Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin
A single spaceman arrives on Earth (which he calls “Tellus,” a Latin word similar to Terra) on an important mission from a far-off planet that was colonized by a group of rich white men who left Earth centuries ago. The spaceman, as well as the collective AI that was implanted in his brain and constantly speaks to him in his mind, expected to find a world completely barren of life, decimated by climate change and toxic pollution. What they actually find is far different, and both the man and his chatty AI have huge problems adjusting to this new reality.
But can the man still fulfill his mission? If he succeeds, he’s been promised a beautiful pale (read: Aryan) skin when he returns home. On his planet, everyone except those in the highest class of society wears a featureless, high-tech artificial skin called a composite. But this man’s composite has the ability, in an emergency, to turn into human skin … though not exactly the skin he’s been promised.
Emergency Skin (2019), a science fiction novella by the highly-talented N.K. Jemisin, is cleverly told, with a timely and crowd-pleasing message (at least, the more liberal part of the crowd). It’s written in an unusual, slightly tricky style that takes a little getting used to. Primarily the narrative voice is that of the collective AI talking to the space traveler in his mind, and you also see what Earth’s inhabitants are saying to the spaceman. But Jemisin skips over what the man actually is saying back to them, so you have to do a healthy amount of reading between the lines.
The AI in the man’s brain incessantly badgers, instructs and indoctrinates the man (or at least tries to). The AI is described as a “dynamic-matrix consensus intelligence encapsulating the ideals and blessed rationality of our Founders”: essentially, it’s deep-coded with their planet’s social philosophy, and its one-sided dialogue is highly revealing about their society.
Emergency Skin is a hopeful book, and I loved that about it. It’s strongly anti-prejudice — in stark contrast to the spaceman’s society — and pro-socialism — also in contrast to his society. This novella is fundamentally message fiction that doesn’t care at all to be subtle about its message. On a personal level I’m dubious about the idea [HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL SPOILER] that socialism is a system that could save the planet and its ecology and form the basis of a utopian society if the selfish, sexist and otherwise horribly prejudiced men in power would go away [END SPOILER], but you can’t argue that this story doesn’t have a point of view. Given Jemisin’s past conflicts with Vox Day, I like to think she had great fun picturing Day, Trump and all their ilk jumping on a spaceship (taking as many of Earth’s resources with them as they possibly could, of course) and how that would play out. I had fun reading it, and I think most others will too.
Emergency Skin is part of the FORWARD collection proposed and curated by Blake Crouch. It’s a set of six stand-alone novellas, each by a different author, that explore the “resounding effects of a pivotal technological moment.” The other authors are Crouch, Veronica Roth, Amor Towles (author of A Gentleman in Moscow), Paul Tremblay and Andy Weir. You can buy the individual novellas in ebook form for $1.99 each or $5.94 for the whole set. I’ve bought the set and am looking forward to reading the rest.
I don’t mind message fiction if it’s also entertaining, and it seems like this one is.
It is an entertaining read! Lots of 5-star reviews from my Goodreads friends.