How Long 'Til Black Future Month?
by N. K. Jemisin
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
It has already been established that February is Black History Month, but what about the Black Future? One could say its first observance has already happened, since November 2018 saw the publication of this story collection by Nora Jemisin. For me I guess it would be this month, January 2019, since I just finished reading it. It could be every month of the year as more readers discover it, or discover other Black writers, artists, or creators of various media. Jemisin begins her introduction by saying, "Once upon a time, I didn't think I could write short stories." She was wrong. In 2002 she couldn't afford the money or time for one of the prominent writing workshops like Clarion, but found a smaller, one week course which offered as much business advice as it did literary critique; how to get an agent, how to deal with publishers, how to write a submission cover letter, etc. Two years later her first short story was published. This collection offers it and twenty-one others, two of which ("Non-Zero Possibilities" and "The City Born Great") were finalists for Hugo and/or Nebula awards. As good as they are, I'd be hard pressed to say they are better than the rest. Four stories appear here for the first time. Not all will resonate with everyone, but there is enough variation that at least half should appeal to most readers.
The stories in How Long 'Til Black Future Month? range from Hard-SF to the soft sciences of sociology and psychology. There are cyberpunk tales and bleak dystopias, either man-made post-apocalypses, or possibly the result of alien invasion. There are fantasies both epic and urban, even a bit of steampunk, with two being more mainstream in nature. What I had expected was for them to be presented in chronological order so we could track her improvements over time, but they're in a random order which proves she was a master of her craft from the beginning. One of the new stories comes first; "The Ones Who Stay and Fight" is in dialog with (and I am not exaggerating when I say it is every bit the equal to) Le Guin's classic "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." Her first published story, 2004's "Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows," comes fourth to the last in the table of contents, in between one from 2017 and another from 2007. Without that information from the copyright page I would have a hard time distinguishing one from the other based on their literary quality. The same goes for most of the others. Fans of her award-winning Broken Earth trilogy will delight in an early variation of that theme with 2014's "Stone Hunger." It and two others are novelettes, the rest are short stories. "The Effluent Engine," one of the other novelettes, is the steampunk tale, which had me wondering if it had been an influece on P. Djèlí Clark's The Black God's Drums. That is in no way a criticism of Clark, just that both feature a similar setting and protagonist.
One of the few commonalities is the majority of the characters are people of color, although for a few stories it's not apparent or relevant either way. Another highlight is her male characters seem just as realistic and natural as her women, something a lot of male writers have problems with in the opposite direction. I'm not going to critique each story, since without re-reading it would be difficult for me to rank them as favorites. Suffice it to say I was not disappointed by any of them, but I will mention one more for now. Appropriately, I read "Red Dirt Witch" this past Monday, the day we observed Martin Luther King Jr's birthday this year. It's about a mother conversant with magic spells and potients, who sacrifices herself to a White Lady spirit, in order to ensure the successful life of her children, and the success of the civil rights struggles in Alabama in the mid-1960s. This is a major collection, highly recommended, but I'd caution you to read slowly and contemplatively. I usually read no more than four stories per day, but none of them back to back without a break. Each deserves time to consider its themes and emotional resonances before going on to the next. Some of the stories are still available to read online, so if you're not sure about buying this then google away, you won't be disappointed, in fact I think it would encourage you to buy. The only thing I'm disappointed about is I settled for the Kindle version when it was on sale, but I'd love to have the gorgeous hardcover on my shelf too.
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