Amy Goldschlager Reviews Emergency Skin Audiobook by N.K. Jemisin

Emergency Skin, N.K. Jemisin; Jason Isaacs, narrator (Brilliance Audio, $1.99, digital download, 1 hr., unabridged) September 2019.

SF thriller author Blake Crouch solicited and edited six stories about possible futures for his Forward anthology, all of which are available separately, both as ebooks and audio productions narrated by an array of actors.

My favorite story in the bunch, as well as the greatest text/audio matchup in the series, was N.K. Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin”. Who better to embody a society of white supremacist plutocrats than Jason Isaacs, who once played the supercil­iously evil, magical racist Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films? The plutocrats in question ditched the Earth in the throes of environmental and sociopolitical crisis to live on their own distant planet. Periodically, the ruling class, who call themselves “the Founders,” send a peon to the Earth to pick up a fresh supply of a specific kind of cells to bring back to their planet, used for skin and immortality. (Sometimes listening can obscure key facts that would be clearer if you read them. At first I thought Isaacs was calling them “hilar cells,” and I didn’t know what they were. Then another character referred to them as “scraps of cancer” and I realized that what he was actually saying was “HeLa cells,” which added a whole layer of complexity and nastiness to the story. This very white society requires clones of the so-called “Immortal” cells extracted from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who died of cancer; the genetic material of her disease proved to have important qualities that were ruthlessly exploited without compensation to her family.) As the protagonist reaches his goal, he gradually realizes that very little about what the Founders have told him about Earth, his mission, and himself is true.

The tale is a fascinating experiment in story structure, which I think is even more effective in audio than as simple text: We never hear the protagonist himself speak. Instead, we only hear from the people (and the AI copies of the Found­ers sent with him on his mission) responding to his words and actions. That protagonist-shaped hole in the story puts the listener at the center; it’s as if the voices are speaking to you. Thoughtful and interactive.

This review and more like it in the January 2020 issue of Locus.

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