JULY 9, 2022
AS A PERFORMING artist and celebrity-activist, Janelle Monáe requires little introduction. Her Afrofuturist concept albums and striking music videos put her in the public eye; her eye-catching performances in films like Hidden Figures, Moonlight, and Antebellum expanded her celebrity; and her tireless advocacy for progressive causes have kept her artistic vision grounded in urgent struggles for equality. But outside of the artist’s devoted fandom, Monáe’s striking gifts as a world-builder remain largely unknown.
This is poised to change with the publication of Janelle Monáe’s first foray into the world of literary fiction. The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer collects five stories, each one co-authored with another Black science fiction writer, that expand the storyworld she created in 2018 for her transmedia project Dirty Computer. Released simultaneously as a pop album and a 48-minute “emotion picture,” Dirty Computer established a near-future dystopia that took her earlier Afrofuturism in bold new directions. The Memory Librarian now demonstrates how much potential this new storyworld has for further exploration.
From her breakthrough 2008 EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Janelle Monáe’s musical career has mixed up polished neo-soul, funk, and alt-rock with science fiction tropes. Across three concept albums, she reinvigorated the musical Afrofuturism of George Clinton’s P-Funk collective with an ongoing story about her 28th-century alter ego, the enslaved android Cindi Mayweather. While the albums yielded individual hit tracks like “Tightrope,” “Cold War,” and “Q.U.E.E.N.,” the songs also formed narrative moments within the albums’ larger setting. Forensically minded fans who invested time not only in listening attentively to the albums, but also in studying the elaborate liner notes contained within the CD booklets, discovered an ongoing Afrofuturist storyworld that was constantly being expanded.
In 2016, the election of Donald Trump put the development of Monáe’s distant sci-fi universe on hold. As a new generation of civil rights activists protested the violent backlash of groups emboldened by a white supremacist president, Monáe responded by building a speculative future that offered a more direct reflection of a contemporary world on fire. As a pop album, Dirty Computer was more focused and condensed than her sprawling ambitious earlier work, featuring cleaner hooks and more straightforward lyrics across a tightly sequenced record. Within Dirty Computer’s music videos, which function as memories and dreams within the larger coherent “emotion picture,” Monáe and her collaborators manifested a storyworld that juxtaposed a chilling neo-fascist social order against liberating moments of utopian celebration.
In this near-future storyworld, those who deviate from the norm are classified as “Dirty Computers” and undergo technologically mediated psychological conditioning. Monáe portrays one such Dirty Computer: Jane 57821, who has been taken captive by the totalitarian organization New Dawn. We watch her mind being accessed by a futuristic technology that can play back and delete her memories like data on a computer. The songs from the album constitute those memories, while the frame narrative tells a simple but powerful story of oppression, resistance, and — ultimately — hope. At the same time, this kind of narrative structure has the practical advantage of facilitating the use of the individual segments as traditional stand-alone music videos to promote the Dirty Computer album and tour.
The stories in The Memory Librarian offer a further expansion of this world, each exploring different facets of a society where today’s authoritarian trends have been taken to an appalling extreme. Its stories enrich the world established in the film with a more detailed portrait of New Dawn’s systems of surveillance and oppression, as well as a closer look at the rebels’ “clandestine networks of love and expression, curiosity and desire.” Each of these five tales explores a different aspect of resistance to oppressive power in a world that’s increasingly hostile to those marked as deviant.
The collection’s eponymous first story, co-authored with Alaya Dawn Johnson, focuses on the complicated power dynamics of a society where personal memories can be accessed, stored, manipulated, and deleted by those in power. It follows Seshet: a woman who has climbed this society’s social ladder to occupy a place of relative privilege and authority as her district’s director librarian. While she doesn’t endorse everything New Dawn’s fascist order stands for, she happily takes advantage of the benefits it offers her, including the ability to read and manipulate her new lover’s memories. As someone with status and power in this new social order, she finds that she’s in a position that enables her to bend the rules and engage in a same-sex romance that threatens to draw her into the resistance.
The story delivers an expertly crafted play on Philip K. Dick’s thematic obsession with anxieties about the reliability of memories. At the same time, Monáe and Johnson’s focus on race and sexual identity as markers of social deviance relate this narrative back to a political framework in which ubiquitous surveillance reinforces longstanding social hierarchies. This depiction of technology as an extension of political power is a familiar motif in science fiction, from the telescreens of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the endless varieties of digital media run amok in the popular television series Black Mirror. But in the emphatically racialized way it is employed in The Memory Librarian, the use of surveillance technology to monitor and condition the interior lives of deviant subjects operates in the same register as what Ruha Benjamin has described as the “New Jim Code”: the use of invasive technology to reinforce rigorous policing as the continuation of centuries-old racial segregation.
While the first story offers an entry point into this critical dystopia from the point of view of someone who’s complicit in the system, the second story, “Nevermind,” embeds readers within a community of Dirty Computers on the run from those very authorities. This action-packed adventure story, co-authored by nonbinary sci-fi and comics author Danny Lore, returns to the utopian enclave first glimpsed in the “PYNK” music video, establishing that its memorable Pynk Hotel functions as a refuge for deviants on the run from New Dawn’s drones and storm troopers. As the video’s original depiction of the abandoned desert rest stop had suggested, the place is an all-women enclave in the middle of nowhere: a secret site for these Dirty Computers to join a haven from prosecution and find healing in each other’s company.
“Nevermind” adds onto this utopian conception by homing in on internal as well as external tensions that threaten to destroy the community’s precarious existence. The first way it does this is through the story’s depiction of simmering hostilities that inevitably build into conflict within the enclave itself. That tension is fueled by the same intersecting forms of oppression that underlie capitalist societies’ aggressively hierarchical organization: some of the cisgender women at the refuge come to express discomfort about Neer — a trans woman who has recently joined the group. It shows how the people within this seemingly utopian space carry with them the political and ideological preconceptions and contradictions that inform the world around them, which aren’t always magically dissolved once they enter this radical feminist collective.
The situation comes to a head when the Pynk Hotel is attacked from the outside: New Dawn’s storm troopers, led by specially recruited empaths called “blushounds,” manage to locate the refuge and launch an attack. But after an exciting chase sequence, the community members manage to escape, in large part due to Neer’s ingenuity, and capture a blushound named Bat. She, too, wishes to join the refuge and desert the forces that had forced her to collaborate, which leads to a showdown among its members, whose cisgender members fiercely debate the human rights of their trans companion. Just as the previous story had explored the doubts and ambiguities that inevitably surface among those whose work is complicit in political systems of oppression, “Nevermind” investigates the gray areas that emerge within movements that resist oppressive power, thereby testing the limits of real inclusion.
But even if the Pynk Hotel is ultimately sacrificed as a physical haven and forced to become “maybe a little more mobile” after its location has been revealed to New Dawn, the narrative still illustrates how vital such pockets of resistance are to the resilience of activist movements. And where “Nevermind” is preoccupied with space, the next story, “Timebox,” investigates the mutability of time. In this story, co-authored with poet, scholar, and comics author Eve L. Ewing, follows two characters in this world who discover a hidden space in their apartment where linear time doesn’t operate at all. In the same way that the Pynk Hotel offered a spatial refuge from the New Jim Code’s rigid networks of surveillance, the timebox they discover allows the queer couple who have taken residence here the opportunity to step out of the linear movement of time entirely: no matter how long they spend in the timebox, they find that no time at all has passed on the outside once they reemerge.
A conflict quickly develops between the two women about how to put this newfound space to use: Akilah sees it as a resource that can be used and shared collectively for organized resistance, while her partner Raven — justifiably afraid of consequences — wants to keep this hideout within the purely domestic sphere. Just as Monáe’s Metropolis concept albums foregrounded the conflict between the personal and the political, “Timebox” revolves around the scarcity of time and other resources that every activist group must face. Thus, where thematically similar works like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves used physics-defying pockets as a way to allegorize the dizzying effects of postmodern temporality, Monáe deploys this same speculative trope to dramatize structural inequalities grounded in race, gender, and sexuality.
The last two stories in the book offer further explorations of time and memory through an Afrofuturist lens: “Save Changes,” co-authored with Latino author Yohanca Delgado, revolves around a magical “larimar” stone that allows its holder to reverse time, while “Timebox Altar(ed),” co-authored with poet and short story writer Shree Renée Thomas, features a group of children who are each offered a tantalizing glimpse of their potential by traveling forward in time and experiencing a moment of their future lives. While these final two narratives are also set in the dystopian framework of New Dawn’s totalitarian rule, their thematic focus remains stubbornly hopeful: where the moments of utopian celebration in the Dirty Computer emotion picture were fleeting and ephemeral, the stories here emphasize the power of memory, collectivity, and imagination for lasting change.
In a way that typifies Monáe’s overall approach to creative production, the stories in this collection can be read as stand-alone science fiction narratives or as structural expansions of a larger storyworld that remains fluid, flexible, and always playful. Either way, the collection contributes a richly layered set of accessible Afrofuturist allegories to a historical moment where civil rights for those who aren’t straight, white, male, or cisgender are once again under unrelenting attack. Monáe’s literary debut combines a dire warning about where we’re heading with inspiring portraits of resilience in the face of oppression.
The stories within The Memory Librarian are transparently didactic in their explicit devotion to Black, queer, and trans rights, and these uncompromising principles are delivered within a richly textured speculative storyworld. For Monáe fans, this wonderful new book yields a further extension of her creative world-building (with occasional Easter eggs and callbacks included for those who have been following her from the start). For avid sci-fi readers, the book delivers a thrilling dose of Afrofuturist speculation — simultaneously diverse and cleverly intertwined through the use of interlinked thematic motifs. And among young adults, especially those who feel they may be marked as Dirty Computers, this volume of dark but uplifting tales may find its most important audience, offering hope for a better tomorrow beyond the dismal tide of our dystopian present.
Dan Hassler-Forest is an author and public speaker affiliated with Utrecht University in the Netherlands. His research is focused on the ways in which popular media reflect changing social relations in late capitalism. His most recent books are Janelle Monáe’s Queer Afrofuturism: Defying Every Label and Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer.”