Memory is a chimera. It is air turning into water turning into earth. It can be a weapon with which to cut, or a needle with which to knit. It can balm and soothe as much as it can enrage and reap. It can strengthen us, and it can bring us down. It can heal us as much as harm us. Memory is not just one thing, but it does one thing above all: it reminds us of who we are, and who we can be. In her novella, Never Now Always, Desirina Boskovich wrestles with this amorphous truth, and—with cutting prose, desolate worlds, sympathetic characters, and alien beings—drags the power of memory into the light.
Never Now Always is not your typical story, though that’s not a huge surprise coming from an author like Boskovich, who’s well known for her strange worlds and haunting prose, and wears the influence of the New Weird on her sleeve. Taking place in an unknown and dreamy dystopian setting, Never Now Always is concerned about the life of a girl named Lolo. She is one of the many children that live in a facility, and her best friend is named Gor, who sleeps below her in their bunks and comforts her after a long day. In this facility, her and the children like her are watched over by beings called Caretakers. Humanoid, with no mouths and three small, lidless, black eyes, they escort the children throughout the facility for experimentation, supplemented by a soothing Voice that directs, and speaks for, them. When the Voice calls your name, which you can feel as a rightness in your body, you must go with the Caretakers, and you must remember.
The Caretakers care, yes, but they care about what can be known. And unknown. Lolo, like every child, is forced to remember; to be injected and fall into her mind, to experience the world which came before the Caretakers’, and tell them what she sees. As quick as she remembers, her keepers just as quickly make her forget.
Except Lolo cannot forget some things. There was a world before her present. Grass. A sun. Food. A dog. A family. A sister. A sister who is somewhere in the facility. A sister she must find, no matter that she can’t trust her mind. What follows this revelation is an eerie, beautiful, and brutal exploration through an alien landscape, as Lolo struggles to find her sister, her way out, and the truth behind what she knows and what she thinks she knows.
Boskovich doesn’t shy away from the brutality of this new and strange world, nor from the effects it has on the children forced to live in it. Lolo is constantly strapped down to a chair, and forced to undergo experimentation, forcefully shoved into her own mind in a desperate attempt to catalog the past. Her sister, we come to learn, may have actually lost her mind in some ways, and is kept apart from the other children for some unknown purpose; she doesn’t know Lolo when she sees her. The Caretakers are quick to put down dissent, and have no compassion, compunction, or remorse for what their grand purpose may be. The setting is unremittingly dystopian, then. But the heartbreaking part is that these children cannot have a word for that. The horror is that these children only remember echoes of their lives, echoes of language, of self; cities that once stood tall and shining; a silver moon in the night sky; families that loved them so dearly. They grasp at these like songs on the wind—and, like those ephemeral tunes, they slip from them too easily.
Boskovich leans fully into the horror and desperation of this world. But the hope of Never Now Always is that the dystopias we find ourselves can be combated, though they may not necessarily be overturned on the first attempt. Over and over again, we see that the biggest hope Lolo has is that sometimes she can remember; she feels the burning hope that they have not taken everything from her, and as long as there is some small part of her awake and aware—that can act to undermine those who would hurt her and her friends, her family—then that work of resistance is worth pursuing. She is constantly finding small ways to act against the current authority: she steals tools so she can write on the walls what she remembers, she explores the facility after bedtime to comb its halls for her sister, and she wilfully attempts to break out, knowing it may result in her own end. It is harrowing, heartbreaking work, as Boskovich pulls away layer after layer of Lolo’s resolve, working her protagonist down to the nub, until the truth is laid bare: as long as you can remember even a little bit, you can resist.
Much like The Dark Tower’s cyclical story, Never Now Always isn’t so much about the end as it is about the journey to get there. There can be no end to the fight, to resisting the regime; there can only be the next moment you get up from the floor and decide to fight back. In this moment of our own world, when authoritarian forces are working to pit their will against the collective memory of their people, it is our duty to remember; it is our duty to fight, no matter the outcome. We fight, because we remember.