Review: The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer

SPL Book Bingo 2022, Book 1

Note: This is the first in a series of posts about books I read for Seattle Public Library’s 2022 Book Bingo. This book could fill any of the following squares on the bingo card: Debut author, Sci-fi or fantasy by a BIPOC author, Recommended by Library staff or Peak Pick, Been meaning to read, Non-binary/genderqueer author or character, or LGBTQ+ love story.

I’ve been a fan of Janelle Monáe’s music since her 2010 debut LP The ArchAndroid, and being quite familiar with her whole discography did not equip me with any intuitions about what to expect from Monáe’s short story collection and first book. The ArchAndroid, together with the Metropolis: The Chase Suite EP that preceded it and The Electric Lady which followed, sort of kind of tells some kind of story. Or at least their songs are all kind of set in the same science fictional city, with a plotline of sorts that’s pervasive in the Metropolis EP but gradually disintegrates into a loose theme in the genre-hopping second half of ArchAndroid and is dropped almost entirely in Electric Lady. And Monáe’s most recent album Dirty Computer, on which this book is actually based, leaves Metropolis entirely and has no claim to a linear plot.

All this is just as well, as music that tries to hew too close to a coherent plotline often sacrifices what makes a good album to do so. But it means that Monáe’s music doesn’t give a good sense of what to expect from her as a fiction writer. Too, each of The Memory Librarian’s five stories was written with a different collaborator. So all this is to reiterate that I went into this book fully expecting it to thwart any of my preconceived notions about it.

The Memory Librarian does not read like a book from a musician dilettante written as a vanity project, as I feared it might. Its references to Monáe’s music are subtle and tasteful. The title, “Pynk,” of a song about feminine solidarity is repurposed as an all-woman creative refuge, and one that’s defiantly, unambiguously trans-inclusive, as though Monáe wanted to shake off any lingering accusations of exclusion in the song itself. References to misfits and outcasts as “dirty computers,” used mainly as a sort of reclaimed slur, are very in keeping with her LP of the same name. An underground radio DJ from The Electric Lady makes a cameo. These are nice little touches for fans, but they don’t dominate the experience of reading the book.

The stories don’t have much of a throughline, besides the oppressive surveillance regime New Dawn that serves as the direct or indirect antagonist of almost every main character. I think they would have benefited from a few more connections to flesh out the world a bit more and make it feel a bit more cohesive and fully realized. As it is, though, it’s easier for me to think about them in isolation, and I’m going to indulge myself and rank them. I will try to avoid any significant spoilers.

  1. “Timebox.” Written with Eve L. Ewing. Perhaps not coincidentally, also the shortest story. These things coincide not because I wanted any of these stories to be over sooner, but because this one is more compact and economical: it sets up a situation relatively quickly, maintains a sense of tension and vague dread for its entire length, and ends with an effective gut punch. It’s the least dependent on its setting — it could easily be set in present-day America — and its antagonist is believably well-meaning but despicable nonetheless. Most effective, though, is that tension. The main character is at the end of her rope and you really feel her lack of support, and feel for her.
  2. “Save Changes.” Written with Yohanca Delgado. A real classic short-story-ass short story with the classic third-act reversal, and characters rendered well enough to make it count, to make the stakes feel high.
  3. “Nevermind.” Written with Danny Lore. Novella-sized. The most action-packed sci-fi thing here. A real post-apocalyptic hardscrabble kind of setting, with shades of Parable of the Sower, but with more joy mixed in. I’m ambivalent because the ending is a bit heavy-handed, but Pynk Hotel is a well-realized refuge and its inhabitants’ struggle to be better than their oppressors in hard situations is a convincing one.
  4. “The Memory Librarian.” Written with Alaya Dawn Johnson. A decent story that suffers from — if you’ll allow me a music analogy — a strange sequencing choice. Having the first story set in the heart of New Dawn, before we really get a chance to see New Dawn’s effect on those outside it, kind of mutes its impact. It’s disorienting in a way that didn’t work for me.
  5. “Timebox Altar(ed).” Written with Sheree Renée Thomas. The most heavy-handed of the five, with too high a showing-to-telling ratio. Its hopeful visions are stirring but don’t feel completely earned. This is the story that I think would have benefitted most from having more threads running through the whole book: the dreams these characters are having are the kind that need solidarity, a mass movement, to achieve. But the characters we see in this book all occupy their own islands, large or small.

All in all, though, The Memory Librarian is as good a read as I hoped it would be (which is to say: quite good, but less than amazing). It’s consistent with the world that Janelle Monáe has set up in her music, where marginalized people manage to thrive even in a world that tries to squash or erase them, but it stands satisfyingly apart from that music as well.