Tellus was left behind by the Founders, but there are important cell cultures still there that need to be harvested and brought back home. In this short science fiction tale, an AI narrates as it informs its carrier of the past and present as the Founders of its world saw things. You never hear the AI’s host speak, but you read the AI’s responses to his thoughts, speech, and actions and learn over the course of the story what the Founders were most afraid of.
What is Emergency Skin about?
Emergency Skin is about what is possible without the corrupt, the wealthy, and the imperialist in our world. Essentially, the story takes place from the perspective of an AI attached to a person from a colonized planet. This person has been created as a servant whose job is to obtain the important cell cultures from Tellus–what used to be Earth–and return them to the home planet where these cultures can be used to create appealing skin for the wealthy. This group of rich imperialists decided it was too expensive to fix Earth and chose to sacrifice its potential, and its population, in favor of going off and creating a new society where only the perfect are allowed to participate.
Upon arriving on Earth the AI and its host are confused to discover that the planet isn’t a wasteland as it was expected to be. Despite the host’s curiosity about the world that shouldn’t be, the AI is adamant that anything they see here is naturally inferior to what is available in their home planet.
Genre: Science Fiction
This is definitely in the wheelhouse of Sci-Fi and not dystopian writing, largely since you never see the obviously corrupt colonial planet that our AI and host come from and instead see the wonderful world that Earth became in their absence.
Tropes: Dystopian truths
Emergency Skin paints a picture of a dystopian world in which the wealthy elite ran off and are still making hierarchies in their new world. They manufacture serving classes of people just so they can continue to live the upper crust lives they want. The AI repeatedly points out that it was going to cost too much for the Founders to fix the world they were on, and yet it wasn’t too much to fix the world without them.
Plot: A racist AI’s descent into madness
Honestly this book is more concept than plot, and that works for it as a short story in a greater compilation series. But what little plot we’re working with does seem to be the maddening dismantling of the AI. As the narrator and main voice of the whole story, the AI repeatedly drives home the racists conceptions of the Founders that created it, unable to deviate from the company line. As it is defied, argued with, and contradicted it slowly begins to concede more ground. It admits to knowing things it previously lied about, and doubles down on other lies even as they’re disproven.
The way that Earth is discovered alive is genuinely surprising, and I do love the creeping sense of uncanny that comes with the initial descent by the AI and host into the city they find. I also loved the way the AI is constantly refuted, even though the host never directly speaks. And the interactions between the host and the man who takes him in, oh man! The way the man explains being a visitor himself, how he breaks through the AI’s fighting and points out what is and isn’t correct about the Founders. This was so well done and so insightful for what most of us now know about what we need to combat in modern society to fix systemic problems.
I so whole heartedly wish we could have heard more from the host’s perspective. The AI regularly responds to dialog that we never get to read and confirms or denies thoughts the host has, which at least gives us an idea of what’s happening that the AI cannot experience. However, I wish we’d at least heard the host’s half of conversations where the AI is chiming in halfway through.
For my most recent foray into science fiction, this was an amazing choice. NK Jemisin is clearly an author of great skill and insight. In just over thirty pages, Jemisin manages to introduce two entire worlds: the colonialized planet of the Founders and the improved Earth that developed without the burden of the greedy wealth hoarders. Emergency Skin doesn’t read so much as a warning or a hopeful insight as a call to action. If we on Earth could expel the worst of us then we could recover so much and create a better place. And Jemisin is absolutely correct in identifying the worst of us as racist, wealthy, hoarding colonialists.