In 2018, Janelle Monáe released her third studio album, Dirty Computer, accompanied by a forty-nine-minute film of the same name. The film, which Monáe dubbed an “emotion picture,” linked together music videos for the album with a narrative about a totalitarian society that labels people as computers. Monáe appears in the film as Jane 57821, a so-called “dirty computer” undergoing a totalitarian “cleaning” process which involves wiping away her memories of unapproved activities, especially those related to sexual and gender identities outside the cisgender heterosexual normative. Monáe was no stranger to concept albums—her first two albums and preceding EP had been part of the multi-part Metropolis suite—but the Dirty Computer film delved more deeply into narrative. With The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer, Monáe continues this interest in narrative, exploring new aspects of the Dirty Computer world.
For The Memory Librarian, Monáe collaborated with five writers: Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas. The collection is proudly queer and Black, united by Monáe’s vision and sensibilities, while also reflecting the writing style and interests of each collaborator. Though I was familiar with the album and film before reading, I believe the collection also stands on its own, with each story providing the relevant backstory and worldbuilding to understand the story’s context. Each story is set in a different part of the Dirty Computer world—and possibly different times or eras within that world—and follows a new set of characters. The collection doesn’t necessarily need to be read in order. That said, there is thematic development within the collection, with the first two stories focused on the role of memory under the totalitarian regime of New Dawn and the last three exploring the manipulation of time as a mode of rebellion and escape. As Monáe writes in the introduction, “Breaking Dawn”: “To save memory, it was time to stop living only within the time we’d been given” (p. xi).
The collection opens with the title story (“The Memory Librarian”), written in collaboration with Alaya Dawn Johnson, followed by “Nevermind,” written with Danny Lore. This pair of stories examines the totalitarian workings of the Dirty Computer world from two sides: one taking the reader deep into the government of New Dawn, and the other taking the reader to the Pynk Hotel, a radical community trying to evade the notice of New Dawn. From both sides, we see a government that maintains control through physical violence, including raids with guns and chemical weapons, and invasive memory monitoring and erasure. More insidious, though, is how New Dawn’s claims about who is dirty and who is clean, who belongs and who doesn’t, are enacted through social and emotional violence on an interpersonal scale.
In “The Memory Librarian,” we see this through Seshet, the Director Librarian of Little Delta, responsible for the process of memory harvesting and monitoring that creates “beauty in order, pride in rigidity, and tranquility in a constant, sun-dappled present” (p. 3). Seshet is one of only a few Black women officials within New Dawn, and is distrusted because of who she is. She holds onto her position through savvy politics and internal control. She does not entirely buy the New Dawn party line, but tells herself, “whoever they put in her place will be far worse” (p. 3). Her uneasy peace is disrupted by two sources of pressure: a flood of non-memories that is clogging the memory collection system in Little Delta and a love affair with Alethia, a trans woman whose secrets are much closer to Seshet’s own past than she realizes. The story is taut with tension as Seshet tries to find the source of the non-memories before the leaders of New Dawn blame her for them, while also struggling with the loss of control inherent to falling in love and learning to trust someone else. The story depicts the nuance of Seshet’s power: her actions are constrained by the New Dawn system, but she also holds immense power over Alethia because of her ability to access her lover’s memories—and to edit them.
In “Nevermind,” we see the trauma and after-effects of memory erasure through Jane. This is the same Jane played by Monáe in the Dirty Computer film. After the events of the film, she and her lovers found refuge in the Pynk Hotel. Though the story takes place years after her escape from New Dawn, Jane continues to struggle to reclaim the memories she lost. The pressure increases throughout the story as New Dawn makes physical attacks on the Hotel. The implications of those attacks become more apparent when the story shifts to the perspective of Neer, another member of the Hotel. For Neer, like Jane, the Hotel is a refuge, but Neer’s gender identity doesn’t fit the expectations of some in the Hotel. The tension is familiar to anyone following anti-trans rhetoric in our own world. Jane describes the residents of the Hotel wanting to “escape from a world that dealt in painful binaries, in good or bad, dirty or clean.” (p. 92). But the story reveals that not everyone there is as willing to escape “painful binaries”—or willing to allow others to escape those binaries—as Jane thinks.
The focus shifts in the final three stories away from the workings of New Dawn to the revolutionary possibilities of time. In each of these stories, the characters find or are given access to a mechanism that shifts time in some way. In “Timebox,” written with Eve L. Ewing, hours can be spent in a pantry while minutes pass outside. In “Save Changes,” written with Yohanca Delgado, a larimar stone can undo events that have just occurred. And in “Timebox Altar(ed),” written with Sheree Renée Thomas, a group of children build a structure that transports them each to the future, to see the worlds they could create for themselves and the people they love.
Through their explorations of time, these three stories consider how totalitarian control erases the future as much as the past, and thus the ways in which claiming the future becomes an act of rebellion. Some of the most heartbreaking writing in the collection lies in the descriptions of how characters feel stuck in the present. In “Timebox,” Raven feels the full weight of a life of always sprinting to keep up, from a childhood spent hiding from authorities on the bus, through taking on second jobs in high school and college, and into the present:
She was running, always running—running to work, running to eat, running to class, studying at 2 a.m. while Akilah was fast asleep, dozing off at her computer, pinching herself, slapping herself, eating ice cubes to stay awake. (p. 185)
Raven is continually in motion, racing to keep up with her own life rather than living it. The discovery of the “timebox” in her new pantry is a revelation that allows her to imagine a different way of living, one in which she has time to keep up with school and work and also spend time with her family.
In “Save Changes,” Amber is the opposite of Raven. Instead of racing, she is frozen in place. This is dramatized in the opening scene in which we see her waiting to cross a street with a bag of groceries in hand. There isn’t any traffic, but the pedestrian signal continues to say “Don’t Walk,” and so Amber waits. She has to wait: when she drops an orange before the light changes and steps into the street to pick it up she is immediately stopped by a New Dawn drone. Amber doesn’t want to be noticed. She isn’t a rebel: “You had to choose your battles, and Amber’s policy was to not choose any at all” (p. 205). She is just trying to survive, and thinks the only way to survive is to try not to take any actions at all. The events of the story clarify for her how she can protect what matters to her most—and finally she makes a decision, and acts.
Finally, the four children in “Timebox Altar(ed)” are each bent under a load of fears and despairs from seeing family members broken by New Dawn, by illness, and by poverty. The story describes each child’s load as they enter this story’s version of a timebox, a contraption somewhere between an art installation and an altar. For example, Artis sags under the weight of protecting his little brother and of trying to find a way to go on despite all they have lost:
Grandpapa and even Artis’s friends believed New Dawn was the most dangerous thing in their world. But Artis knew that wasn’t true. Hope was. Having too much, having too little. Trying to work out that invisible balance so you don’t get crushed but also don’t float away was labor Artis didn’t always feel strong enough to do. (p. 299)
The story provides Artis, and all the children, with hope through their timebox, which transports them one by one into futures beyond New Dawn’s reach. They don’t remain in those futures, but their visions open up new possibilities that otherwise seemed impossible.
Unsurprisingly, given the collaborators Monáe chose, the writing throughout The Memory Librarian is strong. Any of these stories would be standouts on their own. The one awkwardness in the collection is in the transition between “Nevermind” and “Timebox.” This marks the shift from the focus on New Dawn’s memory control to the interest in time. What makes the transition awkward is that “Timebox” has the least to do with New Dawn. The totalitarian authorities are mentioned once in passing when Raven includes it in a list of things that could go wrong: “Or we could get kicked out of the building, or New Dawn … ” (p. 194).
Those ellipses are in the original, with the sentence fading out before Raven says what she fears New Dawn might do. It isn’t clear from this reference when the story takes place in New Dawn’s history. The city described in “Timebox” is more similar to an average American city today than to the cyberpunk-like descriptions in the other stories. The two main characters are queer women who don’t seem to be hiding their relationship, which would be labeled a deviance in the New Dawn described elsewhere. Perhaps this story takes place earlier in time; perhaps New Dawn isn’t yet an all-encompassing government. Ultimately, the status of New Dawn doesn’t matter to “Timebox” as a story on its own, but it stands out in a collection in which New Dawn is otherwise omnipresent.
It’s useful, though, to put “Timebox,” and The Memory Librarian as a whole, in context within the Dirty Computer oeuvre. Both the collection’s prologue (written by Monáe alone) and the beginning of the Dirty Computer film provide lyrical introductions to New Dawn. The film says: “They started calling us computers. People began vanishing and the cleaning began.” The prologue says: “The New Dawn seemed to be rising faster than the earth beneath our feet was rotating away from its umbra of surveillance” (p. x). These introductions communicate the impact of New Dawn, while leaving the exact progression of New Dawn’s growth, the ins and outs of dates and bureaucratic takeovers, to the imagination. There is a strain of speculative fiction that is particularly concerned with technical details, whether of technology or its own fictional histories; the Dirty Computer oeuvre does not belong to that strain. This is true to the narrative’s origination in a concept album, where the songs express thematic and emotional pieces of the story and the narrative links are left to the listener’s imagination. The film put the songs in greater narrative context and The Memory Librarian goes deeper still into narrative. And yet, it’s notable that Monáe chose a collection of stories rather than a novel as the next step. A collection of collaboratively-written stories seems like an appropriate continuation of a concept album which was also written, produced, and performed collaboratively.
In that context, the thematic development within The Memory Librarian feels more important than the narrative connections between the stories. “Timebox” is narratively distant from the other stories, but thematically connected through its exploration of time as a revolutionary, life changing force. At the same time, the setting of “Timebox,” which is so similar to a contemporary American city, reminds us that though New Dawn doesn’t exist, its foundations are all around us. As Monáe told The New York Times about the Dirty Computer album, “I put it off and put it off because the subject is Janelle Monáe.” With additional collaborators and in new mediums, the Dirty Computer world may have expanded beyond Monáe as subject, but it continues to explore the world that shaped her.