29 November 2018

Review - How Long 'til Black Future Month by NK Jemisin

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto
How Long 'til Black Future Month?
NK Jemisin
Orbit, 29 November
PB, 400pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of this book.

In her introduction to How Long 'til Black Future Month? (the title coming from an essay not included here, but drawing attention to the lack of representation of people of colour in SF, the self-styled "literature of the future") Jemisin explains that she never saw herself as a short story author, but was persuaded to learn.

Well, I'm glad she did, because this passionate and accomplished collection really showcases her fiction and makes for a diverse (in every sense), readable and deeply thought provoking book. It also - as an extensive collection, published over nearly 20 years - serves a timely reminder that Jamison didn't just burst on the scene with the recognition of her Broken Earth trilogy.

For me, I found stories here that almost ignited something I'd forgotten. In my early I came across SF stories in the school library that had a thing about them... a kind of eeriness, a sense of strangeness and disconnectedness which made me, as a reader, start almost form nothing in trying to understand and relate to them. I can't remember the titles or authors of most of them and I'd almost forgotten that sensation, until reading stories like The Evaluator, told through scraps of social media and documenting humanity's first contact with a deeply alien world, or Cloud Dragon Skies - a gorgeous little story, looking at a future Earth respected, not violated by its inhabitants. (Trouble comes, of course, from outsiders - the descendants of those who departed for an artificial habitat in the skies, and who won't let alone). Or there's Stone Hunger, which gradually reveals a young woman's talent to manipulate the Earth itself, Jemisin's writing almost fizzing as she makes the central concept so, so real.

There are 22 stories in this collection overall, and the range is breathtaking.

The first story, The Ones Who Stay and Fight, is an explicit response to Ursula K Le Guin's Those Who Walk Away from Omegas. A persuasive and plausible narrator attempts to convince a sceptical reader (listener?) that the city of Um-Helat really is a good place. Despite their slightly eager-to-please tone (the reason for which eventually becomes clear) they make out a good case ("This is not Omegas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child") up to the moment where a rather dark secret is revealed. It seems there are those who must fight for Um-Helat, to keep it a good place. Do we think that makes it less than good?

In The City Born Great a nameless, homeless boy sings the glories of New York City, becoming its protector, midwife, avatar. Jemisin's language here is positively incandescent as - while recognising the dark sores and suffering of the place - she glories in possibilities, in birth and rebirth, wielding fantasy language like a hammer to beat meaning out of a glowing lump of words. It's an exhilarating read.

Red Dirt Witch is, apparently, a more traditional fairy tale, recasting European myths of fairies and Fair Folk into the bloody reality of the US South in the 50s and making them the White Folk, still exercising power over the red, brown and black people but about to be outwitted by - well, I won't say who.

L'alchemista is a delightful story, blurring the boundaries of cookery and magic. Franca is a cool and self possessed protagonist who weighs up the strange situation that she finds herself in. Not fazed at all, she knows just what to do. The story is notable for its sensual descriptions of food and cooking, creating quite a different imaginary experience from the normal run of science fiction (or indeed fiction, at all).

The Effluent Engine takes us to an alt reality New Orleans, still afflicted by slavery but doing commerce with a free Haiti whose self-liberated inhabitants are determined to stay that way and have developed some radical technologies to that end. It reminded me a bit of Graham Greene's The Confidential Agent - the sense of sense of a hostile city (or worse, a city indifferent to the life or death struggle being waged), the invisible yet omnipresent enemy. It's different though in that the loneness of the narrator isn't... quite that. And also it's a bit steampunk-y. That can be a difficult genre, tending as it sometimes does to see an Imperial past through a haze of nostalgia, but Jemisin isn't falling for that one. Entertaining and fun, it could well have run to novel length (as could many of the stories here - the Introduction makes the point that some of them were trying out worlds she might have expended to novels).

The Trojan Girl is hard to describe, a story of becoming, of transcending. It's a very beautiful story about the power of dreams (real dreams, not waking aspirations) and I think Jamisin hits on a real insight here about their importance. But to understand that, you have to read it!

Valedictorian introduces Zinhle, a talented young woman going through all the normal traumas of High School with the added horrors of a kind of Hunger Games setup. Here, grades may make the difference between life and death. But why do the adults, the teachers, collude in such a system - and how should one respond? A deeply moral and philosophical story this is also I thing a metaphor for a society that more and more eats its young - particular it's young who happen to be of colour - and asks why we tolerate that. What would an outsider, from a different sort of society, make of it?

The Storyteller's Replacement is one of those stories that just gets weirder and weirder as you think about it. The meat is a tale of kings, princesses and dragons - a traditional fairytale on the surface but with some very nasty twists which highlight the assumptions and prejudices that often lurk unacknowledged. But then it has a framing device - which is where the title comes from - that just made me think there was something else going on here, something even more sinister than the story proper. Just delightful. With this story Jamison simply shows how it should be done. One of my favourites here.

The Brides of Heaven is an SF story about a group of women who have colonised a far world, after an unimaginably long journey in suspended animation. But the future of their colony is threatened and one of their number may just have made things much, much worse. Or has she?

Walking Awake is a masterpiece in miniature, a story of enslavement and masters and the fight for liberty.

The Elevator Dancer is short and really strange. It only gradually becomes clear why a woman's dancing, alone, in a lift is a dangerous act of rebellion.

Cuisine des Mémoires is another story that makes food magical - or a channel of magic. It's notable for a deeply annoying protagonist who insists on taking  peel behind the scenes. You do not let daylight in upon magic!

On the Banks of the River Lex is set in a post Apocalyptic New York (realised in loving detail). Although humanity has gone, our hopes and fears still, somehow, persist, and new life flourishes. It is a truly optimistic story, looking to what might be saved and carried forward to the future.

The Narcomancer takes us into deep fantasy territory. Set in a place which reminded me of ancient Egypt, it follows a priest/ magician sent to deal with a village under assault by bandits and to bring peace. Focussing on love and duty, it's the kind of story that in other hands might be padded out to novel length but here is just a perfect short story: my favourite in the book.

Henosis - an  account of an author travelling to a literary awards ceremony - is clever and chilling, perhaps a metaphor for the writer being consumed by over eager fans. You can read the chapters in time order if you want but I'd stick with the way Jamison presents them (but you might wonder why they're chopped up like this...)

If Henosis comments on the way that authors are used up, Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows might be taken as an examination of the reality - or otherwise - of online life. Isolated after a future quantum event, a number of individuals are trapped in their own recurring timelines, able to communicate with each only through blogs, emails and Internet chat as they each live their day over and over.

In The You Train, a woman finds escape from her frustrating life among the shadowy, abandoned trains of the New York Subway. Non-Zero Probabilities, also set in New York, looks at what happens when randomness itself goes wrong.

And the final story in the collection, Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters, tells the true story - perhaps - of the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane, juxtaposing the awesome power of Nature with the evils of humanity. Took finds some strange allies when a mysterious creature stalks him through the floodwaters. It's a story with a fittingly hopeful end.

I don't think it's possible to sum up this collection and it would be trite to try. It's full of treasures: dip in and I'm sure you'll find something to enchant, spark wonder or make you think (or indeed, all three).

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