
 

Overread

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Money is easy to get but hard to hold onto. Whilst long life might let even a modest living person save up a lot; it might be meaningless in many ways too. A war might strip them of all they know; political changes might make all their old saved coins worthless (similarly though in more recent history they could become even more valuable - indeed they might curse themselves today for having thrown away all their old things over time considering how our current age is very keen for historical artifacts).

Surgery and other very advanced methods might be an option to "change face" but don't forget that's a pretty big undertaking. Even ignoring the regeneration over time reconstructions will still deteriorate. Furthermore that higher level of medical invasion might well be unwanted. Indeed if you lived forever chances are you don't want scientists getting a hold of you and "finding out how you work!"
It's also likely that if identity and memory is a huge issue for this person, then at least their own face is one they can recall; so huge surgery to change appearance might not be what they want.

I'd wager this approach would only be viable for the very rich and influential; ergo someone in the lime light who needs to reinvent their body not just their personal ID number. And if someone is that rich and has lived that long they might well be able to get away with it without the surgical alteration
 

Shorewalker

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I have a mercenary company in my WiP who, for various reasons, are now 3,000 years old. They had this immortality foisted opon them and never age. I deal with the mental exhaustion that I would imagine would come by having them hibernate at various junctures, a sleep that might last three years, or two hundred, dependent upon need.
 

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