Bingo: Strange Worlds; Passport: Dystopian science fiction
I read this brilliant, darkly funny novelette after hearing about it on an episode of Our Opinions are Correct, the science fiction podcast hosted by Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz, that analysed the impact of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfish individualism on the tech industry. In Rand’s own words: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Jemisin’s protagonist is a member of a Randian society that fled the planet they call Tellus centuries ago, expecting the troubled planet to collapse after the Founders had removed their superior selves and left the rest of the population to their fate. He has been sent back to Tellus on a mission, to obtain HeLa samples, an immortalised cell line made from the cells of an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks.
His story is told in the second person, by the unreliable narrator of the AI voice in his head, directing his mission, and attempting to gaslight him as the gulf between his society’s expectations of Tellus and the reality widens. This technique forces the reader to infer much of what is going on, while also serving as a metaphor for the voices of ideology and social pressure we all carry in our own heads, telling us we can’t believe what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears.
The only thing I didn’t like about Emergency Skin is that it wasn’t longer.