In The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer, singer-songwriter, actor, fashion icon, activist, and worldwide superstar Janelle Monáe brings to the written page the Afrofuturistic world of one of her critically acclaimed albums, exploring how different threads of liberation—queerness, race, gender plurality, and love—become tangled with future possibilities of memory and time in such a totalitarian landscape... and what the costs might be when trying to unravel and weave them into freedoms.
By nature, anthology collections, with the ink of so many different pens on them, can feel incohesive and messy. It is a credit to the editors and Monáe’s strong vision that the collection does not fall at that first hurdle. If anything, the varied voices play into the book’s concept, dipping in and out of different characters and worldviews to paint a larger picture ... The Afrofuturist collection feeds both Monáe’s fan base, who will be hungry to delve deeper into her work, and sci-fi fans looking for another book in the burgeoning Black speculative fiction genre. One point to note is that some stories are given more focus than others.
In her best work, these sci-fi flourishes blend seamlessly into her fusionist music, flavoring her 'neon gumbo' but not defining it. The Memory Librarian, an anthology that adapts the themes of Monáe’s 2018 album, Dirty Computer, into literature, lacks that proportion, its flimsy tales drenched in sci-fi tropes but thin on compelling storytelling ... Unfortunately, the body politic implied by these corporeal terms (sinews, blemishes, flesh) never manifests in the storytelling. Monáe’s outcasts rebel against a curiously hollow core. Although two of the stories are novella-length, across the collection it never becomes clear whether New Dawn is the government, a company or a religious group. Nor does the public sentiment for New Dawn’s methods ever get meaningfully articulated ... Science fiction has historically — and often unfairly — been mocked for investing more brainpower into explaining elaborate systems than fleshing out the people who live within them, but The Memory Librarian fumbles both pursuits. There’s so little explanation of the basic mechanisms of New Dawn’s rule that the downtrodden main characters are deprived of agency and nuance. Their domestic and internal struggles, though rendered with meticulous attention to queer experiences and concerns, have no meaningful connection to their material circumstances ... the worlds of science fiction don’t have to be grandiose, epic or futuristic to be rich.
Through the stories and characters introduced in The Memory Librarian, Monáe and contributing authors Alaya Dawn Johnson, Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Danny Lore and Sheree Renée Thomas offer a poignant commentary on the power of technology, the preservation of queer identity and the commodification of time ... By reframing aspects of social life and identity, which can often feel convoluted and heavy, in a heightened, dystopian context, Monáe reveals the simplicity of our shared humanity. The Memory Librarian shows us the future can be an unnerving reflection of our unexamined vices, but we can also plant the seeds for a brighter tomorrow.