How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin. ★★★★
Like almost everyone else, I was blown away by N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning novel, The Fifth Season. When I heard she had this collection of twenty-two short stories coming out, I knew I needed to read it. As with every short story collection, I enjoyed some stories more than others, but overall, I liked these stories more often than not. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
I’d only read two stories in this collection before; the rest were new to me. Of those I’d read before, the first was “The City Born Great,” where a homeless young man is chosen to be the midwife to the spirit of New York City, which is about to be born. I skipped over this story the second time, as it was still relatively fresh in my mind and I didn’t remember liking it enough to want to read it a second time. I did reread “Valedictorian,” which I’d first read in the post-apocalyptic anthology After. On reflection, that must have been the first time I’d ever read anything by N.K. Jemisin, and I didn’t even know it! The opening of “Valedictorian” is unforgettable: a high school girl’s parents asking her if she’s thought of getting pregnant. In this story, aliens take the bottom ten percent of all high schools… in addition to all high school valedictorians. “Valedictorian” is a powerful story about bigotry, difference, and being true to yourself. But… I also feel like it has potential eugenics issues that aren’t being addressed, what with the “cull” of the bottom ten percent. Wouldn’t this impact disabled people disproportionately? Given that, I’m not entirely comfortable with the story.
The collection starts with “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” Jemisin’s response to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Instead of Omelas, Jemisin imagines a city where the problems our society struggles with have largely been solved, and people care for and support each other. But creating such a society is not effortless, and it requires constant vigilance against the seeds of hatred and bigotry.
Two stories in the collection feature food and culinary arts prominently. In “L’Alchimista,” a disgraced chef is given a challenge by a mysterious man. It’s not my favorite of the collection, but I preferred it to “Cuisine des Mémoires,” where a man hung up on his ex-wife is brought to a restaurant that can recreate any meal in history… and when he eats a meal his ex cooked, he immediately starts mourning for the lost relationship.
“On the Banks of the River Lex” is one of my favorite stories in the collection. After humanity has ended, gods, spirits, and personifications dwell in the city of New York. The story centers on Death, who is hanging on better than some of the others (everything dies after all). What I like about the story is that it’s hopeful, even if the apocalypse has come and gone. Death is a part of life, and new life will emerge from the ashes.
“The Evaluators” is a wonderfully creepy alien story about the possibility of a super predator. I don’t want to say too much here, as a large part of the charm lies in the plot twists.
The sole steampunk entry to the collection, “The Effluent Engine” never lets its innovative world building get in the way of its story. It reminds me a lot of Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus — the story centers on a newly independent Hati trying to maintain its independence in the face of powers arrayed against it. The protagonist is a woman sent to New Orleans to try and persuade a scientist to help Hati develop an engine to convert the byproduct of sugar manufacture into an energy source. He’s reluctant, but she might find aid from his brilliant (and gorgeous) sister.
Over the past few years, I’ve found myself reading a few science fiction stories about all-female planets. While there’s problems with this subgenre (a very binary understanding of gender for one), it still fascinates me. “The Brides of Heaven” imagines a colony ship where the men and women were in separate hypersleep chambers… and the men’s malfunctioned. The women are eking out a living on a planet inimical to human life, and a mad woman has either saved or destroyed them all.
“The Trojan Girl” is a very classic sci-fi story, featuring self-aware AI who hide among the internet, remaining invisible to humanity at large. They cannot change their own code except by hunting down others of their kind and cutting and pasting the desirable code. When a new intelligence emerges, change may come as well.
A couple stories play with ideas Jemisin later developed into full-fledged novels. For instance, fans of The Fifth Season can see the same (or at least very similar) setting in “Stone Hunger,” where a girl does terrible things to survive.
I’ve never read Jemisin’s Dreamblood series, but apparently the story “The Narcomancer” was its origin. I was not a huge fan of “The Narcomancer.” (TW: rape for this story). The protagonist is a priest who works with death and dreams in a setting based off of ancient Egypt. A town sends representatives to the Temple, asking for help against bandits that enspell the entire town to sleep before the raid. Among the townspeople is the second wife of the now dead headsman, who has been sexually assaulted and abused her entire life. To gain a position of strength in the town, she needs a child. The crux of the story centers on the protagonist struggling with his desire for the woman (and her request that he help her) versus his vows of celibacy. Essentially, the arc of the story was a character sworn to celibacy realizing that the right thing to do is actually have sex. I really do not like moral values being placed on having sex or not having sex (both in terms of “having sex is immoral” and “if you want to live a full life and be a feminist, you need to be having sex”). A lot of my feelings about this story come down to me being asexual, and while the protagonist wasn’t asexual (celibacy is different!), I feel like the story was ultimately saying “having sex is the right thing to do and will solve your problems,” where I want the choice not to have sex to be just as respected as the choice to have sex… I don’t know, I’m just tired and this story annoyed me.
“The Storyteller’s Replacement” also merits a trigger warning for sexual assault — an infertile king essentially has his wife gang raped so that she’ll conceive. It’s an offhanded thing but just mentioning it for people who need to know. The king is the central character and clearly a terrible person. He’s obsessed with hunting down a male dragon and eating its heart, which is supposed to cure a man’s infertility. The story resembles fairy tales more than any others in the collection, complete with the evil king getting his comeuppance.
I’m going to wrap this review up, as I don’t think it’s worthwhile to go through every single story in the collection. The ones I’ve discussed already are either my favorites or had things I needed to talk about. Other stories include:
“The You Train”: A woman in NYC is continually approached by subway trains that shouldn’t exist.
“Non-Zero Probabilities”: Probability and luck start going strange in NYC.
“The Elevator Dancer”: In a strictly controlled dystopian future, a security guard watches a woman dance alone in an elevator.
“Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters”: Hurricane Katrina brings more than water into New Orleans.
“Red Dirt Witch”: A fae in Alabama tries to steal a child.
“Cloud Dragon Skies”: Visitors from space don’t understand living in harmony with the natural world.
“Henosis”: Once you reach the peak of your writing career, you are dismembered.
“Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows”: Everyone is stuck in a pocket reality by themselves with no connections but the internet.
“Walking Awake”: A parasitic species raises humans for hosts.
I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a free and honest review.