Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsEmergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsEmergency 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.

N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin

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.

Published in September 2019. What will become of our self-destructed planet? The answer shatters all expectations in this subversive speculation from the Hugo Award–winning author of the Broken Earth trilogy. An explorer returns to gather information from a climate-ravaged Earth that his ancestors, and others among the planet’s finest, fled centuries ago. The mission comes with a warning: a graveyard world awaits him. But so do those left behind—hopeless and unbeautiful wastes of humanity who should have died out ages ago. After all this time, there’s no telling how they’ve devolved. Steel yourself, soldier. Get in. Get out. And try not to stare. N. K. Jemisin’s Emergency Skin is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.


  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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