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Sci-fi novel explores memory, human nature, and the perils of utopia

 May 25, 2023 at 2:22 PM PDT

S1: You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. We first heard from La mesa author Serena Dolan when she published her debut science fiction novel Reset in 2021. She's now out with a prequel called Preset. Joining me to discuss the book and more arts events this weekend is KPBS arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Julia , welcome.

S2: Hi , Jade. Thanks for having me.

S1: Serena Darling. She is discussing a book at a special AAPI Heritage Month celebration at the UC San Diego bookstore. And that book is called Pre Set. What do you know about it ? Yeah.

S2: So she is actually an alumni of UC San Diego. She studied both psychology and visual art there. So it's nice that she's bringing that book kind of home to the UCSD bookstore for the launch. And there's actually a lot of psychology in the book. She'll be discussing the book. It's at this special event for Asian American , Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It's at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the UC San Diego bookstore.

S1: So tell us a little bit about this book preset. Yeah.

S2: Yeah. First we should probably talk about Reset. The first book she wrote , which is about this futuristic civilization where everyone's memories are wiped out every four years as a way of keeping maintaining world peace. But one of the things that book explores is whether you can still kind of hold on to things that seem to attach deeper , like love and nostalgia and home. And this book preset is this prequel set about 200 years before the time of reset. So it touches on the origin story generations before reset even takes place. And this world where it set is called the Four Seeds. It's made of these self-sustaining cities that became kind of societies full of survivors. There was this massive global war that wiped out a really huge part of the world population , and we can see the start of dystopia and resistance. Bodily autonomy is is a really big part of the series , the way that they deal with memories and control memories. So I asked Serena Dahlin a little bit about writing this book where so many of the traumas in this science fiction world , we are actually living in modern society like reproductive rights , war , the climate crisis , even artificial intelligences in this book.

S1: I mean , sounds riveting. Let's take a listen to that interview.

S3: So being a dystopian and speculative science fiction writer , we borrow a lot from what's happening in the world today. And in doing so , we hope to one , explore all of these issues in small bites and also kind of take it and understand what it really means to stand in this particular moment in time and to see it from both sides. And I wanted to write this book in a way that I could see from both perspectives and in preset. I did that by exploring both Eleanor and Eli , the main two characters who come at this How to Save Humanity conundrum from Different ends. And in doing so , I feel like I was able to really tease out arguments on both sides and and come to an understanding because I feel that trying to understand where we are and how we're going to move forward , it's so important to try to see as many angles as possible.

S2: And these are such big topics , but it's also wrapped up in like a mystery , a love story , and it's a page turner.

S3: So I aim to write the kind of story that I enjoy , and I love being able to kind of go into a story that has these kind of plot points that drive me forward while also allowing me to kind of pause in different spots to kind of go , what do I think about in this certain scenario ? I write and I read in order to consume information in smaller bites , and that has helped me to get at the core of a certain situation.

S2: So in science fiction and in dystopian fiction , it seems that so often dystopias are born out of utopias. And we see that here with the character Eli and this intense quest he has for peace and the survival of humanity and kind of how power gets in the way. I'd love for you to read a section from the book. It's where Eleanor Eli is estranged wife. She's fled to the Resistance headquarters and is speaking to Desmond , the leader of the Resistance. Absolutely.

S3: Absolutely. She needs to warn them in as much as you can. The Resistance doesn't know Eli , but they know enough to believe that they do Their assassination attempt is proof their ignorance is going to be their downfall. She tightens her grip on the old man's hand. A word of advice. Eli is smarter than all of us , but what makes him formidable is in his brain. Desmond looks down at his palm , noticing the change in pressure. Then what ? His idealism. He holds it as dogma. He's obsessed with it , built it into the system. His goal. The system goal is the ultimate survival of humanity. Eli will sacrifice everything for it. If you are in his way , you will get hurt. The folds and Desmond's forehead deepened. I thought he cared about human life. He cares about the fate of humanity. That's not the same thing.

S2: Thank you.

S3: And I'm not sure when in this environment we are giving each other enough grace or enough time to listen to each other's perspective or to try to kind of imagine ourselves in the shoes or the person on the other side. There's a saying that in every utopia , it's somebody's dystopia. And I think that there's something in human nature to focus on what we believe to be right as opposed to what is right for everybody. And so sometimes we enforce our own belief on someone else thinking that because we believe it , it must be true and it must be right. Not really seeing the repercussion of that belief on that person's life.

S2: So the first book in the series Reset , which is in the Four cities , feature so distinctly about memory , where the citizens memories are wiped every few years.

S3: When I look at a book , I don't think of it just as lines written on paper. I think of it as somebodys memory that they had carefully crafted and put in a delivery vehicle that I can then take in to myself and consume it and understand it. And because of that , I feel like memory. It's almost magical. How else do we know , you know , what another person thought a thousand years ago ? And I just felt like , you know , this memory thing , it's it's just fascinating. And how much of it is so central to our.


S3: So it will be a sequel. But I do write each of my book as a standalone , so my hope is that my readers can read any of my book in any order and get different parts of the city of the four cities and different parts of the world and different parts of the society that lives in this place where memories are erased in the name of peace.

S1: You just heard local author Serena Dolin speaking with Julia Dixon Evans about her new book , Preset. You can catch Serena Dolan Saturday at 1 p.m. at UCSD Bookstore , where she will be discussing her book and signing copies. And Julia , as you mentioned earlier , this is an AAPI Heritage Month celebration , right ? Right.

S2: And to celebrate , they will have Filipino desserts and cake. And as well as the book signing in the conversation , I'm there.

Author Sarina Dahlan is shown with her book, "Preset" in an undated photo.
David Dann
Author Sarina Dahlan is shown with her book, "Preset" in an undated photo.

La Mesa author Sarina Dahlan's second book, "Preset," is a prequel to her debut science fiction novel, "Reset." Both books center on The Four Cities, a cluster of futuristic dystopian, self-sustaining civilizations, and touch on topics that seem unsettlingly current — like bodily autonomy, the climate, artificial intelligence and war.

"There's a saying that in every utopia, it's somebody's dystopia," Dahlan said.

Dahlan spoke with KPBS/Arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans about writing this fictional dystopian world and her fascination with memory.

She will also sign copies and discuss "Preset" at 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 26 at the UC San Diego Bookstore, for their AANHPI Heritage Month Celebration.


Julia Dixon Evans, KPBS/Arts producer and editor

Sarina Dahlan, author, "Preset"