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Emergency Skin

By N. K. Jemisin 

21 Jun, 2024

Doing the WFC's Homework


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First published as part of Amazon’s Forward series, N. K. Jemisin’s 2019 Emergency Skin is a stand-alone science fiction novelette.

Accompanied by a helpful AI that is forever reminding of mission parameters, a brave (but unnamed) scout ventures in search of precious biological treasure to the hell-world known only as … TELLUS!

Which we call Earth.

Generations ago the Founders realized that Earth and its billions were beyond redemption. Leaving those billions to perish in the inevitable ecological collapse, the Founders used the top-secret Muskos-Mercer Drive to flee to an exoplanet of their choosing. There the Founders created a rigidly stratified utopia, far superior to the chaos of lost Tellus.

Lamentably, the new world is not entirely self-sufficient. Certain biological resources are only available on Tellus. Accordingly, the nameless scout and its AI minder have been sent back to what they are assured is a dead world to locate and retrieve that which their glorious masters demand.

With no consideration at all for the Founders, Tellus survived. Even more inconsiderately, humanity has survived, possibly even flourished. While this may facilitate locating the HeLa cells for which the scout was dispatched, this survival of people who will be of no use to the Founders just underlines how right the Founders were to build a world in which their needs and desires define society.

To the nameless scout and the AI’s alarm, the people of Tellus are adept at noticing and detaining uninvited visitors. To what end, the pair will soon discover.


I remembered that Emergency Skin won a Hugo. I misremembered the category: I thought this was a novella. Usually, I don’t review novelettes on their own. Ah well. My duties in end-of-year dance season allow me no time for do-overs. Agreeing to work Convocation left me with even less time than usual. As it turned out, Jemisin’s work would have been worth reviewing on its own even had I not been pressed for time.

SF is rich with stories of well-heeled visionaries somehow managing to construct and flee in starships, even when one would expect the ongoing environmental collapse of Earth to seriously impede such efforts. Emergency Skin is a critique of this trope: it’s pretty clear that Earth wasn’t used up. It’s just that the Founders were self-centered assholes who didn’t care to be inconvenienced by an ongoing crisis; rather than mitigate the crisis, they left to found a hell-world of their very own.

It’s also clear that the unpleasantness of their little colony isn’t an accident. They accomplished exactly what they set out to accomplish. That is an impressive outcome; oligarchies aren’t known for their efficiency. However… if they must periodically visit Earth to top up vital resources, perhaps the colony isn’t successful so much as it is spiraling towards a doom the colony has not yet reached1.

There’s not enough plot here to support a novel. Good thing the tale isn’t a novel or even a novella. It’s a novelette, just the correct length for its characters, the setting, and this story.

Emergency Skin is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), and here (Amazon UK).

Perhaps because the story was published by Amazon, I did not find Emergency Skin at Barnes & Noble, Chapters-Indigo or Words Worth Books. I did find an audio version here (Apple Books).

1: Earth seems content to let the colonies succeed or fail on their own. Jemisin could have borrowed a page from Stableford’s Daedelus Missions series and used this story as springboard for an exploration of how interstellar colonies fare when founded by an assortment of tech bros. Thus far, she has not.