Imagine a world where the son of God is alive and leading a struggling church gospel band. It’s also where a new, highly advanced line of service robots must confront their programming after being designed to resemble lawn jockeys, and a hitchhiker inadvertently finds himself on a road trip along the Underground Railroad.
Welcome to the imaginary town of Cross River, Md., the setting for Rion Amilcar Scott’s vivid “The World Doesn’t Require You.” The fiction collection is a rich, genre-splicing mix of alternate history, magical realism and satire that interrogates race, sexism and where both meet here in the real world.
This is Scott’s second visit to Cross River, also home to his Pen/Robert W. Bingham Prize-winning story collection “Insurrections” (2016). In addition to the above curiosities, the town also lays claim to being the site of the only successful slave rebellion in U.S. history and is the meeting point of all sorts of past and present issues surrounding race.
Cross River stands in tragic contrast to the neighboring white-dominated town of Port Yooga. But Scott’s imagination runs deeper than simply placing his characters in opposition to a single force and instead examines the ways that oppression is passed down and continues to thrive.
Consider the robot at the heart of “The Electric Joy of Service.” Told from the perspective of the new being (who shares a name with Twain’s escaped slave in “Huckleberry Finn”), the story begins with the robot’s inventor reveling in the absurd shock of a racist design.
“Rich whites will rush out to buy their own robot slaves,” Jim’s Master assures his corporate investors, who are initially aghast. “And we can make these things any race the customer pleases.”
The Robotic Personal Helpers (or Riffs) are a hit. After being betrayed by his partners, the Master uploads a virus to spread the facts behind Cross River to spur a cyborg rebellion. But he spares his first creation. “For you,” he promises Jim, “a gift: a patch to block the disease of history. Go on being content.”
Scott returns to Jim in a later story, “Mercury in Retrograde,” which finds him falling in love, yet in conflict with a more advanced creation called Fiona.
Partly human and designed to satisfy the Master’s longing for controllable female companionship (and all the misogyny that implies), Fiona grows frustrated in both her role and with Jim’s reluctance to pursue freedom — even as he grows to understand the hatred in his appearance and in turn how bigotry is internalized. “I was disgusting,” Jim says. “My very existence a kind of hatefulness. Anyone who saw me would hate me. The more I studied, the more I asked: How could I not, likewise, hate me?”
But as they grow together, Fiona and Jim are driven apart as he’s proved unable to evolve far enough. “One can only fight their programming so much,” Jim admits to Fiona.
Scott has a vivid ear for description and pace, rendering one nightmarish story that feels like an unaired episode of Jordan Peele’s “Twilight Zone” reboot. Beginning with someone hitching a ride from a stranger into Cross River, the story wryly named after the chorus of Dr. Dre’s 1993 single “Let Me Ride” culminates in a drug-addled fever dream where images of racist caricatures merge with a party replete with sly nods to “The Wizard of Oz,” R. Kelly and a “comedian who hadn’t made a funny remark in years” who delights those in a crowd by berating them.
While Scott needs only a few pages to make an impact, he devotes the bulk of “The World Doesn’t Require You” to the novella-length “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies.” Telling the story of an academic rivalry at Cross River’s historically black Freedman’s University, “Special Topics” at first feels elusive, with a kitchen sink construction of emails, PowerPoint slides, essays and imagined folklore amid an unreliable narration, but it coalesces into an indictment of a patriarchal academic system.
Scott delivers his most direct critique via a student — primarily seen through her emails — who looks past the institution to a larger world where loneliness is “a motivator of low-level human tyranny.”
“I don’t wish to end my loneliness,” she writes, defying the course’s goals. “I wish to learn from it, to grow from it so I can enjoy the inevitable and brief moments of oneness that are on the other side of isolation.” It’s far from the answer the professor had hoped for, but in the hands of someone as skilled as Scott, it’s impossible to deny.