Review of The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
I first heard of Janelle Monáe through a review of the fun. song, We Are Young. As the review noted, you could barely tell Monáe was a part of the larger tapestry of the song. In contrast to her various collaborations, Monáe’s part within the song could have been filled by any number of soft-spoken indie darling. But Monáe is very much not that.
This becomes even clearer upon listening to her wider bibliography. Here we see a fascinating voice in the science fiction field who uses genre to explore themes of gender, race, and sexuality. The kind of artist who can turn a howl of anger into a pop hit of the 21st century. From the gleeful bangers like Dance Apocalyptic or Come Alive (War of The Roses) to the smoother stylings of Say You’ll Go or Pynk.
All of these used to tell a very classical, very revolutionary science fiction story about machines, rebellion, and love. Monáe wears her influences on her sleeve, from sampling Rev. Dr. Sean McMillan to literally name-dropping pop culture icons like Decepticons or Django. It’s a wonder that she hasn’t written a science fiction book sooner. And so, we come to The Memory Librarian: an anthology of science fiction stories set in the Dirty Computer universe.
As with her musical work, Monáe has co-written these stories with a number of interesting voices within the afrofuturist community. The first of these, “The Memory Librarian” (co-written with Alaya Dawn Johnson), is a rather straightforward piece of cyberpunk noir involving a drug ring, memory alteration, and queer love. But with that straightforwardness comes a story about the price of being respectable, how privilege corrupts people, and the desire to be better, even when you can’t remember what worse looks like.
By contrast, my favorite story in the collection, “Nevermind,” co-written with Danny Lore, explores the margins of New Dawn, the utopia in which The Memory Librarian takes place in. The people who, as with all utopias, take umbrage with the perfect world on the grounds that it’s not good enough. Of course, as with any leftist margin in utopia, there’s a lot of infighting over what better looks like. Monáe and Lore, being who they are, use this story to explore the ways in which allowing certain ideas within queer, leftist, Afrofuturist spaces will ultimately destroy them for the conservative utopias. Which is to say fuck TERFs.
(As an aside, as a bisexual and nonbinary person who is largely quiet and anxious about their identity within queer spaces [who has a ton of intrusive thoughts about whether he’s just a white guy who is trying to be interesting], Neer is a fucking mood.)
“Timebox,” co-written with Eve L Ewing, shifts focus away from those actively fighting the powers that be and those who navigate that power structure and towards the people who live within the city. The working-class retail employees who try their best to with the circumstances they find themselves within. If I’m being honest, while not a bad story, I found this one to be the weakest of the bunch. It felt like it needed another couple of pages to truly sell the tragic turn of its ending moments. A little bit more to highlight the silent tragedy of a collapsing romance neither party wants to end. And the addition of time manipulation feels out of place
Monáe and Yohanca Delgado’s “Save Changes,” by contrast, uses the capability of time travel to a fantastic effect. At its heart, the story of a woman living under the consequences of having parents who wanted better for her and her sister in a system that sees itself as perfection incarnate, “Save Changes” uses the time travel elements to explore the potential for second chances, repaying debts, and making the world a better place. It’s about being shy and awkward and trying your best to keep your head down. And it’s about knowing the right time to raise your head up high.
Closing out the book, “Timebox Altar(ed)” (co-written with Sheree Renée Thomas) likewise explores the experiences of being the child of revolutionaries. But where “Save Changes” looked at things from the perspective of adults reckoning with what’s to come, “Timebox Altar(ed)” approaches things from the child’s perspective. Specifically, it’s a story about the impossible places kids go. The portals to faerie, the imaginary futures not yet born, the impossible people we’ll never meet. It’s a story about the necessity of stories in the bleakest of times. Not in the sense that telling a better story will ultimately win out in the marketplace of ideas or how we should wallow in our fictions. But rather how our dreams, impossible though they may be, can and will inspire us to create a better future.
The future desired within all the stories within The Memory Librarian is pretty clear: a place where queer men, women, and all the other flavors of gender can exist freely without fearing harm or the cruelty of others. One where music can bring us together. Where even the seemingly useless skills are appreciated. Where we work to build each other up to be something more than we could ever be separately. One where fascism, transphobia, and cruelty are not tolerated, but healing, growth, and the ability to stop being cruel is embraced. It’s love. It’s a crazy, classic life. It’s a world that pulled itself out of its worst instincts and made itself into something better.
Some days, I wonder if such worlds are possible. Or, at the very least, possible within my lifetime. The leftist utopia is, ultimately, a project that will take more than my lifetime to complete. Maybe more than the lifetimes of the children I don’t live to see born. It’s a dangerous, horrible thing that will probably result in many lives being burned, many people being miserable, and periods where all things seem hopeless. And yet, I still can dream of its possibility, of its necessity. I can still work to make it come true anyway. And if we’re very, very lucky…
The Memory Librarian is a fantastic collection of short stories that paints a bleak vision of tomorrow, but one that can be confronted and overcome. Maybe not today, tomorrow, or any time soon. But the potential to rebel is there. We just have to be willing to make a leap of faith. But, in the end, I simply cannot wait to see what Monáe does with a novel solely by herself. How her literary voice grows to match her lyrical one. How the future will be changed with her stories in the air.
“I mean, I really, really want to make an impact on this world-Janelle Monáe, Thoughts (Intro)
I mean, I really want to share with the world what I –
what I have to talk about
I want to inspire
All I really want to do is just sing, this is all I want to do
I’m tired of working, I just want to do what I love to do
All I want is to inspire people and to be remembered as someone who really, really wanted to make an impact through her music
That would be my dream”
The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe is available today for purchase at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.