Sprawling, ambitious science fiction stories have been part of Janelle Monáe’s music since the beginning of their career. Their debut EP, Metropolis, and their first two albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, are all segments in a long Afrofuturist arc about a far-future android alter-ego character, Cindi Mayweather, who falls in love with a human, becomes an outlaw, and rises to messianic status. Their Grammy-nominated 2018 album Dirty Computer launches a new story, about a dystopic future where marginalized citizens — especially Black, female, and queer people — are likely to be identified as “dirty computers” and taken away to be reprogrammed by an oppressive regime.
Monáe further fleshed out Dirty Computer’s story in a 48-minute YouTube video starring Monáe as a victim of that regime, having their memories of their lovers (played by Tessa Thompson and Jayson Aaron) erased as part of their conversion to a “Torch,” a regime facilitator. The narrative expands further in the new book The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer, a collection of short stories credited to Monáe and various collaborators. In these five stories, outsider characters navigate the spread of the New Dawn regime, while a Black, queer woman named Seshet — the memory librarian of the title — tries to hold onto a position of power within New Dawn, even though she understands that she herself is at risk because of her identity.
Those questions of identity, memory, self-discovery, and the struggle to bridge multiple conflicting worlds reach throughout the stories Janelle Monáe tells in their music. They’ve been part of their film work as well, in movies like Hidden Figures and Moonlight. The five stories in Memory Librarian extend the ideas that have always fascinated them, bringing in new characters and new perspectives to further define the world suggested in Dirty Computer. The Memory Librarian is available now in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook editions.
Below, read an excerpt from Memory Librarian story “Save Changes,” written with author Yohanca Delgado. In this story, two sisters, Amber and Larry, live with their mother Diana. After being identified as a radical, Diana was taken by New Dawn and “cleansed,” which left her with apparent brain damage and erratic behavior. She’s now under house arrest and periodic New Dawn observation. The sisters each have their own ways of dealing with their anger and rebellion after the loss of the mother they remember. As they try to get by in a neighborhood dominated by intrusive policing drones (“NDRs”) and suspicious neighbors who now avoid them, they clash over what comes next for their family.
One of the first family portraits they had taken, long before their mother was detained, hung near the foot of the stairs and Amber had to pass it as she followed Larry.
Their father had saved up for a fancy camera, a heavy, clunky thing that Larry kept after he died. He had set it up on a tripod and the four of them had gathered around the couch, laughing. Here was Larry, dressed in a shirt buttoned all the way up, with a hideous bolo tie that made her look like she’d been plucked out of some old-timey 1990s movie and plopped onto the Melos’ couch. She was sitting crisscross applesauce and her goofy smile revealed a missing front tooth. And here was Amber: standing behind the couch — on a stool, she remembered — eyebrows meeting over an anxious smile, her dark curls, barely restrained by a hair clip, casting a shadow on her face. She looked uncomfortable in her frilly dress, even though she herself had chosen it. Larry and Amber were miniature versions of who they would become: Amber could see that now.
But the real star of the photo was their mother, sitting on the couch next to Larry, with all three of them — Pablo, Amber, and Larry — unconsciously leaning toward her, like flowers tilting to sunlight. She wore a black sheath that showed the sinewy muscles in her arms, and her hair was a halo of wild golden curls. Their mother leaned back against their father and looked relaxed and happy. She wasn’t even smiling, but the serenity of her expression said it all. It seemed almost impossible that the same woman was in the kitchen behind them, at this moment baring her teeth and buzzing constantly around the kitchen like a trapped bee.
Once they’d taken a few shots with the timer, her father had hustled over to the camera and looked at the pictures on the tiny screen. “Let’s bring Am-barr into the light. We can’t have our prettiest girl in the shadows.” But by then, their mother had gotten up and smoothed her dress. Larry had already slipped the bolo tie over her head and set about pushing Amber off her stool, while she clung to the back of the couch, squealing.
That photo was Amber’s real favorite, the one in which their father was heading toward the camera, while their mother rose up, lost in thought, and Larry and Amber wrestled. She didn’t think to look at it often, but she had it tucked into the mirror of her bedroom dresser.
And, anyway, there hadn’t been many family photos after that. It was as if knowing the camera was there made it seem less important, somehow. This smiling photo, the one her father had chosen, had been hanging here for years and Amber rarely stopped to look at it. But even as she heard Larry’s footsteps climbing toward the roof, something stopped Amber at the foot of the stairs and sent her hand up to her neck, to the comforting weight of the larimar stone against her sternum.
Her father hadn’t talked about his childhood much, but Amber knew he’d grown up in the mountains of the Dominican Republic and that instead of going to school, he had been put to work in the vertical shafts of the larimar mines, digging for rare ocean blue the earth had hidden there, bright as anything. And maybe that was it: those who do the work are rewarded with magic.
But he had failed to use it when it mattered. They had seen their mother taken away in handcuffs, the pompified run-up, and the inevitable Nevermind cleansing of the group of rebels who had tried to incite a revolution. They all watched, even Pablo — that’s all he had done. Watch.
Except, of course, when the live broadcast began of his wife in a white hospital gown, strapped in for cleansing. Then, he had left the room.
And who could blame him? Amber had stayed, but she didn’t remember it herself. All she could recall was sitting down to watch it and feeling as if she were the one being erased — and wasn’t it true? That by taking away a piece of her mother, New Dawn was erasing a part of Amber?
And, of course, then their mother stayed gone, because there were internments, reprogramming, Torch training — all of it televised as a warning to everyone else. She was hardly recognizable, their mother, in the footage. Artificially bright and co-operative. Here she was, processing paperwork at a Nevermind facility, cheerfully shredding militant contraband, escorting desperate-eyed people to their cleansings.
And all of it might have been prevented. It was so hard not to resent her father for waiting to give her the larimar until he was on his deathbed. He had waited until his own days were counted to tell her that it could rewind time.
Amber didn’t believe him at first, assuming that this was near-death rambling, but Pablo was firm. “Use it wisely,” he said. “You only get one.”
Up on the roof, the sisters sat leaning against the barriers and looking up at the sun, which showed no signs of waning. It was a small, bare roof, home only to a few highband network antennas. Before their mother had been erased, she had brought her daughters up here and told them that the New Dawn drones rarely buzzed up to the roofs of low buildings like theirs. Though the inside of the house was almost certainly bugged, the sisters weren’t sure if the roof thing was still true. Still, they came here whenever they really wanted to talk in private.
Larry lit a cigarette.
“Disgusting,” Amber said. “And it will kill you.”
“My mother is downstairs, Am-barr,” she said, drawing out the rolling r the way their father used to. “I don’t need supervision.”
“I think she might have something to say if she could see you.”
“Good thing she can’t come up here, then, huh,” she said, taking a long drag.
“What’s up with the bracelet?” Amber said. “A gift from a friend.”
“Still reckless and stupid. What’s new?”
“Having a friend? What do you want me to do, Amber? Roll over and play dead, like you? Take up tinkering with little fucking clocks?”
“My clocks and watches don’t get me in trouble. Remember the last time your love life almost got us all detained?”
“I was in high school, Amber! What did I know?”
“Right. And since that was so long ago, I’m assuming that you know what the rules are by now?”
“And what is it with the clocks, anyway?” Larry said, ignoring her and ashing into the empty street below. “I don’t know what you and your little fetish are waiting for, but this is it. Look at our life: Our mother is fucked up and on house arrest. Papi is dead. Do you hear me? Dead. We are basically orphans. Nobody is coming to save us. This is the only life we get. Wake up, Amber, this is it.”
Amber reached over and took a drag of Larry’s cigarette. “Easy for you to say. You get to be carefree and have fun while I do all the worrying and clean up all your messes. You don’t think I’d like to go on a date?”
Not that it mattered — no New Dawn-fearing family would let their offspring date a Melo sister. Amber had learned that the hard way. Whoever Larry was dating had to be outside the system.
Which made it all the more worrying.
Larry leaned back and pushed her shoulders against the wall so that she could look Amber in the eye and laugh. She lit another cigarette and took a long inhale.
“Her name is Natalie and—”
“Break it off.”
Larry scoffed. “I’m seeing her tonight. Don’t make such ugly faces,” she said, switching into her impression of their mother. “One day your face will freeze like that.”
“Do you hear yourself? You’re going to get us all caught up and cleaned.”
Larry laughed again, but this time the muscles in her jaw clenched. She stubbed out her cigarette and put it in her jeans pocket.
“I’m coming with you,” Amber said.
“Hard pass. Don’t be ridiculous.” Larry put her palms on the concrete and pushed herself up.
Amber grabbed her sleeve and pulled her back down. “I have Papi’s stone, remember?” She pulled the long gold chain out from under the collar of her T-shirt and held it up to Larry. It was an impossible blue-green, the crystalline shade of the Caribbean Sea, or so their father had told them. When Amber looked at it, she could almost see through the clear waters of it to a different world, a future wonderful beyond her imagination. “If anything happens, if we get caught, I can—”
“Oh god. This again.” Larry glanced at the stone and gave Amber a long, pitying look. “That shit isn’t real, Ambo. Look at our life. Look at what good it’s done us.”
“I won’t make the same mistake Papi made,” Amber said, almost pleading. “I won’t wait.”
Larry brought her head close to Amber’s and squeezed her shoulder. “Do you really still think that’s what he was doing? Holding out for something more important than saving his own wife?”
“Maybe he thought something might happen to us — to you and me — something worse than what was happening to her.”
“Or maybe it isn’t real. Maybe it’s just a nice story and maybe it’s just a pretty stone.” Larry gently tapped the side of Amber’s forehead with her index finger. “Ever think?”
“Papi believed,” Amber insisted as she swatted Larry’s hand away.
“Well, that’s your problem,” Larry said. She got up and extended her hand down to Amber again. “Both of you, really. Sitting around doing a lot of believing and not much else.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Amber said, taking Larry’s hand, standing up, and then immediately snatching it back. “Somebody has to care about what happens to this family.”
“Your believing and your larimar aren’t doing shit for us, Amber.” Larry leaned out on the barrier and looked down at the near-empty streets below. “Ever think about what New York used to look like?”
She had changed subjects again. Amber leaned out next to her. “I’m going with you.”
“Just, like, people everywhere, you know? Crowds. Cars. Noise. Life.” Larry turned to go inside, but not before punching Amber lightly on the shoulder.
“Fine, come along. That little stone won’t do jack, but at least you’ll get out of this depressing-ass house. Mom can babysit your clocks — but tell her not to cook them.”
Larry’s room was on the second floor of the brownstone, right across from Amber’s, but Amber couldn’t remember spending any time in her sister’s room since they’d started college. There were piles of clothes and textbooks everywhere and the walls were as bare as she remembered. Larry’s drawings, all in black and white, were piled high in a corner by the dresser, surrounded by little nubs of charcoal. She had always been the most talented in her art classes and if it weren’t for their family’s reputation…
No use thinking about that, right?
It had taken some rummaging, but she had followed Larry’s orders and dug up a pair of bell-bottom jeans, which would be the most likely to obscure their hover blades. She liked the way they looked, she decided, padding over to Larry’s long mirror in her socks and doing a shy half turn to look at her own butt.
“They look good, Amber, you know they do. Stop being scared of your own reflection,” said Larry. She was also wearing bell-bottoms, and a dark blue top tied at the midriff. Her hair was slicked back and she wore no jewelry except for Natalie’s bracelet.
“Why don’t you ever wear your amber? From Papi?”
Amber reached under the collar of her T-shirt, wrapped her fingers around the larimar and let it drop again.
“What does it matter?” Larry abruptly got up from her bed and headed to her open closet, which was bursting with rumpled clothes drooping from lopsided hangers.
“It’s the last thing Papi gave us, isn’t it?” But she could tell Larry wasn’t paying attention. Amber sighed and sat down on the carpet to pick through Larry’s makeup bag, which was spread out on the floor in front of the mirror. She didn’t want to start a new fight. They’d reached an uneasy détente, and though Amber hated the circumstances, she sort of liked that they were doing something together, for once.
She was trying hard not to think too far ahead, though the images of New Dawn vans and the memory of their mother’s arrest kept cycling through her mind. What were the chances that this would end well? She had even considered staying behind and letting Larry go on her own. Who knew how many times she’d gone out before and made it safely home? But could she ever forgive herself if something went wrong and she wasn’t there?
Larry looked back at her for a moment, tilted her head to the side, and then swiveled back to her closet. “You look so good in yellow and I think I have a shirt—”
“Really, Larry, why don’t you ever wear it?” Amber jumped up and started pawing through Larry’s dresser. “Did you lose it?” “Natalie wears the necklace,” Larry said, gently pulling Amber back in order to hold up a mustard-yellow blouse with tiny flowers on it. “Groovy, baby.”
Amber’s jaw dropped. How serious was this relationship, that Larry had given Natalie something so precious, so full of memories? Amber did not know what to say, so she said nothing. She put on the blouse and it did look good. Larry nodded with satisfaction and then wandered back to her closet.
“Put some shimmer on,” Larry said, her voice muffled as she rooted around on the floor underneath the racks of clothes. “Live a little. Better to look good if they catch us and put our mug shots out on the feed.”
“Not funny,” Amber said, but she dipped a brush in a shimmery powder and swiped it across her cheekbones, in part because she needed to do something with her hands and in part because she did look pretty when she turned her face to catch the light.
Amber smoothed on a bit of eye shadow and watched Larry’s back in the mirror as she pushed aside racks of clothes, rummaged for something behind them, and emerged with their father’s old camera.
“Got it! Remember, it does video too?” Larry pushed a button and the lens extended itself, as if stretching after a long night of sleep. “It still works!”
The sound reminded Amber of a rover. “Nope, nope, nope,” she said, leaping up and reaching for the backpack before Larry had finished zipping it closed. “Are you trying to feed evidence directly to New Dawn?”
“It’s just our own memories, for us,” Larry said quietly, even as she let Amber put the camera back in the closet it had come out of.
“We’re doing enough stupid risk-taking for one day, don’t you think?”
Larry didn’t have anything smart to say back, for once.
It took a few minutes to locate their mother, and when they did, they found that the door to her bedroom was locked. They listened for a moment and heard some muffled sounds they couldn’t make sense of. Through the door, they told her they were going for a walk and she called out something about being careful, but she sounded so distracted that the sisters exchanged a glance as they walked to the front door.
“What’s she doing in there, you think?” Larry asked.
“Who knows? Probably knitting a sweater out of barbed wire or something.”
Larry snorted, but the sisters said nothing else until they were on the street in their hover blades, and Amber seemed to have sprouted eight legs, all rolling in different directions on the motorized wheels.
“You used to wear these all the time,” said Larry, laughing. “I thought you remembered.”
“I thought I did too,” said Amber, careening into a parked car and setting off an alarm. Glancing back toward home, she caught a flash of movement from Mrs. Perez’s window before the curtains snapped shut again.
“Okay, we can’t start dealing with NDRs yet,” Larry said urgently, grabbing her firmly by the arm. “I got you. Bring your feet parallel to each other — not too close — okay, and keep them there. I’ll pull you until your muscles remember.”
It took a few more minutes of spaghetti-legged panic, but Amber’s feet did remember how to skate. The adrenaline helped as she scanned the street signs and focused on following Larry.
Though there were no laws against going out at night, few people did. It simply wasn’t worth the risk of an interaction with New Dawn. But there was some movement here and there, mostly people making their way to or from night shifts and the occasional patrolling rovers overhead. The city felt like a ghost of what it used to be, and though Amber had never seen it in her lifetime, she could somehow imagine it as Larry had on the roof: the people, the noise, the chaos.
The Riverside Drive Viaduct wasn’t far from their house and Larry led them to it in lazy circles, with detours and slow zigzags down smaller streets. The worst thing you could do, Larry had explained, was lead a drone to an off-grid location.
The system worked because people gathered in the shady parts of the city, blighted places New Dawn didn’t think worth regularly patrolling, and the goal was to avoid bringing attention to them. The lucky thing, Larry had said, was that Black and brown neighborhoods like Harlem and Hamilton Heights were full of blind spots, magical places where you could make all the noise you wanted.
Amber remained skeptical that any of this was true and her hand kept drifting up to the larimar against her sternum. Only a few blocks from home, they encountered the first NDR, planted in the middle of an empty street for routine checks. There was no one around, and the drone whirred hopefully from side to side to prevent anyone from making their way down the street unidentified. Larry grabbed her hand and pulled her down another side street and they continued their downhill descent, with Amber constantly looking over her shoulder for blinking red lights.
At the halfway point, Larry put out her arm and signaled Amber to a stop. She slung one backpack strap off and brought it against her stomach, taking out two full-face masks: a gold feathered one that she handed to Amber, and a leather one with cat ears for herself. Larry had explained that the masks confused the drone face readers, but that it was best to wait to put them on until they’d gotten away from their neighborhood.
Amber began to feel a bit more confident in her mask, and she was almost enjoying the speed and the balmy summer air as they glided smoothly down the hill toward the Hudson River. In the evening quiet the sound of distant music seemed to grow closer and louder, until at the bottom of the hill — where the street met Twelfth Avenue — two hazy figures appeared. Side by side, they didn’t move. There was something monstrous about their heads that chilled Amber’s heart, especially against the backdrop of the massive steel arches of the viaduct, which soared up behind the silhouettes in the darkness.
Though she could hear loud music and laughter from somewhere close, Amber started to brake, suddenly keenly aware that she did not belong here.
Larry squeezed her arm quickly and whispered, “It’s their masks, you baby, don’t stop.” She pulled her toward the two figures and as they drew closer, they became two ordinary men, wearing jeans and hover blades themselves. One wore a mask shaped like a rat’s head and the other a pigeon.
“Hey,” said the pigeon in a muffled voice, the soft plastic twisting and contorting as he spoke.
“Hey. Thank you,” said Larry as they parted to let them pass. She shook hands with each of them, in a gesture that seemed both oddly formal and naively trusting to Amber, but she followed suit. She was surprised when the pigeon put a second hand on top of hers and said, “Welcome.”
She looked into the mask but could see nothing but the distorted plastic beak.
“Okay,” she said, stupidly. The pigeon nodded back and the sisters skated to the bottom of the street.
Amber looked back at them. “Shouldn’t they be asking for a special password? What if we’re spies?”
“Everyone knows who we are, thanks to Mom, remember?”
Larry said. “And besides, we want everyone to feel welcome.” “We,” Amber said in a shrill little whisper. “‘We’?”
Amber wanted to insist on an answer, but she went quiet as they rounded the corner and the viaduct expanded above them, the majestic lattice of steel arches darkening everything except the explosion of music and color before them.
There were at least a hundred people, dancing and mingling.
Somehow, it was like the city she always thought New York was meant to be.