I’ll Love You in This Space and Time: Review of The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe (with Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas)
The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer. Janelle Monáe. Harper Voyager, April 19, 2022.
A memory: in 2018 hip-hop artist Janelle Monáe released her third album, Dirty Computer. The brilliant and multifaceted composition – and the accompanying film – was a continuation of Monáe’s interest in musically diverse concept albums rooted in explorations and defenses of individual identity, and rich in science fictional themes and imagery. Monáe, an African-American who identifies as pansexual and non-binary, has always been dedicated to speaking her truth about the multiplicity of human identity and self-identification. Dirty Computer’s throughline is a joyous, riotous, intensely individual celebration of life in the face of a powerful totalitarian society called New Dawn, and the beautiful fluidity of difference that New Dawn opposes and criminalizes. It is a vitally important cry of the heart in a time when too many are using public policy to flatten and reduce the limitless pageant of humanity to a single dull avenue.
With The Memory Librarian, Monáe has brought a series of stories that fill out the world beyond the dark yet hopeful glimpses in the film, moving beyond the original story to explore daily life for people both within and without the reach of New Dawn. It is less a sequel than a continuation of Monáe’s concern with liberation from the conventional and the freedom to choose love. How do people at different levels of a dictatorial society cope with their circumstances and remain not only human, but multidimensional, truly loving beings?
A brief introduction by Monáe expands on the evolution of New Dawn, with all its ominous implications for our real-life near future, describing the gradual objectification of nonconforming people as “dirty computers” and the insidious infiltration and policing of people’s privacy and memories in the name of a single acceptable moral and behaviorial path.
Fortunately for the book’s rebellious characters, there prove to be multiple avenues of escape from a conformist, autocratic state. But there is always the feeling that the characters of each story are on borrowed time. The stories as a group explore how the future of a free humanity, a humanity dedicated to exploring what makes each of us truly happy, lies at an intersection of memory, time, and “where the computer cannot reach”: our dreams.
The title story (written with Alaya Dawn Johnson) concerns Seshet, a powerful figure in this new society. A regional Librarian for the repository of memories surveilled and collected by New Dawn from dirty computers and other people, Seshet is African-Americanand genderqueer—grounds for “cleaning” in less powerful people. “Memory Librarian” presents a world in which memories are a form of commerce or stolen resource, as robotic collectors graze memories from passersby and people hide away to protect their precious remembrances. The story explores the everyday choices and betrayals one makes to survive, bringing a fuller sense of personhood to Jane’s New Dawn adversaries featured in Dirty Computer. It also notes the importance of communality and personal connection, things diametrically opposed to New Dawn’s program of stifling conformity. When the state comes for your memories, for the most intimate and singular parts of you, you find escape and hope in the dreams you can construct, shape, and share with others.
Sharing community is the center of the story “Nevermind” (co-written with Danny Lore), which is set at the Pynk Hotel, a refuge for dirty computers and other nonconformists, including Dirty Computer’s main character Jane. “Nevermind” is a testament both to the power of division as well as the healing and nurturing power and potential of a loving community, following closely in the footsteps of Monáe’s original creation. Meanwhile, the two stories that follow it – “Timebox” (co-written with Eve L. Ewing), and “Save Changes” (co-written with Yohanca Delgado) – are chiefly concerned with exploring the passage, use, and misuse of time. The control of one’s time has fateful consequences, with the potential for radical change across society.
The final story, “Timebox (Altared)”, co-written with Sheree Renée Thomas, returns to the idea of a place rooted in temporal fluctuation – in this case one built from relics of the old times by a group of poor young people living literally on the margins of society, beyond and beneath the notice of New Dawn. This new Timebox, built with loving hands and shared labor, opens windows into potential futures full of hope and love and beauty. The mysterious Mx. Tangerine Waters tells the young builders at one point:
“Ain’t just about prospering, it’s about progressing, connecting, tappin’ into something larger than yourself, so you can really see. Can’t build nothing if you can’t feel nothing, Community comes from feeling and feeling comes hand in hand with creation. What y’all out here creating now?”
“Dirty computers” are the enemy to New Dawn, but Monáe and her collaborators know that the dirt is the soil, where things grow and bloom. The dirt is where the dreaming happens and where love is found. One of The Memory Librarian’s most beautiful passages comes at the very end of “Timebox (Altared)”, and encapsulates the message of the collection, of Dirty Computer itself, and of Monáe’s entire artistic enterprise and commitment to the truths of diversities and love:
Happy birthday, Bug. Artis, I am so proud of you. Return whole, my children, your eyes a constellation of stars. Full of the knowledge that I love you, that we are what we carry – the years, the nights, and the seconds, and all the spaces in between. It flows through us, flows from, within us. This love cannot be stopped. It grows – and it must be free. The time to dream is a sacred thing, Trell. It heals, lifts us up. Ola, every child, not just my own, needs it. Our world demands it. You’ve got to dream a future before you can build a future. Together, let us begin this dreaming awake.
Jeremy Brett is a librarian/archivist at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration – Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.
The “SFF Librarian Reviews” series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. This particular review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Harper Voyager.