Short Story Saturday: “Emergency Skin”


Today, I figured I’d look at another short story by N.K. Jemisin: 2019’s “Emergency Skin,” which was published on Amazon as part of a collection called Forward. Seeing as how the story is quite new, and thus not in the public domain, I wasn’t really able to find a link to the full text online. But the story itself is, like 2 bucks on Amazon (free if you have Prime), so it’s not really that hard to find.

Anyway, let’s get on with it.

One of the first things you’d probably notice about the story is that it’s written in the second person, as opposed to first or third. This isn’t a super common narrative structure, and one I’ve mostly only found in Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid. And about 1/3 of the Broken Earth trilogy…by N.K. Jemisin.

Seriously, if you haven’t read that trilogy you should, it’s amazing. But I digress.

Anyway, we start of with the narrator talking to “you,” and telling you how beautiful you’ll be after you’ve finished your mission and gotten your reward. That reward turns out to be skin; turns out you’re from a civilization where only the higher-ups get said skin, and the lower classes have to make do with composite suits to keep their bits inside. Basically, if you succeed at the mission, you’ll get perks like skin and hair and a face.

The narrator specifically mentions the hair you’ll get as being blond, so that kind of gives you an idea of what the beauty standards for this place are like.

So, the narrator turns out to be a kind of gestalt AI implanted in your head to assist with the mission. That mission turns out to be to go to Tellus, the birthplace of humanity, and get some cells to bring back to the planet, for nebulous reasons. The AI continues, saying that Tellus was destroyed by a horrible ecological disaster, and only the people of their colony survived. And that they survived because they only took the best and brightest with them, so there’s eugenics involved here. That’s nice.

Oh, and Tellus is Earth, by the way. Not sure if I made that clear.

Anyway, you go off on your mission, and as the ship gets closer, the AI starts to notice some weird things going on. For one thing, the debris and busted satellites that are supposed to be orbiting the Earth aren’t there. Also, the planet contains other things that aren’t supposed to be there, like trees, and the polar ice caps. The AI is confused by this, and only gets more confused momentarily.

See, there are also people on the planet. And not just a few eking out a meager existence: there are billions, and they seem to be thriving. Also, to the AIs horror, some of the people…

…Are brown. I suppose I should mention that during all this the AI is giving a running commentary about how ugly these people are, and how absurd it is that they give accomodations to the elderly and disabled. You know, in case you weren’t sure who’s supposed to be the bad guy here.

Anyway, the AI tells you to activate your “emergency skin,” a feature off the composite suit used in, well, emergencies. Basically, this is so you’d be able to blend in. And, of course, since most of the people are brown, blending in means you would be to.

So, this causes you to freak out, take a hostage, and get tasered.

When you wake up, you’re greeted by a woman named Jaleesa. The AI spends some time calling her fat, ugly, and him, which then leads into the revelation that your society basically got rid of all the women. Anyway, Jaleesa is actually very kind, and gives you what you came for: a cell culture called HeLa 7713

So, what you’ve seen so far raises a few questions, much to the AI’s ire. So, you decide to activate your emergency skin anyway and live among them for a while. The AI decries that everyone will hate you, but that turns out not to be the case as you are fed and generally cared for.

Then, eventually, you come across an old man who takes you to a museum. Here, we learn some more things: yes, there was a large exodus from the planet when things started to get bad, but it was mostly members of extremist groups, as well as the extremely wealthy people that were causing all the problems in the first place. The people that were left then decided to start trying to fix things, which they realized they could only do by working together.

So, states were abolished, and they actually managed to turn things around, again, simply by giving a shit about each other. Eventually some of the colonies returned, but others, like yours, were too stubborn.

This raises more questions, and you decide to stay longer, again, against the AIs wishes.

A month passes, and you decide to pay the old man a visit, since something’s been bugging you. Here, you learn something amazing: the old man was another traveller sent by your colony, for the same purpose. He was forced to stay becausee his ship was too damaged to fly.

Here we learn some other turths: the HeLa cells you were sent to get are used as the basis for almost all the colony’s technology, and others were sent here before to grab them. This is why people were generally friendly and gave you what you needed: they’d seen people like you before.

So, why does the colony not know Earth is fine? Well, it turns out that it’s more likely that what was awaiting you upon your return was a quick death rather than a new look. Basically, it’s within the ruling class’s best interest to keep this information a secret, since it likely would cause a revolt and lose them their source of cheap labor.

Now this causes you to come to a decision: you decide that you’re going to go home and usher in a revolution. The old man shows you how to turn off the AI while still being able to access its information, and the story ends.

So the moral here seemss to be that we should shoot all of the billionaires into space. No, not really, but rather that we’re going to need to come together and actually work at it if we’re going to solve our social and environmental ills. Though getting rid of the asshole politicians and resource hoarders that are causing the issue would be a good start.

Basically this story is a refutation of Malthusian theory, which is basically the idea that the Earth has too many people and not enough resources. This, actually, has been shown to not be true: we have enough for everyone, it’s just that some people are taking far more than their fair share. This story shows a society that values true equality: everyone’s needs are provided for, and because of that, they were able to avert or reverse a major catastrophe.

There’s a couple dudes who wrote a book all about that about 170 years ago that maybe you could also check out.

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