I was getting my morning fix of news today, form a variety of outlets, when I saw on Vox that Janelle Monae’s movie, Dirty Computer, has finally been released. For her first couple of albums, she was inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis to adopt an alternate “archandroid” persona named Cindi Mayweather. Now comes Dirty Computer and, as Vox says:

Dirty Computer tells the story of Jane 57821, a defiant free spirit who lives in a near-future dystopia and takes joy in celebrating herself, her love for fellow rebel Zen (Tessa Thompson), and the queer black community that accepts them both. But when we meet her, she’s strapped to a chair in a stark facility, where a disembodied voice tells her she’s “a dirty computer” due for a cleaning.

I’m a big fan of Monae so I immediately had to follow the link to YouTube and see it for myself.

Here are my assorted musings on this experience, for what they are worth. The running time, which is displayed in the lower left hand corner for a moment before the YouTube video player gets out of the way, is an impressive 48 minutes. It looks good from the get go, and keeps on that way. It has a voiceover monologue but thankfully they keep this chunk of dialogue mercifully short.


Then we meet Jane 57821, who is just a fascinating woman. The sci-fi concepts surrounding her are cool too, such as floating spherical drones used to do traffic stops on people driving while black. It is very reminiscent of the imperial sphere enforcers from the concept art done by Ralph McQuarrie for A New Hope. They didn’t make it into the movie except for the torture drone on the Death Star. Jane is driving a vehicle very reminiscent of Luke’s landspeeder when the traffic stop happens which just makes the parallel all the more obvious.

I’ll take a moment here to plug my sci-fi novel, then we can get back to my musings on Dirty Computer.

Galaxy Dog (Dark Galaxy) Start Reading the Dark Galaxy Trilogy

The first book in the Dark Galaxy Trilogy, always the best place to start, is Galaxy Dog. It’s a little more old-school and fun than a lot of the sci-fi that is around at the moment. It has spaceships, robots, battles, and brave warriors rebelling against an evil empire. Click the book cover and go to the storefront you prefer to buy it now, or follow this link.


Along with the engaging main character, and cool, sci-fi concepts, it doesn’t take long to notice how great the music is and how well it works with the visuals. Monae has always had a love of cinematic music, and there is even talk of her having to tone this down in her music if she hopes to reach a mainstream audience. The costume and set choices are less cinematic, and sometimes even speak of a low budget, but I love that. For me, a child of the 70s, sci-fi is at its most delectable when it has to fight such constraints. It looks like an episode of Blake’s 7, but with better lighting. Believe me, in my view at least, that is high praise.


The acting is great, too. Having Tessa Thompson and her riveting screen presence as part of the cast certainly doesn’t hurt with this. Monae has a screen presence too, but it is more tentative and cerebral, like somebody who is overthinking every move. Even when she is commanding the stage, at her most comfortable, when she is rapping or inhabiting another character, she isn’t ever completely in the moment, which makes her fascinating to watch on screen.

Because Dirty Computer was made to promote an album, among other motivations, it is a sci-fi musical. I’m a fan of musicals, having acquired the taste watching them endlessly repeated on British TV as a kid so I understand the genre, and I’m on board with its tropes, as long as they are done well. They are in this movie, where each musical interlude is either one of Jane’s memories of a time before being incarcerated in a brainwashing facility, or a fever dream of imagery happening in Jane’s mind while undergoing the reprogramming attempted in the facility. It is a mechanic that works very well to contrast the vibrant life possible outside the facility with the antiseptic boredom and constraints within.

There were great elements in every song, like the rapping she does on a lot of the numbers. I’ve been a fan of rap since the old-school days of Public Enemy and NWA, and Monae can “drop science” as they used to say. Her voice sounded a little tired to me at one point when she was rapping, maybe a hint at just how hard she was working on this project.

The movie also includes scenes where the characters’ minds have been messed with by whoever runs this nightmare future. An old friend, Mary Apple 53 turns up in the weird lab Jane 57821 is taken to for reprogramming, for example, and Jane doesn’t remember her. In a nod to Orwellian double speak, this facility is called the House of the New Dawn. The gas that takes away memories is called Never Mind, in a similar Orwellian play on words.

These are classic sci-fi issues, most recently addressed by Legion, but before that by Total Recall, The Matrix, or just about anything by Philip K Dick. This movie is science fiction created by someone who loves it, especially – I suspect – in its old-school manifestations.

I think the movie is old school because the movie also looks at gender, and the way people of different genders and orientations will have to accommodate each other in the future, or not. This is also an ancient concern of sci-fi, from the very earliest days. There is a chorus in this movie that goes:

Everything is sex, except sex, which is power.

There is absolutely no doubt that this classic concern is at the center of this movie’s take on sci-fi, refracted through a very contemporary lens on gender and sexuality. The mix of rap and more lyrical singing allows her to really riff on all these issues. Just as the plot and aesthetic is centered round them.


There is a great scene where two male techs are watching Jane’s memories with a cup of coffee, and enjoying them. Some of the memories they watch are quite hallucinogenic, such as Pink, and one of the techs even says that he isn’t sure if what they are looking at is just a memory. We see Pink, just as Jane is forced in the antiseptic facility to huff down a huge quantity of the memory robbing smoke that is Never Mind. As the firings of the brain under extreme duress being expressed as an ultra-saccharine pop ballad with a subversive subtext, it works extremely well, and it made me grin like a loon. I loved it.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I found it perfectly in keeping with the twist expected of a sci-fi short story, and the downbeat, ambiguity of a classic sci-fi movie ending. The pensive look on Jane’s face at the end leaves us in no doubt that it us up to us how we interpret this climax. Jane herself has no idea at all how things are going to turn out, just as none of us do in real life.

Dirty Computer is online, to watch for free, so treat yourself. That’s my advice to any lover of sci-fi.

Galaxy Dog (Dark Galaxy) Start Reading the Dark Galaxy Trilogy

The first book in the Dark Galaxy Trilogy, always the best place to start, is Galaxy Dog. It’s a little more old-school and fun than a lot of the sci-fi that is around at the moment. It has spaceships, robots, battles, and brave warriors rebelling against an evil empire. Click the book cover and go to the storefront you prefer to buy it now, or follow this link.