Janelle Monáe’s book ‘The Memory Librarian’ takes us to the future
Singer-songwriter Janelle Monae brings the Afrofuturist world of his album “Dirty Computer” to life with the release of his first book “The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer” (Harper Voyager, 336 pp., ★★★½ out of four, available now).
A collection of dystopian sci-fi stories set in the totalitarian society of New Dawn, “The Memory Librarian” expands on the themes of identity and social justice explored in Monáe’s 2018 album, which made its debut at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 graphic and scored the singer two Grammy nominations.
In New Dawn, citizens live in a hypervigilant, technocratic state in which memories, dreams, and individuality are tightly regulated by government forces. People who refuse to comply are viewed as inherently flawed “dirty computers” who need to be cleaned of their deviance.
“Dirty computer, get in line. If you look closely, you’ll recognize that I’m not that special; I’m broke inside,” Monáe sings in the opening lines of “Dirty Computer.” slowly the bugs are in me.”
Through the stories and characters featured in “The Memory Librarian,” Monáe and contributing authors Alaya Dawn Johnson, Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Danny Lore, and Sheree Renée Thomas offer poignant commentary on the power of technology, preservation of queer identity and the commodification of time.
The digital dilemma of high technology
Monáe paints a chilling picture of the double-edged sword of mass technology in advanced societies.
In New Dawn, technology is used as a punitive tool to enforce conformity and hijack individuality in order to create a safer humanity, or “all-seeing people”. Memory boxes convert citizens’ memories into currency, and surveillance drones roam the streets of this digital dystopia menacingly.
“We already believed in an infinite web, so why not wire an eye to each of its strands? A camera at home. A camera on a phone. A camera on a badge. A camera on a drone. And so on,” writes Monáe.
Monáe also illustrates how technology can reflect and reinforce harmful biases within humanity. In the opening short story “The Memory Librarian”, Seshet, Librarian Manager of the town of Little Delta, has an artificially intelligent memory keeper, named Dee, as his assistant. Although Seshet is a black woman, Dee’s features reflect Eurocentric beauty standards—”eyes blue as the Caribbean Sea”—and Seshet’s long-standing dissatisfaction with her own appearance.
“The Seshet girl had been hated for her brown irises, longed for them to be the blue of the dolls in the store and the children in her helmet. No one in the programs had dark skin or frizzy hair,” Monáe writes. “She had dreamed of having eyes so blue that they would shine like the sky, even at night.”
However, Monáe also vividly describes how technology can be used for the good of humanity, such as when used to prioritize the safety and well-being of individuals. This potential is exemplified in the short story “Timebox Altar(ed)”, when a young girl named Ola comes across a drone performing a health and wellness check on her after injuring herself during a near miss. accident with a hovercraft.
They are there, they are queers, get used to it
Although gender nonconformity and queer sexuality are considered deviant behavior in the world of New Dawn – earning citizens an immediate classification as a “dirty computer” – Monáe, who identifies as pansexual and non binaryhighlights the importance of protecting the LGBTQ community.
Many characters in the book are gay or non-binary, including Seshet, who becomes romantically involved with a trans woman named Alethia in the short story “The Memory Librarian.” Seshet and Alethia visit an underground dive bar, where Seshet encounters “men in robes and women in sharp suits and others who defy gender categorization”.
Despite his governmental role, Seshet feels a kinship with these “dirty computers”, which leads him to overlook the rebellious behavior of these citizens. “She kept the heart of the city in as pure a mold as any New Dawn could hope for,” Monáe writes. “But she looked away from the edges, from the ones that would never fit anyway. Those who looked like him – and who didn’t look like them.
In the short story “Nevermind”, a group of marginalized women form the Pynk Hotel community, “a place that has opened its arms to all who have found themselves in womanhood, but have come to understand it”. The hotel’s name comes from Monáe’s female empowerment anthem “Pynk”.
One of the residents, a non-binary woman named Neer, faces opposition from fellow resident Rhapsody, who challenges Neer’s alternative view of gender and femininity. During a raid of the Pynk Hotel by New Dawn authorities, Rhapsody perfectly expresses his feelings about Neer’s place in the community. “I’m not going to let you reinvent the hotel in your image. This is how our spaces become the space of men, of misogynists,” Rhapsody tells Neer in a tense confrontation.
However, Neer knows deeply that gender identity is an integral part of people’s inherent essence, something that cannot be destroyed by Rhapsody’s animosity or New Dawn’s restriction.
“I wonder, though, if they could ever erase that existence from all of us,” Neer reflects. “It’s not just memory that makes us women, that makes me genderqueer. It’s something else. So I wonder if we’ll ever be clean enough for them.
Reclaim our time
Monáe deconstructs the concept of time and reframes it as a collective resource rather than an individualized commodity.
In the short story “Timebox”, Raven and Akilah, a young couple who have just moved into a new apartment, discover that their apartment’s pantry is a “time box”: an isolated space that suspends the chronological flow of time outdoors. They can spend several minutes – or hours – inside the pantry, and when they emerge, time will resume from when they left.
Akilah wants to use the timebox as a community resource. She envisions harnessing the power of the time box to uphold “collective responsibility,” “end capitalism,” and help marginalized people whose time has been systematically short-circuited. “There are black women who really – really need it,” says Akilah.
While Raven initially has doubts about opening the time box – and their home – to the general public, Raven realizes she has the potential to become a game-changing community resource.
The use of time is also explored in the short story ‘Save Changes’, which focuses on sisters Amber and Larry, whose mother, a former insurgent, is placed under house arrest after a botched New Dawn cleanup leaves her behind. left in an erratic mental state.
Amber possesses a charmed larimar stone that has the power to reverse time, given to her by her underage father Pablo shortly before his death. Amber remains angry at her father for not using the stone’s power to undo her mother’s cleanse.
It is later revealed to Amber that Pablo used the Stone to reverse cleansing his mother Diana, allowing them to reconnect after Larry was taken away by New Dawn authorities. Pablo chose not to use the larimar stone before after being told that “the larimar would only reverse time once in its lifetime, before passing it on to its eldest.”
By reframing aspects of social life and identity that can often feel convoluted and heavy in a heightened and dystopian context, Monáe reveals the simplicity of our common humanity. “The Memory Librarian” shows us that the future can be a disturbing reflection of our unexamined vices, but we can also plant the seeds for a better future.