At the end of last month, resting home from some typically indeterminate winter illness (which of course occurred during vacation), I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts for pleasure. While I was an enormous fan of science fiction in my youth, I rarely read the genre these days. But some review named this among the top SF books of 2012, and the self-referentiality and playfulness appealed to me. I found the novel so enjoyable and insightful that I wrote Scalzi a fan letter (which I haven’t done in decades) and decided to read Old Man’s War, the book which established his reputation.
The first three pages of Old Man’s War address the problem of encapsulating personal memory.
Kathy’s marker has her name (Katherine Rebecca Perry), her dates, and the words: BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER. I read those words over and over every time I visit. I can’t help it; they are four words that so inadequately and so perfectly sum up a life. The phrase tells you nothing about her, about how she met each day or how she worked, about what her interests were or where she liked to travel. You’d never know what her favorite color was, or how she liked to wear her hair, or how she voted, or what her sense of humor was. You’d know nothing about her except that she was loved. And she was. She’d think that was enough.
In this paragraph, Scalzi captures a key problem that a headstone shares with time capsules and with attempted communication with extraterrestrial intelligence: how to capture the essence of a person, or culture, or planet.
Orson Scott Card also addresses similar memorialization issues in his Ender books, most notably in Speaker for the Dead. Card synecdochically explores the problem of comprehending and conveying the nested existences of individuals, species, and civilizations. He lays bare the paradox that we may know least those to whom we are closest, and outlines how opinions can shift over time (as Andrew Wiggin, initially celebrated as hero, becomes reviled as xenocide).