SciFi · Short Stories

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer

This is a super eye-catching cover, with the bright white and gold, and a title that really makes any book nerd really want to see more of what it’s about. I had read a few reviews that said this was, at some points, a bit hard to follow (for various reasons), so I waited until I was able to get both a physical and an audiobook copy from my library. And to whoever’s reviews said that (I think @shriekingstack was one of them), I’d like to say thank you, because that was absolutely the right call for me. 

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

“You’ve got to dream a future before you can build a future.”

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer is a collection of short stories all set in the Afrofuturistic world created by the absolute icon, Janelle Monáe, written in collaboration with a number of well-known and respected writers (Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas). This sci-fi reality is based in a future where thoughts and memories are gathered, monitored, and edited as a means of control and it explores what life is like under that kind of invasive and totalitarian technological rule, and what people must do in order to live outside it or attempt to overthrow it. Each story represents a different perspective on this, with a focus on the artistic and “counterculture” communities who fight to maintain their creativity, individualism, right to love and express identity, in the way(s) that feel right to them. 

I didn’t originally realize that this was a collection of stories with shared setting and themes, as opposed to a full-on novel following the same characters and plot throughout, but once I realized, I organized my thoughts as I always do: with some small notes on each story and ending with a finale of overall reactions. Enjoy. 

The Memory Librarian – This first novella sets the vibe and scene perfectly, with themes about the power of memory (maintaining or repressing it) in shaping who we are. It explores the cost of suppressing bad memories, despite it *seeming* easier than having to live with them. And it highlights the individuality and experience we gain, what we are able to learn, from having both the good and the bad within us. It’s a cautionary tale as well, about being so afraid of the darkness and memories of loss/grief, that we give up too much of ourselves in favor of forgetting. It also provides a steep learning curve on the history of the world of “dirty computers” and introduces the reader to the reality that they’ll exist within while reading this collection.  

Nevermind – This homage to the gathering places that have, historically, provided a safe and welcoming space to anyone on the fringe of “acceptable” society (especially queer populations, but with intersectionality of different races as well) has a very comforting undertone throughout, despite the constant concern over the potential of governmental forces breaking the safety of the community. Thematically, the concept of the “dirty or clean” binary acts as a (not-too-subtle) metaphor for many other false binaries (like gender and more) in a really fascinating way. I really loved the exploration of compassion, how showing it to everyone is a tool of liberation, even when that means it must be shown to those of the opposition as well (because that’s how we separate ourselves from the oppressors). And the way the writers show how fear can steal the compassion from anyone, despite their good intentions, is really affecting. In addition, using storytelling to communicate traumatic memories/experiences was a therapy technique used a lot, and in a really touching way. Overall, this was a great representative story of how exclusionary tactics are wrong on all sides (right wing extremists, TERFS, and all…alike); freedom isn’t truly that until everyone has access to it. 

Timebox -There is a fine line of what is good for the greater community and what is good for an individual, and when to put the community first versus knowing when you cannot help others until your own cup has been refilled. This story explores that with intensity. And in a wonderfully traditional “sci-fi” way. It was tough. But also, I got a little detached from those emotional reactions and reflections because the ending…lost me. I mean, the writing was awesome and I was left with a deeply unsettled feeling that something went *super* wrong, but like, I have no idea what it is that happened. Strange. 

Save Changes – This one was intense too, full of plot-based tension from beginning to end. The suffocating fear of surveillance is visceral. It explored the concept of being an outcast by association, as a byproduct of totalitarianism and governmental determination of right and wrong (in the vocabulary of this world, clean and dirty), with no room for dissent or disagreement. It also had some psychological themes as well, looking at the different ways children/people react to the same life experiences, sometimes in diametrically opposite ways. I enjoyed the structure and pacing and plot of this one, as a story, but (as usual with time change/travel) I had some logistical questions (ahhhhh, the joys of reading sci-fi). 

Timebox Altar(Ed) – What a gorgeous final story full of hope for the future and closure with the ones we love!! Allowing youth to find and experience the agency to do something to make their world that kind of better is a balm for the soul to close out. And again, there was some really cool classic sci-fi plot devices in this one that I felt like were really well-used.

So, I don’t think I realized how much more media there was to this world (like from Monáe’s other work, a recent-ish album as a primary example), so I’m adjusting my reactions based on not having exposed myself fully first, as that’s on me. Bearing in mind that my feeling lost or lack of understanding is, at least in part, a result of that, I do want to mention that I did sometimes feel like I was dropped right in so hard that I felt like floundering as a reader. I did individually enjoy each story for what it was, as each was well crafted and delivered. In a general sense, this was like reading a technological alternate-reality fever dream that is just enough recognizable to our world (social structures and biases of race and gender and power) that it feels familiar-ish, but then the setting/plots are so foreign and the language is so flourish-y and artistic, that is feels incredibly unrecognizable at the same time. Definitely a unique and very cerebral (literally – dreams and memories, and figuratively – narration and world building) science fiction reading experience. And, as a the major connecting vibe and message, it stands as a profound acknoweldgement and honoring of of Black/Brown queer revolutionaries of the past, present and future.

A collection of moments the stuck out to me while reading:

“Imagine a flood, imagine a wave, imagine an avalanche, imagine a storm. Imagine any disaster you please, but note that it always begins as one before it becomes many. What in singular expressions seems simple, laughable, beneath your notice, becomes, in the plural, the last thing you notice before you die. This is the bleak magic of exponential growth.”

“Humans repress their own memories, of course. They do it all the time. […] The fact that — weaponized this effect for its own purposes doesn’t mean that people don’t forget things for their own simple survival every second of the day.”

“In the hard, old way of forgetting, which is remembering with grief.”

“We’re not too much. Never too much. Who we are and what we feel can’t be too much. Might feel that way sometimes, but it isn’t true.”

“He understood something about hunger and how it ate at more than the lining in the belly, how it ate at the heart and made it harder to concentrate and dream at night.”

“Can’t build nothing if you can’t feel nothing. Community comes from feeling and feeling comes hand in hand with creation.”

“They can’t just keep taking and taking from us, from everybody, and making it impossible for us to breathe and live in our own skin.”


2 thoughts on “The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer

  1. I’ve known about this book for a while but I’m not much into the additional media surrounding it, including the album, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read it. But your review is so beautiful… now I wanna try it. Thank you for such thoughtful words.

    Liked by 1 person

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