Hugo Novelette: Emergency Skin, N.K.Jemisin

A traveller returns to Earth in N.K.Jemisin’s novelette. Written as the statements from an assisting AI, with occasional dialogue from Earth inhabitants, the central protagonist is silent through out. They are essentially a blank space, both narratively and mechanically. Coming from a harsh, tidally locked world, the traveller lives in a kind of exoskeleton called a composite that protects them from toxic environments. The higher echelons of their society are granted natural skin as a mark of status. The traveller is on a mission to what they expect to be the ruins of Earth and, if successful, will be granted a beautiful outer human body (white, athletic, male) as a reward.

Jemisin has written a broad satire which makes no apologies for the overt politics of its premise. The space colony is the product of tech-billionaires who had fled an increasingly toxic Earth to establish their own better world based on their own “rational” principles. Meanwhile, the people of Earth have actually found their own solution to the problems beleaguering the planet and ironically it is the same one: get all the billionaires to leave and go and live somewhere else. Without them, humanity gets its act together and settles down into an Arcadian world of cooperation.

The premise is appealing and central irony of it is a clever hook for a story. I’m reminded of the classic children’s book Dinosaurs and All that Rubbish by Michael Foreman:

“From (1972) A man becomes so obsessed with reaching a faraway star that he destroys all the forests to fuel a rocket that can reach it. When he is gone, dinosaurs come out of hibernation and set about cleaning up the planet in a fable that is even more relevant today than when it was written.”

Perhaps “fable” is the right term here for the story. It knows that the premise is probably a bit to neat but that’s not really the point. [Oh and yes, I’m gratuitously connecting Hugo finalists to dinosaur fiction] If that’s all there was to the story, it would be a neat irony but would lack the impact.

Rather, uses broad strokes to make the premise clear but applies the finer detail in establish a character arc for a protagonist defined by what surrounds them. The skin of a character is what surrounds them and initially that is the culture of the colony planet personified by the AI construct dictating their actions. As they come into contact with the people of Earth, increasingly the voices are those of other people who help them and take care of them. Finally, a growing relationship with an old man brings further revelations about what they had left behind and what they have found.

It’s like eating good Thai food: BIG in your face flavours that somehow magically work with subtlety and nuance. Generally, I’ve preferred Jemisin’s long fiction to her short fiction but this novelette demonstrates just how effective a writer she is.

I listened to audiobook version (part of the Forward Collection) narrated by Jason Isaacs, which is as good a combination as it sounds.


5 responses to “Hugo Novelette: Emergency Skin, N.K.Jemisin”

  1. Very effective way of telling the story, but I just didn’t like it. Since “you” are the protagonist, it’s like having that horrible AI yelling at you inside your own head. I won’t be surprised if it wins, but I’m probably ranking it number six.


    • I didn’t think of myself being the protagonist but rather that the protagonist wasn’t visible to me – or that I was eavesdropping. But, yes, I can see the effect is off putting.


      • I felt it was an interesting approach to something gamers are very familiar with – the external helper voice, a la Navi in Ocarina of Time, determined to tell you what to do and where to go and how to do it, to keep “you”, the silent protagonist on track.

        I think I also enjoyed the story *because* I found the AI voice SO jarring from pretty much the beginning and that we have to try and shut the voice out. Games (like BioShock and Nier: Automata) are starting to experiment with similarly unreliable or untrustworthy narrators who are very obviously pushing you through the story or very much do not have your best interests at heart for one reason or another.


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