Friday, May 6, 2022

Review: The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer

The story of Dirty Computer continues in five richly plotted scenarios set in a dystopian future

Taken as a whole, Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer art project consists of a music album (nominated for the Grammys in two categories), a short film (nominated for a Hugo), and now, from Harper Voyager, a collection of short stories written in collaboration with other authors of color. This production is not connected to Monáe's previous Metropolis storyline, centered on the android Cindi Mayweather. Both the album and the film of Dirty Computer follow a different character, Jane 57821, as she escapes an oppressive future in the company of her lovers. This book serves as a window into exactly what horrific world Jane is escaping.

The introduction to the collection is a quick summary of the rise of a totalitarian regime, New Dawn, whose control over society was possible because "we accepted their offer that an eye in the sky might protect us from… ourselves." With the assurance of total visibility, an immediate problem emerged regarding privacy and deviancy, and the regime decided that "what they struggled to see, they began to deem not worthy of being seen—inconsistent, off standard. Began calling it dirty—unfit to be swallowed by their eyes."

In the backstory that this introduction presents, the new social category of the dirty started being applied to modes of thought and identity that did not fit the rigid standards of the regime. The stories that compose this collection explore various characters' struggle to reclaim, preserve, and even celebrate the dirty.

The titular story, The Memory Librarian, cowritten with Alaya Dawn Johnson, follows Seshet, a government employee whose job is to gather, catalog, inspect and, if necessary, redact memories routinely collected from the citizens of New Dawn. What she thought she knew about her position in society is challenged by an unexpected romance with Alethia, an underground dissident whose thirst for independence of mind forces her to face thorny questions of power and intimacy. How can you learn to respect your partner as an equal when you have the legal authority to manage their mind? Is full access to your partner's every thought enough for you to say you know them? Why is it so difficult to be vulnerable in front of someone you don't control? And what does it do to you when you're given the power to edit how people—even you—remember you?

In the story that follows, Nevermind, cowritten with Danny Lore, we meet our main heroine, Jane 57821, in hiding after having survived New Dawn's attempt to remove her most precious memories (as seen in the Dirty Computer short film), and now turned into the unofficial leader of an intentional community that inhabits a hotel in the desert where women can experiment with alternative forms of social organization. Free from New Dawn's monopoly on memory, the members of this breakaway community find comfort in a storytelling ritual where each participant contributes the bits that the other struggles to articulate. Against this joyful act of sharing stand the hunters of the regime, mutated humans for whom sharing feelings is physically painful. While New Dawn weaponizes memory as an assault on reason, the dissidents paradoxically wield emotional openness as a protective deterrent. This story draws from ongoing discussions in contemporary activism about the need for an ever-expanding scope of inclusiveness.

Then comes Timebox, cowritten with Eve L. Ewing, about Raven, a newly independent young woman with barely any time for all her daily obligations, who discovers that her apartment has a paranormal room where the flow of time is suspended relative to the outer world. Her chronic sense of deprivation clashes with her girlfriend's shallow performance of generosity when they set out to decide what to do with an infinite resource.

We are next treated to Save Changes, cowritten with Yohanca Delgado. This is a brilliantly multilayered exploration of the fantasy of fixing the past. On the surface, this story is about the social difficulties experienced by the family of a political prisoner, whose shaky mental state after being sentenced to memory revision is placed in symbolic parallel with her daughter's project of repairing clocks dating from before New Dawn. But on a deeper level, this story is about the heart-rending sacrifices people are willing to make for their loved ones under unbearable oppression. In a regime that lays claim to all facts, a blatant lie can be the most unpredictable tool of resistance.

The last story is Timebox Altar(ed), cowritten with Sheree Renée Thomas, an uplifting metaphor about the social power of media representation (and therefore, a metafictional statement of purpose for the book itself). In a plot of overgrown land with disused rail tracks and rusty fairground equipment, a small child whose mother was taken away by New Dawn reshapes the abandoned objects into something new, following an inborn urge toward the raw potential of artistic creation. In doing so, they produce a miracle. This event establishes a correspondence between the fictional artists inside the story and the real artists writing the story, as well as between the characters who are shown a vision of a brighter future and the readers who might feel similarly inspired by seeing themselves in that future. The link between memory and time—namely the metaphor of reclaiming memory as a form of time travel—extends further to Monáe's role as a musician. As the protagonist of this story wisely proclaims, music is fundamentally made of time. This notion invests the musical record (and, by extension, any work of art) with the properties of a time machine. To make art is to reclaim memory is to exert power over time. This theme brings the book full circle back to the Dirty Computer album as a ritual whose performance is meant to effect change in the material world, as a cry for a liberation whose realization is contained in its utterance.

In each of these stories, but most notably in the introduction, which Monáe wrote by herself, her talent as a songwriter shines. Her prose vibrates with the telltale cadences that tell you this was written by an artist intimately familiar with the music of language. It takes an experienced lyricist to produce sentences with such rich sonority that they all but demand to be sung, like "She missed the music of the hotel the moment she exited, even as the wind hit her face, just cool enough to mimic the feeling of misting water," and "So they stared at the gray obelisk in the distance, shuddered and turned away, running in the opposite direction, racing down a path, not caring where it would go."

This collection adds important details to the otherwise barebones worldbuilding Monáe had laid out in her album and film. The characters she and her collaborators have created for these stories feel profoundly, compellingly human, even as the conditions they have to endure threaten to rob them of their most human qualities. That's the most remarkable trait that these stories have in common: even in the absolute worst of circumstances, the characters we meet here are not broken. They abound in hope and kindness, and meet each new day with the bold refusal to become jaded. In the nightmarish future of Dirty Computer, marginalized communities still fight to create spaces for solidarity, safety, and pure joy.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +2 for the intricate work of worldbuilding and characterization.

Penalties: −1 for sometimes relying on overused turns of phrase.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Monáe, Janelle. The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer [Harper Voyager, 2022].