When I heard Janelle Monáe had a book coming out, of course I was going to read it! My public library even had a copy right away. The Memory Librarian is an anthology of science-fiction stories set in the world Monáe created for her Dirty Computer album and emotion picture. Jane 57821, the protagonist from those pieces, returns in one novelette (Nevermind). Other stories explore more corners of this world in which memories have been weaponized in white supremacy’s war to maintain its grip on our society.
I cracked open this book on one of our first sunny days of spring on my deck. The first story, also called The Memory Librarian, is one of the longest. It follows Seshet, who is essentially a collaborator: she is the Director-Librarian for a town called Little Delta. She has risen to a position of great responsibility in a racist organization, New Dawn, that has acquired great power and convinced people they should surrender “unclean” thoughts or be branded “dirty computers” and taken in for cleaning. In this story, Monáe continues to explore some of the ideas of conformity that she brings up in her album. This novella was fascinating for the romance that Seshet embarks on and the conflict of interest that lies at the heart of the story.
I also really enjoyed the next story, Nevermind, for its commentary on gender identity and roles. Though Jane 57821 is one protagonist, the story actually revolves around a friend, Neer, who is a non-binary woman. Another member of the Pynk Hotel community objects to the presence of people like Neer; she believes that Neer and others dilute the definition of womanhood to the point where the hotel might open itself up as a space to (gasp) men. This is such a powerful story—Monáe, of course, recently came out as non-binary, and this (and all the other stories) display a nuanced grasp of the gender identity issues rocking our society today. (It’s worth noting that the co-author of this story, Danny Lore, is non-binary as well.) This is the one of the types of queer stories I think we need more of. So many of our queer stories focus on things like coming out, but I want to read about the messiness within queer communities. I feel like Monáe and Lore are channelling Audre Lorde in this story, the way they interrogate how members of marginalized communities will further marginalize one another.
“Timebox” was an intriguing story, but I confess I don’t get the ending. (I’m not sure if I am just missing something, but my understanding of how the timebox dilates time for the user means that what happens at the end … doesn’t matter? I feel like I’m missing something.) Nevertheless, the theme is a good one. I am all on board with questioning how we use our time under our capitalist system.
The other stories I could take or leave. That’s not to say that they weren’t good, but I just wasn’t as enraptured with them as I was with the ones I have highlighted. Overall, though, The Memory Librarian is a great collection, and I just love its whole vibe. From the talented Black and Latinx and queer writers Monáe chose to collaborate with all the way to the way that the stories interrogate the intersections of Blackness and queerness in a near-future society that highlights our own society’s shortcomings … yes. Just yes. This is a book that really exemplifies what science fiction can be: painful and beautiful and inspirational and hopeful, all at once and in various times.