Deji Olukotun’s contribution to the forthcoming collection Watchlist is now available to read on Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading blog. Watchlist editor Bryan Hurt provides an introduction:
“The world was not a fair place, and I was the one that helped people forget that fact.” So says Renton, the narrator of Deji Bryce Olukotun’s terrific and chilling story, “We Are the Olfanauts.” Renton is one of these invisible curators, a content moderator for Olfanautics, the “global pioneer in scented social media.” He is an Olfanaut. He defends humanity from its own worst self. From behind his desk, his Trunk dutifully attached to his face, Renton has seen, and smelled, it all: ritual dismemberment, rape, a nun who gets her head smashed in. Despite these horrors, Renton insists that he remains unaffected, unchanged. One of the story’s great triumphs, and great tragedies, is that it shows us in rich but subtle psychological detail just how wrong he is. Outside of the office, he acts with casual disregard, sometimes cruelty, to those around him. He has a man fired for no reason other than his own wounded ego; he fails to comfort his lover, another content moderator, who feels her own humanity slipping away.
His empathy is eroded by everything he’s seen. In many ways Olukotun’s story is novel-dense, and I feel like there’s a novel’s worth of material here to praise: his perfectly rendered and eerily prescient near-future world; his keen social commentary; his wonderfully complicated and morally complex characters; his smart and powerful use of the Prometheus myth. But my favorite thing about the story is the way it engages with and explores our sense of smell. Smell is the most immediate of all the senses, the most intimate. Researchers have found that there’s a link between intensity of feeling and intensity of smell. The future where smells are shared across cell phones and screens in order to intensify virtual experience is not far off; in fact, it’s already here. But as Olukotun shows us all of this sharing, all of this access and intimacy, comes at a cost.
Read “We Are the Olfanauts” on Recommended Reading.