The Big Idea: James Renner

I’ve forgotten what I was going to say to introduce James Renner’s new novel. As the novel is called The Great Forgetting, perhaps this is appropriate. And did I really forget… or was I made to forget?


When I was a kid my father would take me camping at state parks around Ohio. Salt Fork. Pymatuning. Mohican. If you’ve never been, these parks all pretty much look the same: stark, concrete buildings for bathing and gutting fish in the middle of old-growth forests. I asked my dad, once, when the parks were built and he said after the war, meaning World War II.

But the parks looked older to me. I imagined they were hundreds, thousands of years old and that we had only forgotten when they were really constructed.

In college, I learned of a theory called “Phantom Time.”

The idea behind Phantom Time is that, at various moments in history, our great leaders rejiggered the calendar for their personal agendas. Some scholars believe Pope Sylvester II skipped over a hundred years in the official calendar just so that he could be Pope in 1000 A.D. A German historian, Heribert Illig, is convinced much of the Middle Ages never happened at all, specifically the years 614  – 911.

How crazy is that?

We assume the year is 2015. But if we skipped over hundreds of years because someone altered the official calendar, perhaps it’s only 1772. How about this – what if they didn’t always just skip ahead? What if some ruler in the distant past simply deleted historical record? An unaccounted for span of time. Perhaps it’s not 1772. Perhaps it’s really 2115.

It’s enough to make you paranoid, isn’t it?

That idea was the seed for my new novel, The Great Forgetting. In the book, I imagined a world in which the United States turned its back on Europe in World War II. The war was much bigger than what we were told, and raged on until 1964, when we finally defeated the Werhmacht as they pushed into New England. Billions died.

As America began to rebuild, a scientist came forward with an idea: we could forget that we let the Nazis win, if we really wanted to. A new history could be written. And we could reset the calendar. He had this idea for a giant machine that could rewrite our minds to accept a new, shared history in which we were heroes. That initiative was known as The Great Forgetting. We scrubbed 100 years of history from our records.

Eventually, a history teacher from Ohio uncovers the conspiracy. And he is faced with a choice: is it better to forget our mistakes or learn from them so that they’re never repeated?

It’s a heady idea. And maybe not so far fetched.

After all, who wouldn’t want to forget their worst mistake? And how powerful is that urge when it’s an entire country?

The Great Forgetting is available everywhere books are sold, November 10, 2015. Or is that 2115?


The Great Forgetting: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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6 Comments on “The Big Idea: James Renner”

  1. that certainly sounds like many of the historical philosophy of some presidential candidates

  2. Interesting. Reminds me of the missing decade between the seventies and eighties that the folks at BoingBoing have written about, the 19A0’s.

  3. There is also the “new chronology”, mostly associated with the Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, that claims the standard chronologies of the past two thousand years is incorrect, and that only a thousand years have passed.

    This isn’t due to authorities cheating or anything that underhanded. Rather, chronologies before Anno Domini became standard have to be deduced, piecing together a long chain of variant dating systems, making decisions as to what matches what. I’m almost surprised no science fiction writer has taken up Fomenko at his word.

  4. William – yes, that’s the first thing that came to my mind too…the whole thing is a fascinating collection of old-school Russian pseudoscience and mysticism.

    The other thing it reminded me of (vaguely) was Tom Holland’s “The Shadow of the Sword” about the origins of monotheistic religion – which explores (among other things) the origins of Islam, about which there are literally no primary sources. The first hundred years of Islam are pretty much a complete blank, history-wise, and Holland and others doubt that (for example) the modern city of Mecca is anywhere near the “Mecca” of Mohammed’s day.

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