Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer concept album has been one of my top listens of the last year (despite being released in 2018). My plunge into the larger Janelle Monáe media-verse only got deeper from there. I thoroughly enjoyed her stint in Knives Out 2, and I explored her entire discography (spoiler: bangers galore). Around this time last year, I was surprised to see her name attached to The Memory Librarian, a collection of five short stories in the Dirty Computer universe. I picked it up and let it sit on my shelves until The Quill To Live writers decided to do a book club. I chose The Memory Librarian, giving myself a reason to upload my consciousness into Monáe’s world.
The Memory Librarian inserts readers into the world of Dirty Computer, in which the dictatorial New Dawn takes people’s memories and generally oppresses anyone who challenges the status quo. This, of course, is a remarkably simple description of a deservingly complex imagined world. Monáe’s world feels firmly rooted in the BIPOC and LGBTQ experience. The end-states of racism and a melting pot of hateful worldviews power a hyper-capitalistic and homogenous world in which anyone different has to struggle to survive. This world is inextricably tied to the other media in the same universe, the album and the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture available on YouTube. All this is to say, I commend the themes and goals of The Memory Librarian. I come from a place of privilege, and I appreciate that these stories asked me to grapple with inherently harmful systems of power.
As a collection of messages told through a narrative format, I consider this book a win. The stories can be heavy-handed in their themes and morals, but sometimes that’s okay, so long as it’s the goal from the outset. That seems to be the case here.
From a strictly storytelling standpoint, I enjoyed some of these stories better than others. The eponymous short story The Memory Librarian comes first, and I felt like it was the strongest pull and the deepest look into this unique world. Even so, there were moments I felt like I was hearing someone explain their imagined world to me; it was hard to visualize. The short story format requires snappy worldbuilding, and there’s not a lot of space for the reader to pick up stray references or invented terms. This issue carries on into a few of the other stories.
I also felt the stories struggling to burst from their confines. Save Changes was my favorite of the bunch until it abruptly ended when I was most invested. A similar issue arose with Timebox. The final paragraph had me turning the page to see whether there was more—nope; the next story began, leaving this one in its dust.
In other words, The Memory Librarian’s stories focus primarily on their messages, which I believe are distinctly good and important. These stories are unabashedly queer, trans, black—a reclaiming of other-ness and a stark look at one possible future. The short runtime of each story means that these ideas become the brunt of the narrative lift while worldbuilding and character work—though solid by some measures—falls to the wayside.
This all adds up to a vague appreciation of Monáe, her collaborators, and the stories they produced. I nodded my head aplenty during my readthrough as the concepts resonated with me. But I also shook my head in disappointment when the storytelling didn’t quite land.
As for whether you should read it, I think that’s the best I can offer. If you’re interested in Janelle Monáe’s imaginative take on current issues, it’s an easy “yes.” If you’re looking for a collection of sci-fi short stories to tickle your futuristic fancy, you might be better served elsewhere.