I make a point to read anything I can find by N. K. Jemisin, so here we go. Emergency Skin is a shorter piece of fiction and as such it lacks some of the depth and complexity one can find in more ponderous works, but it manages to pack a lot in its limited space.
Title: Emergency Skin
Author: N. K. Jemisin
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services
Publication Date: 17th September 2019
Genre: Science Fiction Novelette
Stand Alone or Series: Stand Alone (included in Forward, a collection of entirely independent stories by different authors).
Synopsis: Hailing from a exoplanet colony, an explorer is sent back to Earth on a mission to gather some precious biological material. He has a synthetic body rather than skin, and his actions are closely guided and monitored by an implanted AI, however he’s been promised a much desider physical upgrade and a better social standing once he has completed his delicate task. Once on Earth, however, he soon finds out that the planet isn’t the toxic wasteland he was led to believe, but home to a thirving and welcoming civilization. It turns out, after the world’s élites had left the planet to find a refuge in space, those who were left behind were able to pool their resources and work together to not only save their lives, but also build a much better society. The unnamed protagonist is thus induced to question everything he’d been told from his leaders, especially once he discovers that he’s not the first to be sent on a similar mission.
Analysis: The story is written from the point of view of the collective AI embedded in the main character’s brain, as they continually address him and spy on his actions: as a result, the narrating voice is an intrusive and very biased firts person plural, while the actual protagonist is addressed in second person and denied his own point of view. Such a stylistic choice could easily come across as affected and gimmicky, but N. K. Jemisin can pull it off very well. Far from being distracting or contrieved, this unusual perspective becomes an organic part of the worldbuilding, illustrating the false narratives and double truths that are a theme of the story – because of course, the AI will hold tight to their official version and try to undermine the protagonist as he gets acquainted with a very unexpected reality.
The sci-fi story doubles as a social commentary, challenging the narrative that idolizes lone geniuses, instead postulating that human brilliance is more a matter of generosity and cooperation; indeed, here not only those we were left behind as expendables were able to save themselves, doing much better on their own than under the guide of their former leaders, but the privileged élites that abandoned Earth as a lost cause, thinking they could conquer space thanks to their alleged superiority, are ultimately still in need of the underclasses they so much despise, as symbolized by the HeLa cells that our protagonist is meant to harvest. Besides, our unnamed explorer is introduced as a lowly subordinate, who’s however motivated by the hope to rise a higher status if he’s good at his job – but how much can he trust such a promise?
(And yes, I do see the irony of this being published as an Amazon exclusive).
None of this is subtle in any shape or form, and this is clearly by design. N. K. Jemisin is a renown advocate of the noble art of anvil-dropping, and while in lengthier works she takes the time to craft more sophisticated allegories for our world’s injustices, in these few pages the message is given unapologetically the spotlight. Once again, it’s a tricky choice but she makes it work.
Conclusions & Recommendations: Emergency Skin is a lovely read; it is simple without being trivial, and while it does want to teach us a lesson, it does so while remaining an entertaining story. It must be said, especially in comparison to some other works by the same author, the tone is way more hopeful and optimistic, if not necessarily lighthearted – which may be perceived as naive by more cynical readers, but may be a breath of fresh air for anyone worn out by hopeless dystopias.
Content Warning: Racism, classism, body shaming.