Across the Stars and Back Again | A Review of Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin

Are you not magnificent? Or you will be, one day. But first, you must earn your beauty.

N.K. Jemisin’s entry into the Forward Series—a series of short stories featuring noted SFF authors—is, in a word, masterful, seeking to answer the titillating question of what would happen if Earth got to the point that it was truly uninhabitable? If, in a last-ditch effort to save humanity, the elite, the best, left, taking themselves to the stars to start anew?

This premise is not one that is new in speculative fiction. It is not even outside the realm of reality, when we have men like Elon Musk existing in our timeline, and the notion of colonizing nearby planets like Mars isn’t entirely novel. Space is, after all, the final frontier, and humanity is ever seeking to expand beyond the natural boundaries given to it.

Emergency Skin’s draw, however, is not merely the idea that colonizing other planets is how humanity is saved—it is that the way in which it is saved is not by those who have left. Rather, humanity is rebuilt by those who have been left behind, by the ones that were expected to flounder in the remains of what the world used to be. In doing so, Jemisin creates a sharp critique and dissection on not only the concept of colonization on a universal scale, but on the inevitable processes through which those who are deemed ‘worthy’ to save humanity are chosen. Those who are desirable—the conventionally attractive, those who are white, men, the able-bodied, the mentally sound—they are the ones who will leave the rest of us behind and in their new world, their seemingly better world, will be the ones to create more like themselves to preserve and continue what remains of humanity.

The irony in this, is that they turn out to be less prosperous than the ‘inferior stock’ that they leave behind. Humanity, and Earth itself, is healed and rebuilt not through the practice of isolating the seemingly superior among the stars, but because those who have been left behind chose to work together as a collective, unsegregated and unencumbered by the disenfranchising power structures that led to Earth’s initial decline.

The idea of going something without immediate benefit, something that might only pay off in ten, twenty, or a hundred years, something that might benefit people they disliked, was anathema for the Founders. Even though that was precisely the kind of thinking that the world needed to survive.

Living on a planet that is not so slowly being ravaged by climate change, it’s not hard to see the fictional Earth of Emergency Skin as the near-future reality of the Earth we’re living on now. People who have the power to enact immediate, significant change through policy and practice, chose not to do so. Because it is not immediately beneficial to reduce or even remove the negative environmental impact of industries like oil or meat farms, or the number of companies that rely on plastic goods and other nonrenewable resources to thrive, even if it would mean the longevity of the planet on which we share space. The solution? Find a new planet to live on while we continue to bury this one under greenhouse gasses and clog the oceans with plastic.

Emergency Skin calls into question every conventional solution to the decline of the human race and how people chose to respond to that decline. How viable is it, really, to colonize other planets? And how viable is the notion that there will be those who are worthy and those who are not to carry on our species across the stars while the rest of us are left here to dwindle? Especially when those who would be making these choices would inevitably choose themselves, and the people like them? The idea of working together is often ridiculed when compared to cold, hard science, the power within eugenics to engineer human life, or old-fashioned logic that states that it only makes sense that the best of the best recreate Earth if it’s a means of survival. Rarely do people question what the best of the best actually means, nor do they question who gets to determine what and who that means. The Founders of Emergency Skin’s theoretical future share these ideas with our own contemporary elites, who would balk at the idea that the solution to humanity’s decline is collective efforts yet find the idea of packing up and road-tripping through space logical. 

N.K. Jemisin’s work is always keenly provocative, witty, and intelligent. Emergency Skin is no exception. Speculative fiction is a genre rip with the potential to explore and examine questions of human nature, as well as to dissect and critique. In a mere thirty-three pages, Jemisin accomplishes just that.

Emergency Skin is for you if you enjoy: poetic second-person writing, testy AIs and inquisitive explorers, narratives that challenge the status quo and inclusive speculative science fiction.

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