Whoever controls our memories controls the future.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from the title story of Janelle Monáe’s new collection The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer, out today from Harper Voyager.
Singer-songwriter, actor, fashion icon, activist, and worldwide superstar Janelle Monáe brings to the written page the Afrofuturistic world of one of her critically acclaimed albums, exploring how different threads of liberation—queerness, race, gender plurality, and love—become tangled with future possibilities of memory and time in such a totalitarian landscape… and what the costs might be when trying to unravel and weave them into freedoms.
Janelle Monáe and an incredible array of talented collaborating creators have written a collection of tales comprising the bold vision and powerful themes that have made Monáe such a compelling and celebrated storyteller. Dirty Computer introduced a world in which thoughts—as a means of self-conception—could be controlled or erased by a select few. And whether human, A.I., or other, your life and sentience was dictated by those who’d convinced themselves they had the right to decide your fate.
That was until Jane 57821 decided to remember and break free.
Expanding from that mythos, these stories fully explore what it’s like to live in such a totalitarian existence… and what it takes to get out of it. Building off the traditions of speculative writers such as Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Becky Chambers, and Nnedi Okorafor—and filled with the artistic genius and powerful themes that have made Monáe a worldwide icon in the first place—The Memory Librarian serves readers tales grounded in the human trials of identity expression, technology, and love, but also reaching through to the worlds of memory and time within, and the stakes and power that exists there.
The Memory Librarian
The lights of Little Delta are spread before Seshet like an offering in a shallow bowl. What memories are those shadows below making tonight, to ripen for the morning harvest? What tragedies, what indecencies, what hungers never satisfied? Her office is dark, but the city’s neat grids cut across her face with a surgical precision, cheek bisected from mandible, eye parted from eye, the fine lines of her forehead, so faintly visible, separated from their parallel tracks by the white light cast up from her city. She is the eye in the obelisk, the Director Librarian, the “queen” of Little Delta. But she prefers to see herself as a mother, and the city as her charge.
Tonight, her charge is restless. Something has been wrong for weeks, perhaps even months before she knew what to look for. But now that she does, she will find it, and fix it. She always has, ever since her appointment as Director Librarian of the Little Delta Repository a decade ago. She has earned her privileges, her title, her sweeping view of this small gem of a city. From up here, it fits in her palm. Its memories span her eidetic synapses. Unnoticed by her conscious, monitoring mind, her left fingers close into a fist, thumb tucked inside the others like a baby behind his brothers.
Seshet is this city. No matter what rebellion is being conjured by infiltrating subconsciouses, no matter what flood of mnemonic subversion clogs the proper flow of pure, fresh memory— she will not let it go.
The problem can be typified in a few of the memories, which are not, blasphemously, any kind of memories at all. Imagine the following bread-and-butter (or beans-and-cornbread) moments, the kind the recollection centers shunt to the Repository’s data banks by the shovelful: a flash of rage when the fancy razor-striped aircar drafts you in traffic; the quotidian beauty of a sunset bleeding behind a kudzu-choked highway barrier; your lover’s kiss when she climbs back into bed in the middle of the night (and where was she? But you never ask). Now, though, the car cracks down the middle, chassis splintering like an eggshell, coolant arcing from its descending airpipe in a shape suspiciously suggestive of an upright penis; a flock of crows rise from the barrier and fling themselves west, cackling a song banned a generation ago for indecency and subversion; your lover’s teeth puncture your lower lip and as your mouth fills with blood and venom she whispers, I’m not the only one.
These aren’t memories, they just look enough like them to get past the filter. And once past, they fill the trawling net with bycatch and rusted junk until there’s no room left for the good stuff. Fresh memory, wild caught in the clear upstream of Little Delta, has kept this town booming ever since the first days of New Dawn’s glorious revolution. What used to be a dying mining town at the whip end of the Rust Belt, home to a motley assortment of drug addicts moonlighting as grafiteros and performance artists, became the model city, the first realization of the promise that New Dawn offered all people—well, citizens (well, the right kind of citizens)—in their care: beauty in order, peace in rigidity, and tranquillity in a constant, sun-dappled present. The only person lower than a memory hoarder was a dirty computer, and that Venn diagram was very nearly a circle.
But the improved Little Delta doesn’t have memory hoarders; it kicked the grafiteros and unsanctioned musicians out past the burned warehouse district twenty years back, even before Seshet’s tenure. There’s been nothing, nothing to indicate a problem in their memory surveillance for years. Until two months ago. First a few blips, barely worth worrying about, odd nightmares accidentally caught in their nets. Now, so quickly it dizzies her, the trickle has become a flood. No one has mentioned it to her, but someone must have noticed. New Dawn is watching. Not just Little Delta. Not just the Repository. Seshet herself. If she cannot stop these new memory hoarders, these false memory flooders, these dream doctors, these terrorists—she will not last much longer in this place she has fought so hard to secure.
She doesn’t believe in everything New Dawn stands for. How could she, being who she is? But she believes she has done good. The obelisk’s gaze has been mostly benevolent in her tenure here. And whatever she believes of herself, this she knows: whoever they put in her place will be far worse.
Stomach clenched, eyes bright, as though determination is the sole topography of her soul, she turns herself away—a lifetime’s habit—from the mountain of guilt beneath that white-tipped iceberg. She won’t let them beat her, not after she’s played the game by their own rules and won.
She has allowed her mind to be altered and trained, made capable of remembering a hundred times more than the average human’s. But among all those clamoring souls within her cage of bone, it is that slippery whisper that pushes itself to the forefront:
I’m not the only one.
A knock on the door. Seshet does not answer. But she changes: shoulders back, chin up, unacknowledged despair tucked neatly behind a steady, measured gaze. Seshet the matron, Seshet the Librarian, Seshet the wise, worthy of her divine Egyptian namesake, the goddess of wisdom and memory. She’s been Director for long enough to know to look the part. Even on the other side of the door, the presence of someone else summons this woman she has made herself from the more amorphous frontier of the woman she might, in fact, be.
“Someone’s here, Seshet!” chirps Dee, so helpfully. “Would you like to retrieve their memories?”
She sighs. She never has the heart to shut down her Memory Keeper AI at night, though there’s nothing for Dee to do before the morning rush and its processors require impressive amounts of energy even when semidormant. Dee doesn’t like to shut down, though. It enjoys having time to think. Or time to bust my cover, Seshet thinks sourly.
“That’s okay, Dee,” Seshet says. “I already know his memories.” Her outward calm is a counterweight to the turmoil inside her. Twenty years as one of New Dawn’s few Black women officials, suspected from the start of being halfway to dirty computer no matter how unimpeachable her conduct, has forged her like steel, with just the right amount of carbon to bend but not shatter.
She presses a button on her desk and the door slides back into the wood-paneled wall. Jordan stands in the opening, his hand still poised midknock. The hallway light limns him in a halo that makes her squint.
“In the dark again, Director Seshet?”
She sucks her teeth. “Come in, if you’re going to. I don’t like so much light at night.”
“Yes, yes,” he says, at the same time as she does. “It ruins my vision.”
She smiles, softening as always with her favorite protégé. The door slides shut and she regards him in the hazy pixelated vision of half-dilated pupils. Dee, stubbornly independent as always, turns the ambients to their lowest setting. Jordan’s changed for the evening into his street clothes: khaki chinos, blue button-down, loafers. White-boy chic for New Dawn’s golden age. A model citizen, so long as no one asks him his number and knows what those final digits mean: child of seditionists and traitors, ward of the state, a charity case, eternally suspect.
Seshet has no such recourse to camouflage, fragile as it is. These days, she will leave the grounds in the full golden headdress and robes of office. She has determined to embrace her distance instead of constantly hoping for an acceptance that will never be theirs. But Jordan is young.
“What are you still doing here, Jordan? Go home. Sleep. Forget about this place for a while.”
“Is that a joke?” When Jordan scowls, he looks even younger than his years, enough to make her want to hug him or slap him. Do parents feel this way? Do they ever want to shake that insufferable innocence from their children? Had his? Had hers? But now the thought veers into dangerous waters and she perches on the edge of her desk to hide the wave of weakness in her legs.
“Memory Librarian humor,” says Seshet, deadpan. After a moment, Jordan cracks a smile.
“You should too,” he says. “Get some sleep, I mean.”
“I’m fine, Jordan. I’m your superior, remember? You don’t have to worry about us.”
He takes a step farther into the room and then pauses, as though the force of her solitary preoccupation prevents him from getting closer.
He tries to reach her with words instead. “Something’s wrong.”
For a moment, as she watches his sad face in the low light, a fist closes over her heart. This is it, they’ve gotten to him, he’s noticed the false memories and he’s snitched, you knew this would happen, you knew—
Then sense returns and she takes a careful, steadying breath. Did Jordan notice anything? Oh, he’s staring at her, that worried frown even deeper now, a ravine between his eyebrows. She wants to smooth it away. She wants to tell him to leave her alone and never return.
“What’s… wrong?” she manages, at last. You’re slipping,
Seshet. Gotten too comfortable up here.
He straightens his shoulders. “You’re working yourself ragged, Director! Anyone can see it.”
Her voice is thin. “Oh, can they?”
He shakes his head. “You hide it well, but I’ve noticed, and so have the other clerks. We see you too often not to know the signs.”
“I appreciate the warning, Jordan. I should be grateful you’re all watching me so closely. Perhaps I should go in for Counseling soon.”
“Counseling? The Director Librarian? Director, of course I’m not—”
“If my obvious mental state is impeding my work here, then
clearly my duty is to—”
“I’m not talking about your duty, Seshet!”
Her name, bare of its title, cracks in the air like a slap. After an astonished blink, she raises her eyebrows. His muddy green eyes meet hers for a second, but he breaks like a twig beneath the full force of that practiced gaze.
“I’m… my apologies, Director.”
She sighs, looks away herself. She hates these games, their necessity. Especially with Jordan. She’s protected him ever since his initiation five years ago. One Librarian misfit ought to watch out for another, she thought.
“Tell me what’s bothering you, Jordan.”
“I just wish you’d get out more. See the city.”
“I’m seeing the city right now.”
“In the city, not above it.”
“I’m the Director Librarian.” She gives her title every ounce of demanded weight.
To her surprise, he meets her eyes again. He’s brave, and she loves him for it, fiercely as a mother lion.
“There’s a woman I know. Friend of a friend. I think you’ll really like her, Director. I think… maybe you could finally find a companion. A friend.”
Dangerous ground, again. She has hinted things to Jordan over the years, but never said anything that could be held against her if his memories were monitored—and all their memories are monitored.
“I have friends,” she says.
She swallows. “You. Dee. Arch-Librarian Terry.”
Jordan checks them off on his fingers. “Your clerk, your Memory Keeper AI, and your immediate superior? That’s not a partner. Or a lover.”
Careful, Jordan. Steel in her voice. “What would you know
Jordan holds his ground. “More than you think.”
The moment hangs there, two swords locked in battle. She shakes her head. Her heart is pounding too quickly.
“Jordan,” she says softly, “I’m going to have to suppress this.”
“I know. I don’t care. I needed to tell you. I’m worried about you, Director. I wish you could feel again what it’s like out there, in the world.”
“Who feels it more than me? I have their memories.”
“But Seshet,” he says. This time her solitary name touches her like a caress. “What about your own?”
Little Delta’s downtown spans five blocks of shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs, each one duly approved by New Dawn’s Chamber of Standards. It has the reputation of being small but well curated, and on the weekends people from several towns over fill the adjacent parking lots to reward themselves for their hard workweek in Standards-approved fashion. There are always lines outside the commercial memory recollectors on weekend nights, crowds eager to exchange a few memories for points to top off their cards and buy another round.
Seshet moves steadily through the crowd, hoping for at least medium anonymity. No one would expect the Director Librarian to be out among the citizens of her city on a Friday night, let alone looking for the newest bar on Hope Street. Jordan selected her clothes himself: “Fashionable, but not trendy. Not calling attention to yourself, but not hiding either.”
Seshet had sighed. “A Black woman in the business district in better clothes than theirs? I couldn’t hide if I wanted to.” The moment held. These weren’t things normally stated aloud.
Her clerk, who looked like the chosen of New Dawn but would never fit easily in their tight folds, gave her a faint, bitter smile. “No,” he said. “That’s why you have to hide under a spotlight.”
Perhaps that explained the navy-blue beret he’d put at a rakish angle over her close-cut hair. It was the finishing touch of an ensemble designed to make people pay more attention to her clothes than her face.
A group of loutish young men standing outside a crowded beer garden pay too much attention, giving her stares hard enough to break bones. She hurries past them, shoulders back, face slightly averted, as they laugh and elbow one another. Her heart starts to race, triggered by somatic memory, ancestor-rooted and atavistic, beyond erasure, even for the cleaners at the Temple. “Hey!” one of them calls. She ignores him. The map on her chronoband says the bar is just at the end of the block.
More laughter, pointed as barbed wire. “Hey, you! Hey, Librarian Seshet!”
She freezes for a fraction of a second, jerks her head sharply toward them: a blur of pastel-shirted white boys, folded over, eyes squinting as though in pain, lips puckered. “Seshet, Director Librarian!” the joker calls, emboldened by his fellows. “Give me a good memory tonight, won’t you?”
Does she recognize him? Would she know his memories from the thousands that crowd her mind? But shock and fear prevent her access to them as cleanly as a lungful of Nevermind. She does not know anyone. She does not recognize anything. Only luck breaks the spell: a woman from the next table over—Taiwanese American, architect, midthirties, went through Counseling last year after a tough breakup, hardly remembers her ex any longer, so Seshet does for her—swings toward the men and bangs her pint on the table hard enough for the maple-tinted foam to spill over the sides. “Leave her alone, you assholes!”
At first Seshet wonders if the architect is defending her out of gratitude. Then she remembers that they have never actually met. One of the Standards Authorities on the block belatedly approaches the men and they back away, laughing with a kind of sheepish bravado that she’s only ever witnessed in young white men. A beat too late, she understands: They don’t know who she is at all. They just saw what she is, and for them that was more than enough. Seshet nods with chilly dignity to the architect (she ignores the Standards Authority, laughing with the boys even as he issues a warning) and resumes a steady, even stride. She swings her arms so her hands won’t betray that ghostly rattle in her heart. She is the Director Librarian, after all, though they would never believe it. She will keep her head high until the day they take it off her shoulders.
She is carrying herself just like that, sharp as a hawk, graceful as a jaguar, dignified as a goddess, when she strides into Hope Street’s trendiest new establishment and sees her.
Her: a lone woman, legs crossed, quietly sipping a drink chlorophyll-green at the end of a long chrome bar, heart-stoppingly beautiful. Seshet has never seen her before, not even in her city’s memories. She knows anyway. Her. The one who wields the executioner’s ax. The one who will make Seshet bow before she falls.
Excerpted from The Memory Librarian, copyright © 2022 by Janelle Monáe.