STORY ANALYSIS: “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly

written by David Steffen

I am trying out a new feature that I might run occasionally here, where I pick a story that I particularly liked, and pick it apart to try to figure out why it worked so well. For this first entry, I’ll be talking about “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly, first published in Tor.com, and nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo award.

You can read it at Tor.com, or you can hear an audio adaptation in Cast of Wonders.

I’m not going to avoid SPOILERS after this paragraph, but in this paragraph, I will give a very brief overview. The story is about a woman who worked with her husband in their bakery until the government was overthrown, at which point he was taken as the private baker by the new monarch, the Traitor King, because he has developed the skill in making special pastries that evoke strong memories that suit a particular mood. The main story takes place at a banquet with the monarch, prepared by her husband, where she is the food taster to ensure that the food is not poisoned.

The most interesting thing about this story is the way that it uses the flashbacks that are evoked by the pastries. The power of the flashbacks is threefold:
1. The first is the typical power of flashback, to give character backstory, to help you understand character motivations. Throughout the story you see when she first met her husband, you find out about what happened to her sister, about the rise of the tyrant, and about the development of her husband’s skills.
2. The second is to develop an understanding of the memory-pastries. Each pastry eaten at the banquet has a different flavor, like the first section “Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth”, each flashback is titled by the pastry that describes the type of memory that it evokes, and you find out about what kinds of pastries Saffron recommends to different customers to what reason.
3. During the main timeline of the story, Saffron and her husband have been separated for quite a while, ever since her husband was taken to be the pastry chef of the Traitor King, preparing banquets for the kings and his nobles. They were very close, and know each other very well, and they worked very closely together every day in the bakery. Saffron volunteered as the taste tester because it was the way she could get the closest to him, and the Traitor King took the opportunity because he trusted that her husband wouldn’t poison her or torture her with more cruel desserts. But now the only route of communication between them is the desserts themselves. He knows her well enough to have a pretty good idea what particular desserts will evoke what memories for her, so they are hints, and a warning of what to come. He has been doing research while imprisoned, and she doesn’t know what new desserts he’s developed. She hopes that he will do something with his special desserts but she doesn’t know what he can do that would do the job, especially since she knows he wouldn’t kill or torture her.

I have never seen flashbacks that do so many things at once; it is an incredible idea, and wonderfully executed. The descriptions of flavor on top of it made my mouth water, I would absolutely love to visit this bakery if it were a real place.

I also appreciated seeing the very different but very real strengths of the characters. Her husband’s strength is obvious, his special pastries that form the basis of the story. But her role in the bakery was no less important. She learned to read people, to help decide how to recommend what pastry would suit them the best. Everyone loves the ones that give you a sweet memory, but the regretful pastries have their uses, and others. And no occupation could have suited her better for her present circumstances–before she became the taster she didn’t have much experience at dissembling, but here she is surrounded by those she has to mislead, and everything here depends not only her husband’s pastries but on her ability to be able to keep it to herself when the time comes for her husband’s plan to come to fruition.

And the finale is perfect. When it finally comes to the finale, as she takes it and relives all of the times when she hurt someone else, but feeling the pain for herself, they can tell from her face that it was unpleasant, but the Traitor King enjoys watching the other nobles squirm taking the less pleasant ones, and even when she admits a bit of what it is, he thinks that his own remorseless nature means that he will enjoy it. But not only does he feel the pain of reliving these memories, because he has been cruel to so many people, it leaves him incapacitated long enough for his throne to be taken, and then wakes up in a cell, with the only food available to him another of the same pastry. Even in the end, as she watches this, she is self-aware enough to know that if she took another bite of that kind of pastry she would relive that moment.

I can see why this story got its nominations. Tina Connolly is an incredible author.

DP FICTION #45A: “The Memory Cookbook” by Aaron Fox-Lerner

The first thing to remember is that your memories are no longer your own. You’re worth something now that you’ve been implanted, but only so long as you can remember something worthwhile.

You need to think about your memories in terms of who will consume them. What kind of mood will it give them? What do they want to feel? What food or drinks will be paired with the memory? Will they be remembering it alone?

Remember that while your memories may be yours, they are being recalled in the service of paying customers. You should never remind them of this fact, but always be aware that they are the ones with money and you are not.

This guide will tell you how to make your memories consumable. This being the introduction, I’ll keep it brief and suggest some basic types and their pairings as a primer.

You need to understand that you create your memories by framing them. Without that frame, without the start and end point, all you have is the aimlessness of thought. You’ve doubtless already been given your code. Say it and the memory starts being recorded, say it again and it stops. Wait for at least 10 minutes, then you’ll need an assistant to take the chip out of your head. You won’t be responsible for inserting the chip into clients’ implants, but you will be responsible for pairing the harvested memory with a meal that matches its feelings and sentiments well.

A note about the food: don’t feel that it must match your memory in terms of place. Remember that feeling is the most important thing. More detailed recipes are available later in the guide, but you have authority (up to a point) in what you prepare.

The following are the basic types of memories you’ll be serving, along with accompaniments that tend to work particularly well. For more details on these, please check the corresponding sections later in the guide.

 

1. Light Starters (Invigorating)

A principle selling point of our memories is the idea of being able to see the world. If you have been hired for this service, then you’re probably from another country. The goal here is not to give the customer an in-depth understanding of your home culture. The goal is to give them something quick that they can appreciate without the awkwardness of being an outsider. Think of the most recognizable aspects of your culture. Festivals, holidays, and weddings are all perfect opportunities to showcase these.

While this memory should be true to your own culture, avoid any traces of nationalism, xenophobia, or racism. Holidays or celebrations involving your home country’s government are best left avoided. There are appropriate dishes involving senses of melancholy or even tragedy. This is probably not one of those.

Suitable accompaniments: Mixed drinks, olives, vegetables and dip.

 

2. Light Starters (Calming)

The other option for a starter is to make this something that’s relaxing rather than exuberant. Childhood memories work well, especially everyday moments that aren’t dull.

I often used a brief memory from my own childhood, when I was around nine, just a memory of playing in my father’s study. I built miniature cities from the books he had lining the walls, sitting in their streets, erecting towers and homes, making them so extensive I could wander among these towns of my own making.

That kind of thing is the only bit you need. Make sure to keep any associated bitterness these memories might arouse out of the frame. I would have to make sure not to think about the fate of those books in my father’s study, my miniature towns burning up like the real city around them. I needed to avoid thinking of my father’s uselessness as our home got drawn into civil war, all his respect and learning amounting to nothing in the face of guns, bombs, and fanaticism. Dwell on it as much as you need when you’re not recording the memories, but you must ensure this doesn’t seep into the harvested memory itself. Keep this recollection pure: a select moment frozen in time.

Suitable accompaniments: Warm drinks, garlic bread, any heated hors d’oeuvres.

 

3. Appetizers

Now it’s more appropriate to bring in complications, things that might lend your memories a slight touch of melancholy, which is a necessary ingredient of nostalgia, after all.

Romance works well, usually the younger the better. Unless the relationship ended truly acrimoniously, you don’t need to block out any awareness of its end.

I’ve personally had my best recollections from my late teenage years, my first entry into university. I recalled the giddy sensations of texting a girl and getting messages back, suddenly aware that she was reciprocating my interest. Or the first time I entered a new lover’s apartment, walking through her rooms, over her rugs, into her kitchen, stopping by the bookshelves and walls to see what was on each, marveling at how she had created a better space to live in than I ever had, a space where I now wanted to spend all my time.

The knowledge of how these affairs will end gives them a nice sort of piquancy, but might not be necessary. I can only create memories from my own experience, and I’ve never had a romance that lasted. If you have a relationship that still survives, feel free to use it.

Suitable accompaniments: Wine, soup, salad.

 

4. Mains

This will change depending on what the customers want. If you’re known for a certain kind of experience, you’re likely to be selected based on that.

I liked to draw from my early twenties, years of being young and pretentious, let loose upon the city and thinking of it much in the way that colonialists approached the New World, “discovering” and conquering every other bookstore, coffee shop, movie theater, and ad hoc art space, years spent in a tangle of limbs, light night conversations, mid-afternoon hangovers, pieces for zines and webpages and small unread journals, various minor jobs and internships never paying enough, long stretches spent alternating between tiny walk-ups and my family’s spacious, well-appointed home.

And with it comes the flood of memories from later, now bleeding into every one of these that I recall, the lovers married and moved, the friends drifted away, the art spaces long closed for lack of funds, the bookstores now shuttered or torched, the pretentious young men first denouncing political inequities in escalating shows of conspicuous intellectual bravery before later disappearing, one by one, just as they’d stood up. The journals no one even thinks to publish now. The family home charred and demolished, ruined by an errant shell and structural collapse, the handsome age of its structure finally proving a liability. The acquaintances and lovers and friends and bitter enemies scattered across the globe, finding succor and shelter wherever they could, just like I did, none of us having ever imagined that what we thought of as other place problems could happen to us.

The customers will actually want to remember this with you. It’s a chance to be there at the Jewish neighborhoods of Warsaw before Hitler, Aleppo’s old alleyways before Assad, Alexandria before the library was burned.

Just make sure to keep the bitterness out of it. Keep the feeling of loss, but watch out for that bitterness, and never implicate the customers. You’ll hate them for their position, for making you remember, for being privy to your personal memories, but don’t let that seep into the memories themselves.

They’ve paid a lot of money to relive the exact same things that you did, to live your memories over a nice meal and come out of the experience feeling enriched, educated, and aware. They will not forgive you if you spoil that feeling for them. If you have taken this job, you cannot afford to spoil that feeling for them.

Suitable accompaniment: Any food relating to your memories. Don’t worry about authenticity.

 

5. Desserts

This is your chance to ease them back down. People generally don’t pay to be depressed. Let them end with self-satisfaction. Give them another high, circle back to an earlier memory, something that should give the impression of added depth now that they’ve lived more of your personal experience.

I often remembered another childhood day, a soothing, wondrous early childhood memory back in my home, both my grandparents and parents there, the customer now knowing that eventually this home would be destroyed.

Alternately, go with another memory of lovers, girlfriends, husbands. A memory of the kind of day that only becomes The Perfect Day in retrospect, the one where your relationship was at a high point and the world seemed to align perfectly with it for one brief, single period of time. Keep it focused once more on that day, and context will do the rest.

Suitable accompaniment: Sweets, fruit, baked goods, tea, coffee. Avoid hard liquor.

 

6. Other Requests

Customers will have other types of memories they’ll request. You have the power to fulfill these or not. Often these will be related to their own problems, and it’s best to stay discreet about that. Fathers will want childhood memories in search of worse parenting than their own. Divorcees will seek out memories of love to contrast with their failed marriages. Spoiled heirs will request memories of hardship for a false sense of authenticity.

Sex, of course, is always a prominent factor. Don’t be afraid to turn this down. If you choose to remember sex, it’s likely to dominate your career in unsavory ways. It’s where I drew my line, as if keeping out memories of bedrooms and backseats somehow meant that I’d maintained private dignity with people who had paid to literally pry into my head, turning my whole life into their product.

Then there are the requests for misery. Customers will want to “understand.” It’s best to give them what they think they want. Let them have memories from your home country of war, disease, rape, starvation, poverty. They’ll pretend it’s made them into a better person. Never remember your hardships over here, that’s considered controversial.

Don’t give them what you really want to. Don’t open those gates and remember how bitter you are, how much you hate the customer no matter how well-meaning he or she is. Never let them know how they’ll never truly understand you despite reliving your memories, and how you’ll never be able to truly respect them.

Don’t let them know about coming here, about your basic struggles to make a living, about being a middle-aged man who’d always depended on his education and was suddenly worthless when thrust into a country whose language he couldn’t speak well. Of being prodded and scanned and analyzed just to get into the country, treated with constant mistrust, hating it more here than your devastated home. Of the literal walled cities, gated to separate people like the customer from people like you. Of how place of birth alone was enough to mean that they’ve been isolated from the rising seas and drying fields, the military coups and privatized drone strikes and food riots that shake the rest of the planet. Of how their world keeps turning after your own has fallen apart.

Don’t remember these things. Don’t remember your resentments. Don’t remember your discomfort. Don’t remember your self-hatred. Don’t remember your humiliation. Don’t remember being implanted so you can share more than you ever hoped to.

Don’t remember these things and you’ll be fine. Don’t remember these things and you should have a full career, just like I once did.

Those bitter memories were the most satisfying thing I ever remembered, but they killed my career. The expensive implants are gone. The only work I could find is writing this guide for new employees like you. The only small rebellion that remains for me is typing and then deleting the same few subversive sentences into my drafts of this guide, too afraid to even send them on to my editors for fear of losing the scant salary I’m left depending on. Still, deleting these sentences is the only thing I now regret. My memories may be worthless once more, but at least they belong to me alone.

Now, please turn to the next page for a guide to proper implant procedure. I hope you enjoy your time working here.

 


© 2018 by Aaron Fox-Lerner

 

Aaron Fox-Lerner was born in Los Angeles and currently lives in Beijing. His fiction has previously appeared in Pseudopod, Grimdark, Pinball, the Puritan, and other publications.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #18: “Sustaining Memory” by Coral Moore

The Archivist held the three remaining beads in her left hand. Images flickered across her visual cortex: an unknown woman’s face, a sunset on a planet she couldn’t name, the dazzling color of a sea she no longer had the words to express. The beads felt cool and impersonal in her fingers, though what they contained was neither. She had only these few memories left and she no longer remembered if they were hers or someone else’s.

Around her, the machine chugged and whirred. The metal tubing that encased her pod vibrated. The glowing core rose in front of her, spinning slowly around its vertical axis.

She twirled the bead containing the seascape between her fingers and dove in. The memory was a moment in time. The wind caressed her face and the briny scent of the sea filled her head. A white-capped wave was held just off shore in the instant before breaking, never to fulfill its potential. She had the sense of someone waiting for her on that unknown shore. The name of the sea was gone, like everything else she had once known, converted into power for the machine she’d been wed to.

She surfaced from the hold of the memory with effort. That sea and that person no longer existed. The world her people had inhabited had been scoured clean, its atmosphere stripped away and everything on the surface incinerated. Nothing had survived; nothing but the machine, buried deep below the crust near the cold, dead heart of the planet. When her organic memory had been scrubbed, they’d left the fate of her world with her so she would not forget her purpose.

The grinding groan of the alert tone sounded, and without thinking she placed the seascape bead into the receptacle near her hand. The bead circled around the outer edge and spiraled downward into the depths of the machine. Bit by bit the memory of the sea faded from her mind, until only a pale representation of it remained, and then a moment later that too was gone. She was left only with the impression that something precious had been taken from her, with no idea what it was.

Two left: a sunset and a woman.

Only two memories before she was nothing but a soulless cog in the machine that would unmake everything her people had ever been in order to start again.

“Status?” she asked the heated air around her.

Something churned just beyond her field of vision. “Offline.” The voice that had been her only companion for generations was toneless and flat.

She swirled the two remaining beads in her hand. The number of beads she needed to awaken the machine was exact. She wondered why the designers of such a marvel would cut it so close or depend on her to do this critical job at all. If she’d ever known the answer to those questions, she no longer did.

If she stopped putting beads in before the machine awakened it would cannibalize the pod that sustained her in an attempt to get the necessary power. She wasn’t certain how many beads her body, such that it was, could replace. Once her systems started shutting down a cascading failure would follow.

When she held the memory of the sunset, deep pink and orange streaks surrounded her. She perched on a rocky cliff. A lush valley unfurled below her, absorbing the colors of the bright sky. Someone sat next to her, just out of sight. A sense of peace pervaded the place. She dwelled in the memory until the alarm tone woke her from her contemplation.

The comfort of the sunset was the only solace she could remember. While it was true that she would no longer remember that the memory had ever been her haven, she would miss something. A yawning void grew with each piece of her that was forgotten.

When the alert rang the second time she closed her eyes and dropped the bead in the machine. She concentrated on how the sunset made her feel, but even as she tried to hold it in her mind the colors faded.

“Mountain. Sunset. Peace.” She said the words over and over as a litany, but it made no difference. The memory slipped away like water through her fist, and all she was left with was the aching emptiness. She snapped her hand shut around the remaining bead.

The woman in the memory had short dark hair that stood on end in a gravity-defying display that balanced chaos and order perfectly. Her eyes brimmed with tears and angled downward. A curved scar marked her left cheek, but didn’t mar her loveliness one bit. Her lips were slightly parted. She was close enough that the heat from her breath warmed the Archivist’s face. The woman with no name had been captured in the moment before a farewell kiss. There was no other way to resolve the adoration and acceptance mingled in her expression. Something terrible had been about to happen and they had run out of ways to fight.

The Archivist had no idea if the love in the unknown woman’s gaze was intended for her. She didn’t care. The emotion existed, and it was hers. She drifted in the moment just before the kiss for as long as she dared, and finally surfaced from the memory much later, gasping for air.

The alert tone sounded.

She clutched the final bead. The woman’s face floated before her, diaphanous and lovely. One kiss was all she had left.

The alarm rang again, louder and in two long bursts.

“You can’t have her.” She locked her fist around the bead, hoping that would curb her reflex to feed it to the machine.

The energy generated by her pod would be enough to replace one bead—it had to be. She wouldn’t get to see the new world she’d given up everything for, but she would be able to keep this last piece of herself.

She lingered in the kiss until the sound blasted three times, knocking her forcefully from the memory.

The bead port was so near her hand, and her arm wanted to make the motion, but she concentrated on keeping her hand shut tight. She’d never gone this far, so she had no idea how long she had to wait until there was no taking back the decision. She worried her resolve would slip.

Around her the machine churned and whirred. Nothing was out of the ordinary, nothing but her fist and a sense of dread she couldn’t shake.

A high-pitched whistle shrieked and surprised her so that she nearly dropped the last bead.

The relative silence in the wake of the terrible sound was haunting. She had the sense of motion in her peripheral vision, but she couldn’t turn to see what had moved. A grinding sound began soon after, and her pod vibrated.

There was an ominous clunk. Something slithered around the lower portion of her body, but she couldn’t see it within the metal and hoses that wrapped her. None of the memories she had left had prepared her for this. She managed not to panic, barely. The next breath she drew was labored.

A series of light chimes rang through the machine’s interior.

“Status,” she said.

The long pause that followed was made longer by the worry that she would go to her end never knowing if she’d doomed the project to failure.

“Online,” replied a voice she hadn’t heard before, more lifelike and feminine than the previous robotic one. “Resources have been reprioritized to support mission-critical utilities. Life support is offline.”

The note of sadness she detected had to be coming from her and not the machine. Her chest felt heavy. “Does it affect the chance of success?”

“By less than one one-thousandth of a percent. We are still well within operational parameters.”

“Good.” She sighed. “How long until the process starts?”

“I’ve already begun.”

“Oh, can you forecast completion yet?”

“No. Spinning up my systems will require a non-trivial amount of time. I won’t be able to calculate time to completion until I know how much has survived my hibernation and the loss of the atmosphere aboveground.”

“So I won’t know if it will work before I die.”

“It will work.”

“How do you know?”

“This project is my sole purpose for being, Archivist. I must believe it will succeed. The magnetic field will be restored, the atmosphere will be regenerated, and the planet will again support life.”

She smiled. Even that small movement drained her dwindling energy. “I think I would have liked you.”

“You would have.” Softness colored the voice again. Was it a trick of clever programming or her own sentimentality?

She laughed, surprised she remembered how. “That’s very presumptuous.”

“It’s a mathematical certainty. Your memories are cataloged and indexed in my database. Part of me is you.”

“I didn’t realize the memories would be retained.”

“The data contained in the beads was a byproduct of the energy transfer, but retaining them was deemed important by my programmers. They take up a very small portion of my total processing.”

“So we will carry on with you.”

“Yes. Nothing will be forgotten.”

The Archivist’s vision grew dim and her thoughts floated through a slow-moving haze. “That’s a relief.”

“Why did you initiate your shut down early?”

“I didn’t want to give up the last bead.”

“The memory held special value for you?”

“I don’t know for certain. It might not even be mine.” Secretly, she hoped the memory was hers. Maybe she’d somehow managed to organize the beads so that the ones that meant to most to her were last in the sequence before she’d forgotten.

“I may be able to tell you, if you would like to know.”

“It’s a goodbye kiss. The woman is leaving, or I am, and I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again. There’s a curved scar on her cheek, but that only makes her more beautiful to me. Her eyes are filled with love and loss, joy and regret. I want to tell her that I love her, but there’s no time. There’s only the hovering moment just before our lips touch.”

Another long pause, with only the sounds of the machine working around her to fill the growing darkness.

“Her name was Marley, and she loved you very much.”

The Archivist had trouble drawing her next breath. What remained of her chest ached. “I thought I would never know for sure if the kiss was mine. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Marley was one of my main programmers. My neural pathways are based on her logic, her biology. That connection is why you were chosen to be the Archivist.”

Her eyes stung with the memory of tears. “Why did I agree to this?”

“You know why.”

She’d always known why. It was the only way to save some small remnant of her people, of the world they’d built. “In the end I couldn’t let her go.”

“She would have appreciated that, though I’m sorry we won’t have more time together.”

The last of her vision faded as her brain began to shut down. “I’m scared,” she whispered, hoping her voice was still loud enough to register.

“Would you like me to tell you a story?”

“Yes, please.”

“A small white ship surged and fell on the waves of a turquoise sea. Marley stood in the salt-scented breeze, her feet spread wide to absorb the rolling motion of the deck. Her wife waited on the distant shore, just a speck at this distance…”

The Archivist closed her hand around the bead, summoning the image of Marley with tears in her eyes. Somewhere Marley waited for her. She leaned into the kiss, and let go.


© 2016 by Coral Moore

 

Author’s Note: Memories are such an integral part of our identities that I thought the idea of someone voluntarily giving up their memories one at a time for some grand purpose would be interesting to explore. While writing the story of the Archivist’s failing memory, the machine that would allow her world to sustain life again by eating her memories one at a time occurred to me and seemed to fit perfectly.

 

Author Pic 2014Coral Moore has always been the kind of girl who makes up stories. Fortunately, she never quite grew out of that. She writes because she loves to invent characters and the desire to find out what happens to her creations drives her tales. Prompted by a general interest in how life works, she studied biology. She enjoys conversations about genetics and microbiology as much as those about vampires and werewolves. Coral writes mainly speculative fiction and has a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Albertus Magnus College. She is a 2013 alum of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. She has been published by Dreamspinner Press, Evernight Publishing, and Vitality Magazine. She also received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for the fourth quarter of 2014. Currently she lives in the beautiful state of Washington with the love of her life and two canids.

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