While a lot of us say we’d like to forget 2020, it’s doubtful that most of us would if the opportunity presented itself. Especially those who found love in the time of Coronavirus. But what if the choice wasn’t yours. Such is the premise of Reset (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), a sci-fi love story by Sarina Dahlan. In the following email interview, Dahlan explains what inspired and influenced this story, and how she plans to tell more of them in the world she’s created.
To begin, what is Reset about?
Reset is a story of two past lovers who live in the post-apocalyptic utopia of the Four Cities. There, memories are considered a threat to peace. So, every four years, its citizens undergo a memory wipe in a process called Tabula Rasa. This erases prejudices and hate, but also all the memories of those they knew.
Aris, a scientist who shuns love, finds herself haunted by a recurring dream. Metis is a pianist and the leader of the Dreamers, a secret group who believes memories of past lives hide in dreams. The plot follows them as they find their way to each other before the next Tabula Rasa “resets” them.
Where did you get the idea for Reset, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
The idea of Reset came to me late one night after a frustrating writing session. I was so depressed, I decided to erase everything I had spent months writing. As I was staring at the blank screen, a question came to me: What would it be like if humans could wipe our slate clean over and over just as we could a story? What kind of world would we have? Why would it be necessary? Who would have the most to lose? Memory loss is something we can all empathize with, from misplacing a car key to Alzheimer’s to dementia. At its worst, it robs you of the person you love. So, I knew it had to be a love story.
Aris’ name came to me right away. It’s a short form of Aristotle, who wrote about the idea of the human mind as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Aris and Metis, as full-fledged characters, took their time introducing themselves to me. I felt as if I was exploring their world and who they are at the same time as them. It was a journey for me — being someone who lives in a world where peace is less a concrete goal than a nice concept — to try to think like the characters who are from a place where peace is to be protected at all costs. My breakthrough was when I realized that, if you replace the word “peace” or “dreams” with anything and add fanaticism, you end up more or less in the same predicament.
In Reset, the four cities are inspired by the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Why that song and not, say, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” or “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath or something else?
The Beatles were still a thing in Thailand while I was growing up years after they had broken up. When John went solo, his music was everywhere. “Imagine” is my favorite song. I admire its audacious optimism. I’ve always felt it’s not just a song, but a call to action. It’s asking us to imagine a world of peace, a society without greed, a place where we can live in harmony. Having grown up around Buddhism, while I’m not a Buddhist, I’m very much attracted to that philosophy. If detachment is the path to nirvana and memories are the seeds of all forms of attachment, erasing memories is then a logical shortcut to peace. But with every cause, there’s an effect. As Metis says in Reset, “Choice is everything. But control is an illusion.”
Reset sounds like it’s a dystopian sci-fi novel. But the tagline on the cover asks, “Can you love someone you don’t remember,” which makes me think this might be a dystopian sci-fi romance. How do you see it?
While some readers may think Reset is set in a dystopian society, I imagined and wrote the Four Cities as a utopia. But someone’s utopia is always another’s dystopia and vice versa, right? This gray, blurry space in any ideology is what attracted me.
I personally think of Reset as a love story that happens to exist in a futuristic, speculative world that’s a reaction to our own. At its core, it’s about people trying to hold on to each other against forces outside their control. Take away Tabula Rasa and replace it with Alzheimer’s, and it’s still a similar story.
Though I’m hesitant to call Reset a romance because romance readers have specific criteria in mind when seeking a book in that genre. So, sci-fi love story may be what fits it best.
Reset is your first novel, but you previously published a short story collection called Shadow Play. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Reset but not on any of your short stories?
I love thought-provoking sci-fi novels by Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, so I’d say they’re my biggest influences on Reset. I also wanted to capture the innocence and earnestness of the characters in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Shadow Play, on the other hand, is more fantasy than sci-fi. It’s a collection of fantastical short stories inspired by my life, how I grew up, and the places that touched my heart (minus the fantastical aspects). Although there’s a bonus story in the hardcover version of Shadow Play called “Invisible Traces” that captures the last night between Aris and Metis before Tabula Rasa. It is, in a way, the prologue to Reset.
Is “Invisible Traces” also included in the print and / or Kindle versions of Reset?
“Invisible Traces” is not included in Reset since it takes place before the cycle within the book. The story isn’t necessary to understanding the world of Reset. It’s a snapshot of the last night before the new cycle begins.
Continuing with influence, was Reset influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I’d say Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is an obvious one for its exploration of memories and our relationship with them. How we both run away from and clutch tightly to our own past — and how pointless controlling it really is.
You have degrees in both psychology and visual arts. How, if at all, did the former influence Reset?
Human psychology and the various philosophies that sprung around it have always been fascinating to me. The idea of nature vs. nurture. The mind’s fragility and strength. The effects of our past on our present and future. The physiology of the brain. Diseases like Alzheimer’s, and how scientists are working on ways to reverse it. Psychology provided endless inspirations for Reset, and I suspect will continue to do so in all my future works.
And in terms of the latter degree, why did you decide to write Reset as a prose novel as opposed to a graphic novel?
Although I grew up reading Japanese manga (my favorite was Doraemon, about a robot cat who travelled from the future), prose is where my heart truly belongs. As an artist, I’m more of a painter. And as a drawer…let’s just say I’m better at writing.
That being said, I’d love to see Reset as a graphic novel by a way more talented artist than me — perhaps someone like Aron Weisenfeld, whose art I adore. I think the world of the Four Cities offers a lot of visual eye-candy.
As you know, sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Reset?
I think the story between Aris and Metis is complete, and Reset works as a stand-alone novel. However, the story of the Four Cities isn’t done. I’m envisioning a series with stories involving other characters across different times. I’d like to know more about Officer Scylla, the Matres and the children in the Center Of Discovery And Learning, the Crone and the Planner, or even the A.I.s and the droids. Right now, I’m working on a prequel focusing on the story of how the Four Cities came to be, with the Crone and the Planner as the main characters.
Do you have a name for this series yet?
I don’t. What do you think of A Tale Of Four Cities? I’m open to suggestions.
That could work. Or just Tales Of The Four Cities. Anyway, do you know yet what the other books will be called and when they’ll be out?
The tentative title of the book I’m writing is Preset. I think you’re supposed to have a consistent word in the titles within a series, right? I don’t have another idea though. I’ll probably just google every word with “set” in it and pick something catchy. I’m hopeful I can finish this book in a few months, and send it on its path to publishing. I’ll keep you posted.
Now, upon hearing that there’s a prequel in the works, some people may decide to wait until Preset comes out before reading Reset, and some may even read Preset first. Do you think they should wait, and if so, what order should they read these two books in?
Reset is the first book of the series, and will give the readers the best introduction into the world. Without giving too much away here, the beginning and end of Reset form a circle, closing the loop. The story of Metis and Aris is complete in its own way, and there’s no benefit to waiting for another book to learn more about them. What the other books would do is expand on the world of the Four Cities: How Tabula Rasa affects its other citizens, its infrastructure, and its path in history.
Earlier I asked if Reset had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But do you think that Reset could work as a movie, show, or game?
Funny you asked. I’ve always seen Reset as a movie complete with score. I’m a pretty visual person and I write what I see in my head. According to my agent, there’s some interest in Reset from those in the movie industry. But nothing is anything until it’s something, right?
If Reset does get made into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Aris and the other main characters?
The citizens of the Four Cities were created by randomly mixing the genetics of the survivors, so the majority are diverse and mixed-race. Aris and Metis are both part Asian. Metis, in my head, is the younger Keanu Reeves. He’s a bit too old for the role now (sorry, Keanu), so the search continues. As for Aris, I thought of Chloe Bennet who played Daisy Johnson on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’ve also recently come across photos of Hannah Tokuno, a part-Asian part-Caucasian model and thought, “she looks like my girl, Aris.”
In the end, though, I’m less attached to specific persons than the idea that they should represent the diversity of the people in the Four Cities. I’d be pretty upset if the cast is homogenous. So ideally, the production company working on Reset would embrace and fight for that concept.
Oh, and which version of “Imagine” should it include? The Dolly Parton one? The one by Blues Traveler? The one that made us all think less of Gal Gadot until Wonder Woman 1984 came out and we fell in love with her again even though that movie isn’t very good…?
It would definitely be the original performed by John Lennon. That’s the version I listened to in loop while I was writing Reset.Have you seen the video? It’s kooky and cool. And oh, so hopeful.
Finally, if someone enjoys Reset, what romantic sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why is that?
If you like the memory aspect of my book, check out MEM by Bethany C. Morrow and The Book Of M by Peng Shepherd. They have fewer romantic elements than Reset, but both are thought-provoking and written by talented POC female writers.