26 September 2023

The Memory Librarian

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Janelle Monáe, Harper Collins, $32.99.

In 2018, singer and actor Janelle Monáe released a concept album called Dirty Computer. Its release was accompanied by a 45 minute long narrative film starring Monáe and Tessa Thompson. The film explained that people were called computers and the “dirty” computers were people who had run foul of the system, people who were different, outsiders and rebels. Now comes The Memory Librarian and other Stories of Dirty Computer, a book of five novella-length short stories all cowritten by Monáe and set in her “dirty computer” universe and featuring characters from the film. There is no need to either listen to the album or watch the film to enjoy these stories but they do provide another way in to the narrative.

The title story The Memory Librarian sets the tone. It imagines a totalitarian society called New Dawn that controls the memories and dreams of the populace. Seshet is the Memory Librarian for a small town called Little Delta, a powerful figure in the bureaucratic hierarchy but a position that she has had to give up her memories for. When she connects with a woman called Alethia and the two start a clandestine relationship she begins the question the structure of her world. The second story Nevermind, is the story of Jane, the main character from the film, on the run from New Dawn, who finds sanctuary in the desert but finds that sanctuary threatened.

The final three stories explore other aspects of the world but each throw in a different, slightly spiritual in some cases, time travel element. While the addition of time travel with different rules and effects in each case works within their own short story logic, this aspect lessens the overall impact of the collection as a unified whole. That said, each of these stories works well on their own, although the last of them Timebox Altar(ed) is infused with possibly a little too much wish fulfilment.

The Memory Librarian is a great showcase for female, black and LGBT+ voices in science fiction, a genre that has more traditionally been characterised mainly as white, male and straight (although much less so in the last few years). And it does this through a series of diverse but connected stories, each of which can stand on their own but are made richer for being part of this collection.

Over 800 more book reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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