If you know me, odds are you know how much I love N.K. Jemisin: I have read and enjoyed all her novels and some of her shorter works, and whatever she publishes is on my auto-buy list. So, why hadn’t I read this specific book yet? Perhaps because, in general, I am not always the greatest fan of short story collections; I must say, however, that this one ended up being a very satisfying read. Not that I expected anything less.
Title: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Original Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: 27 November 2018
Genre: Science Fiction – Fantasy
Standalone or Series: Standalone Short Story Collection
Synopsis: The book is a collection of 22 short stories, spanning across different universes and specultative fiction subgenres, but that often resonating more or less explicitly with themes that concern very directly our own world: we see a near-utopic land being directly contrasted with American society; magical creatures wandering around New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Kathrina; seemingly ordinary people stumbling upon unexpected forms of magic; alien cultures and artificial intelligences that, in different ways, prompt us to question values and limits of our own experience.
Analysis: Each story of the collection is written in its own, often distinctive style, from the lyrical appeal to the reader in The Ones Who Stay And Fight to the fictional communication logs in The Evaluators; Jemisin’s powerful narrative voice and gorgeous prose take as many shapes as each story requires, and while not all experimentations are equally outstanding (it may be a nitpick, but I couldn’t unsee the poorly researched Italian in L’Alchimista) the ovearll result is anyway vibrant and fascinating.
All stories are, as I mentioned, standalone, however it’s still worth noting how three of them were later developed into much longer works; I was already familiar with The City Born Great, first introduction to the Great Cities universe; and I was pleased to recognise the themes and setting of the Broken Earth series in Stone Hunger, and those of the Dreamblood duology in The Narcomancer.
But, we must talk about the themes. Because N.K. Jemisin has always a few lessons to teach, and is remarkably unapologetic about it. The collection comes with an enlightening introduction by the author, who talks about her experience as a Black woman in SFF at the very beginning of her career, and about her determination to break free from the constraint of a genre that, back then, was overwhelmingly white and male, perpetually focused on the same protagonists and stories.
A lot of stories discuss themes of racial oppression and societal change, touching upon issues such as censorship (The Storyteller’s Replacement), religious fervour (The Brides Of Heaven) or standardised education (Valedictorian). Jemisin’s portrial of human misery and injustices is as merciless as it must be, but also accompanied by a proactive and cautiously hopeful attitude – as best exemplified by Red Dirt Witch, that tells the story of a Black mother in the Jim Crow south who’s trying to save her daughter from the influence of a meddling fey, and that manages to be heartbreaking and inspiring at once; on a more lighthearted note, in The Effluent Engine we meet dashing Haitian spy Jessaline, who’s keenly aware of her world’s cruelty, but won’t stop fighting for a righteous cause – even better if it comes with a side serving of sapphic love. Technology may be occasionally regarderd with some measure of caution, if contrasted with the value of emotions and human connections (The Trojan Girl, Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows), but in general progress is seen as a positive force, and embracing change is worth the discomfort that comes with it (Cloud Dragon Skies, Valedictorian).
There’s no lack of references to other famous works or established tropes; some of them may be tongue in cheek (see how Henosis compares to Stephen King’s Misery), more often they engage dialectically with their source material – for instance, The Ones Who Stay And Fight is a direct response to Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, criticising its implied message that society can’t be fixed; Valedictorian relies on a premise that’s remindful of too many YA dystopias, but it’s given an entirely new twist. Walking Awake is once again a response to Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, where the threat doesn’t come from mind-controlling aliens or communists, but from those in charge in our own communities, who already treat the less privileged as disposable.
Conclusions & Recommendations: Well, it’s no surprise that I did in fact enjoy this collection, rigth? While for obvious reasons short stories can’t deliver a wordlbuilding as complex and characters as fleshed out as longer works, I loved the chance to see such a varied collection of brilliant ideas by one of my favourite authors. I am not sure this is the best place to start if you’re new to Jemisin’s work, but you should definitely read this at some point.
Content Warning: Racism – Sexism – Death – Rape – Violence – Suicide