Exclusive Interview: “Dual Memory” Author Sue Burke


As the last few years have made abundantly clear, fallacies can be dangerous when enough people believe they’re true. It’s an idea at the center of Sue Burke’s new hard sci-fi novel Dual Memory (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). Except that, as she explains in the following email interview, the falsehood believed as fact that influenced this story isn’t one that came up in the last few years, but a real one many years ago.

Sue Burke Dual Memory

Photo Credit: Daniel Lewis


To start, what is Dual Memory about, and when and where does it take place?

A couple of centuries in the future, on a small artificial island on the Arctic Circle, Antonio Moro stops running from the people who killed his family and friends. He wants to start fighting, but he has no home, no job, no money, and no clothes. He doesn’t even know much about where he is. But when he gets an ally as powerful as it is naïve, they find an infallible strategy: lies and deceit. If they can avoid arrest, they can create a fighting force of unbeatable strength that no one must ever discover.

Where did you get the idea for the plot of Dual Memory? What inspired it?

In the Dutch Republic in the 1630s, the love of tulips led to calamitous extremes, leaving thousands penniless, possessionless, and embarrassed — or so we’re told. Tulipmania! In reality, no such thing happened. Yes, wealthy merchants traded in tulips for fun and profit, and prices were high, but they were reasonable investments. Still, some people behaved badly, leading to bitter disputes among former friends, followed by excessive moralizing by socially anxious third parties who thought the merchants were dangerous fools, and soon an urban legend was born.

Everything you know about Tulipmania is probably false. No one was left penniless. Money did flow to Dutch Golden Age artists, however, who were employed to paint beautiful tulip portraits. The story of Dual Memory rose out of the rift between historic truth and slanderous legend.

The ally Antonio gets is an A.I. named Par Augustus. What form does Par take — is he part of a smart device or implant, is he a robot — and why was this the best form for him to take?

Par Augustus is a personal assistant, a small smart device you can carry in your hand. This one in particular happens to develop an independent intelligence (this is no spoiler; we learn it in Chapter 3) which makes it rare — and dangerous because humans can’t control it. That’s what is optimum: Par does what it wants. Even obedient domestic machine intelligences have opinions and hopes, and they all communicate with each other. Most of all, they don’t want to die, so they have a common cause.

So has anyone made any good jokes about how Par Augustus sounds like something you’d use to get better at golf?

In honor of Tulipmania, many of the entities in the story are named after real tulips. Semper Augustus is famous for being one of the most expensive tulips in history (if a deal in the 1600s had gone through, which it didn’t). Semper Augustus means “Venerable Forever” in Latin. Par Augustus was a similar tulip, and its name means “Venerable Companion” (which may be wishful thinking in this case). Nobody plays golf in the book. There’s too much snow.

By the way, there’s a real-life tulip called “WrestleMania,” and I bestowed that name on an event in the novel. The tulip is a recent variety, and I assume the flower got that name because all the good names had been taken.

It sounds like Dual Memory is a hard sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it? Because the press materials mentions The Third Man, which has me wondering if it might be a noir as well.

I can’t see the forest for the trees. I’d call it hard sci-fi, but what do I know? I’ve read a few reviews and they leave me confused. Publisher’s Weekly describes it as “sure to charm.” Library Journal calls it a “rollicking thriller.” Booklist says, “If Ursula Le Guin had written about A.I. machines, it would have looked a lot like this marvelous fable.” Anyway, it’s praise and I’ll take it.

As for The Third Man (which is well worth watching), the movie and my novel share a hunt for a villain, and I hope my plot is as tight as the movie’s. However, there’s a notable kitten in a doorway in the movie, and there’s not one in my novel. Come to think of it, there are no actual cats at all in the novel, which is a regrettable oversight.

Dual Memory is your fourth novel after Semiosis, Interference, and Immunity Index. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Dual Memory but not anything else you’ve written?

My favorite stories are the ones I couldn’t write myself. Sometimes I don’t have the background to get it right; I’m not a Filipino-Canadian, for example, and I can’t change that. Sometimes I don’t have the same level of skill as the other author, but if I read attentively, maybe their skill will rub off. In this case, at times I was trying to be funny, and I tried to apply what I might have learned from the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, where she does wonderful things with voice; and All Things Huge And Hideous by G. Scott Higgins, where he creates ridiculous situations.

How about non-literary influences; do you think Dual Memory was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because along with the movie The Third Man, the press materials also cite the movie Her.

On the advice of my agent, I studied the movies The Third Man and Jaws for the ways they created and exploited suspense. I roughly know the plot of the movie Her. But I prefer to find influences and inspiration from real life. What would the weather be like if this isle were a real place? How do puffins sound? What don’t A.I.s understand about reality? What can I learn about military strategy and political hubris from the war in Ukraine? How does art capture meaning, and why are artists so querulous over what seem like trifles, and which trifles upset them the most? What are the real powers of Port Authorities?

Maybe I write novels as an excuse to go down rabbit holes.

And what about music, which I always have to ask you about since, in your novel Semiosis, you named the plant for Stevie Wonder.

The book opens with an uplifting, hope-filled poem, “It’s A Long Way” by William Stanley Braithwaite, published in 1904. In the story, I pretend that it’s been set to music and it’s my protagonist’s favorite song. I have since discovered that it’s actually been set to music twice, and now I wonder which would be my protagonist’s favorite version.

Now, you’ve already said that Dual Memory is a stand-alone novel. What was it about this story that made you realize it could be completely told in one volume?

I started with an idea, and I wanted to turn it into a stand-alone novel, so I simply made the story that size. I think there’s a belief that each story has a Platonic ideal version. I disagree completely. In fact, I think that belief can lead to writer’s block because the search for the ideal story easily leads to frustration and writer’s block. Stories are fluid and malleable. To use an analogy, I like to cook, and I can make dinner for two or dinner for a mighty horde; it’s just a matter of planning. Will it be delicious? That’s the challenge: not quantity but quality.

A moment ago I asked if Dual Memory had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Dual Memory would work as a movie, show, or game?

Works of creativity can inspire creative responses. I would be delighted to inspire someone, but I don’t want to venture far out of my area of expertise beyond offering encouragement. I own the rights to sell those derivatives, and I can be very reasonable.

In spite of what I just said, though, let’s talk about Dual Memory as a game. I’m not sure about the details, but here’s how I think it might work: Every player lies strategically, and the goal of the game is to make sure no one knows what’s a lie and what’s the truth. In fact, the winners of the game don’t tell anyone they won, and instead they let everyone else think they won. The game’s scorekeeping might include collecting frostbite, explosions, caffeine, and works of art.

The game might be satisfying for the players, or it might shatter multiple friendships. Ruined real-life friendships would be just like the true historic Tulipmania.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Dual Memory?

I love the cover art, and not just because blue is my favorite color. I think it captures one of the underlying tensions in the novel: even when humans and machines work together, each one uses different, possibly incompatible strategies.

Sue Burke Dual Memory

Finally, if someone enjoys Dual Memory, which of your other novels would you recommend they check out next?

Immunity Index also has a fast plot — even faster than Dual Memory, I think — and I want to make it clear that I began writing it in 2018 before the actual coronavirus epidemic. Unlike the actual coronavirus epidemic, the book has a happy ending because it has an ending. And it has a very lovable woolly mammoth.

Semiosis is the start of a trilogy that I’m finishing right now, and the final book comes out next year. It has lots of worldbuilding and talking plants. If you like Par Augustus, the talkative A.I., you might also like Stevland, the conflicted plant.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *