While intelligence is relative, we usually think of dinosaurs as not being as smart as, say, human beings. Well, some human beings. But in his new hard sci-fi novel Living Memory (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer David Walton explores the idea of dinosaurs that were intelligent…and not relatively speaking.
To begin, what is Living Memory about, and when and where does it take place?
Living Memory takes place in three locations and times: present-day Colorado, present-day Thailand, and sixty-six million years ago in the location that will one day be Thailand. It starts on a rocky plateau in the middle of the night, where two farmers are digging up a fossil to sell on the black market. They accidentally break it and green liquid bubbles out with a sweet smell that makes them see terrifying visions of dinosaurs.
Enter Samira and Kit and their team of paleontologists, who discover that these fossilized dinosaurs were once intelligent creatures — that’s right, from an ancient dinosaur civilization — whose technology had developed much differently from ours due to their highly-developed sense of smell. They could record memories chemically in vast databases of knowledge, communicate social dominance through scent cues, and genetically modify other living things to use as tools.
The most dramatic use of this technology in our modern day, however, is the ability to instill fear in other people and control their behavior. Once the governments of the world understand what it can do, they want to claim it for themselves. A colonel in the Royal Thai Army seizes the fossils and throws Samira and her team out of the country, except for Kit, the team’s only Thai citizen, who he forces to work for him. Instead, Kit gives the tech to an activist princess from the Thai royal family who sees it as a way to stop her country’s rampant sex trafficking trade.
Back in the United States, Samira wants nothing more than to find a way to return to Thailand and get her fossils back. To do so, she might be willing to work with her own government’s intelligence agencies, though she’s not sure how far she can trust them.
And that’s as much of the plot as I will reveal.
Where did you get the original idea for Living Memory?
I love dinosaurs (who doesn’t?), and I’ve wanted to write a paleontology-themed book for a while. I explored the idea by writing a short story about intelligent dinosaurs that took place sixty-six million years ago (“The Roost Of Ash And Fire,” published in FutureSF). That was the genesis of the idea to create a technology around an extraordinary sense of smell.
All my books start from a scientific topic I get obsessed with and can’t get enough of. I’ve always thought it interesting to imagine alternate ways that a highly-technological society might exist that’s utterly different from ours. Does technology always have to follow the same path? Might creatures with a completely different biology make different discoveries based on what they need and how they see the world?
The sense of smell is not a primary sense for us, but it is for a lot of animals. When you stop and think about it, it’s an extraordinary thing: we have receptors that can distinguish among tiny amounts of specific chemicals floating through the air. Many creatures can do it thousands of times better than we can, and many can produce specialized pheromones to communicate by smell as well. So what if such a species grew highly intelligent…might they not develop an understanding of chemistry and genetics faster than they developed the means to work iron or bronze? Might that not lead to a powerful but completely different technological basis for society? (And one that left little trace behind?)
Dinosaurs might not seem like the most likely candidate for a super-sniffer, but some of them did have an acute sense of smell. Besides, I always thought it would be fascinating to imagine an intelligent dinosaur society that lived right at the end of the Cretaceous and knew the asteroid was coming. With Living Memory, I got to explore exactly that.
And is there any significance to Samira and Kit finding the alien tech in northern Thailand as opposed to, say, western Europe or South Africa or West Orange, New Jersey?
West Orange, New Jersey is an excellent place for fossils! Mostly Jurassic fossils, though New Jersey as a whole has a great selection from many eras. That’s part of the problem, though —many places in the world have been pretty thoroughly searched, and although new finds are being made all the time, huge and completely unknown discoveries are less likely.
I considered setting the book in China, which has enjoyed a renaissance of dinosaur hunting in recent years. A lot of new feathered theropod species from the Cretaceous have been found there. However, I’ve never been to China, but I have been to Thailand (which helps with writing about it), and although fossils have of course been found there, there are still large untapped areas with good conditions for preservation, such as the Khorat plateau region I described in the novel, which probably have a lot of great finds waiting to be discovered.
Living Memory sounds like it’s a sci-fi novel. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’d call it hard science fiction like most of my books. It takes place mostly in the present day, and it’s about the impact of a unique technology on people’s lives. A lot of my books have grown out of some kind of science research obsession of mine, like quantum physics (Superposition, Supersymmetry), fungus (The Genius Plague), or A.I. and self-driving cars (Three Laws Lethal). Even my fantasy novel, Quintessence, takes a very scientific approach to magic and deals with themes like the scientific method and its way of approaching the discovery of truth as contrasted with religion. So I think of Living Memory as sci-fi for sure.
Living Memory is your eighth novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Living Memory but not on anything else you’ve written?
Certainly a lot of the great popular science books about Mesozoic times that I’ve read over the years influenced this book. Some of the best are The Rise And Fall Of Dinosaurs by Stephen Brusatte; The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert; and Walking On Eggs by Luis Chiappe.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Living Memory was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Perhaps surprisingly, I’d say the film Hidden Figures had an influence on this book. Of course, Living Memory has little in common with a story about Black women calculating launch trajectories by hand for NASA. But the concept — a marginalized group excelling in a scientific field despite deep prejudice — was in part an inspiration for the maniraptor culture I invented, in which the larger females dominate society and the smaller males are mostly used for manual labor and mating. The main maniraptor character is part of a telescope (read the book to find out how that works), and with his knowledge of orbital physics, he comes to understand that the asteroid is coming before the others in his society, who don’t believe him out of prejudice.
Now, Living Memory is the first book of a trilogy. Does it have a name?
At the moment, I’m just calling it the Living Memory series, after the first book. Boring to use the same title, I know, but it really does fit the concept of the series better than anything else I’ve thought of. I considered calling the series Ash And Fire (after the original short story, “The Roost Of Ash And Fire”), but it sounded too much like a YA series to me.
What was it about this story that made you realize it couldn’t be told in just one book? Or, for that matter, two or five or thirty-seven?
I originally conceived it as a single book. I certainly don’t default to trilogies, and a lot of my books stand alone. Part of what I like best about writing is coming up with new concepts, so generally avoid writing again and again with the same world and characters. When I start a new book, I want the creative experience of starting completely from scratch with the characters, the world, the ideas, everything. In this case, however, I realized that I had a longer story to tell about these dinosaurs than could easily fit in a single book, and the story arc I had envisioned fell neatly into three pieces. So a trilogy it is.
And do you know what the other books will be called, and when they will be out?
The other two novels are called Deadly Memory and Memory Reborn, and they’re scheduled to come out in May and December of 2023, respectively. I’ve got a lot of writing to do yet to make that happen. I’m working on Deadly Memory right now, and an important aspect of this part of the story as I originally plotted it in 2019 involves a worldwide pandemic. I even wrote this paragraph in an early, partial draft in 2019: “Though it was common in Asian cities where smog pollution was a serious issue, the sight of people in an American suburb wearing surgical masks in public was profoundly disturbing. The aisle with canned food was almost completely empty. Freaked out, Samira gathered up some of what was left and put them in her cart without even looking at the labels.”
In 2019, that might have been an interesting thought. Now it’s an old story that everyone’s sick of hearing about. So I’ve had to reconsider how to make some of that work.
Upon hearing that Living Memory is the first book of a trilogy, some people will decide to wait until all three books are out before reading any of them, and some will go further and read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait?
Everyone has their own ways of enjoying books, of course. My wife doesn’t enjoy suspense, so she likes to jump ahead to the ending, see if the book is going to be worth her while, and then go back and enjoy the journey without the tension of not knowing what will happen. She feels like life has enough tension, so why add false tension to it? I, on the other hand, really enjoy suspense. I love to sit with the excitement of not knowing what will happen in an imaginary world that can’t hurt me.
So I’ll tell you a secret: Living Memory ends with a cliffhanger. The best kind of cliffhanger, in my opinion. The book largely stands alone: It starts with the theft of a unique fossil find, and resolves that storyline by the end of the book. It feels like a complete story has been told. But just when things are wrapping up, the last chapter opens the door wide to much larger possibilities and leaves the reader with suspense about what’s to come. So if you’re the kind of reader who enjoys that kind of ending and the suspense of waiting for the next book, then you know what to do.
Earlier I asked if Living Memory had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think Living Memory could work as a movie, show, or game?
Well, my film agent kind of laughed at me when he saw this project. It’s pretty hard to get anything made into a movie or TV show, of course; the competition is intense. Superposition got pretty far along the path toward becoming a show, but ultimately was dropped because of another show, Counterpart, that was too similar. But in this case, the Jurassic Park franchise pretty much has a monopoly on dinosaur-related adventure. That’s not a hard and fast rule, of course, but in my agent’s opinion, the chances of Living Memory making it in Hollywood are slim. I mean, they’re always slim, but for this one, they’re pretty well near impossible. Nobody’s going to invest in dinosaur filmmaking when the market is saturated already. Here’s hoping he’s wrong. But you know, he’s probably not.
That said, if I’m dreaming…the trilogy has a lot more story than could fit in a movie, which means a movie would probably end up very different from the book. With all the streaming services, shows are where the most creative and interesting film storytelling is being done these days anyway, so I’d definitely pick show.
And if someone decided to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Samira, Kit, and the other main characters?
Can I say that I’m terrible at this? I find it so hard to think of the right people. Besides which, it gets a little tricky, because ideally, a Thai character (Kit) should be played by an actor of Thai descent, and an Ethiopian character (Samira) should be played by an actor of Ethiopian descent. Unfortunately, after poking around on the internet for a while, I realize that I don’t know any Thai or Ethiopian actors. There are plenty of them, and I’m sure they’re very talented, but I’m not familiar with their work.
So limiting myself to actors I am familiar with: For Samira, the lead paleontologist, I suggest Lashana Lynch, who plays Maria Rambeau in the Marvel films. She’s got the presence to handle Samira’s stubborn, volatile personality for sure. For Kit, I’ll go with Remy Hii, the Malaysian-born actor from Crazy Rich Asians and Spider-Man: Far From Home. For Beth (Samira’s sister-by-adoption), Emily Bett Rickards, who plays Felicity Smoak in Arrow.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Living Memory?
The only other thing I’ll mention is that I couldn’t be more delighted with the audiobook reader for this novel, Sofia Rowley. I listen to a lot of audiobooks myself, and the really talented performers make a big difference. Sofia is one of the good ones, and I love how she brings each of my characters alive with subtly different voices. If audiobooks are your thing, be sure to check it out.
Finally, if someone enjoys Living Memory, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next while waiting for Deadly Memory and Memory Reborn to be released?
The Genius Plague, which deals with some similar themes: mind control, a substance that nations will compete to own, the strange paths evolution can take to create alien species right here on Earth. Like the Living Memory series, The Genius Plague is a thriller in which I explore some of the amazing real-world characteristics of living creatures and extrapolate those ideas into something intelligence agencies will vie to control and that could threaten the very existence of humanity as we know it. [For more on The Genius Plague, check out this earlier interview with David Walton about that novel.]