Book: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? By N.K. Jemisin (2018)
Age/Genre: Speculative Fiction, Short Stories
Content Notes: sexual assault, references to police violence, poverty
I’ve been following N.K. Jemisin on Twitter for a while, but I hadn’t read any of her books yet, despite being really interested in them. As usual, my husband, the library employee, came to the rescue, checking out How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? for me because it looked like something I’d enjoy. He hasn’t been wrong yet.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is a collection of speculative fiction short stories centering people of color. The concept is in response to the fact that mainstream sci-fi and speculative fiction often portray futures without much diversity. Of course, there have always been exceptions, and recently this is becoming less common, but some authors can’t seem to imagine futures with non-white or non-heterosexual people. N.K. Jemisin gives us an entire collection full of possible futures, all of them full of diversity. The title is based on an essay she wrote of the same name, which isn’t in the collection because it’s an essay and not a story, but you can find a draft on Jemisin’s blog.
As per usual, I’m only going to discuss a few of the stories that stood out to me.
“The City Born Great” follows a young man who lives on the streets of New York. We see him grow close with a mentor who tells him that he is connected to the fate of the city. The city is alive, or becoming alive, and our protagonist must work to help it grow into itself and protect it from dark forces. This was a really cool urban fantasy tale that fits a ton of characterization and world building into a short space.
Not all of these stories actually take place in the future. Some are set in the past, as is the case with “Red Dirt Witch.” Emmaline, who heals with herbs and chats with spirits in her sleep, is visited by a woman, one of the “White Folk” (fae) looking to take one of her children. As Emmaline attempts to outwit the woman, we see certain realities of Birmingham before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and get a look into possible futures of the United States.
There are two stories in this collection that intertwine food and magic. “L’Alchimista” follows a downtrodden chef who is given a bag of unfamiliar ingredients by a mysterious man and told to precisely follow a recipe. I loved seeing Franca’s pride in her work and her commitment to making the best food she can, trusting her instincts all the way. In “Cuisine des Mémories,” Harold is introduced to a restaurant that claims to perfectly recreate meals from historical events, and even from people’s memories, only needing a date and a few non-food related details in order to do so. This was one of the few stories in first person, and it was great to see the doubt and devastation that the unexplained can bring to a person first-hand.
As I was re-reading the introduction in preparation for this review, I was excited to see that “The Narcomancer” and “Stone Hunger” were both written as “proof of concept” stories that Jemisin has since expanded into series. “Stone Hunger” takes place in a mostly destroyed world with scattered cities and people who discern objects and other people as specific flavors, and can cause the earth to shake at will. This story explored the potential of a collaborative society that doesn’t rely on punishment to maintain control, and I am excited to see if the Broken Earth Trilogy takes that concept further.
“The Narcomancer” takes place in a world similar to our own, amongst tribal communities with little technology. It looks like Jemisin’s Dreamblood series takes place after the events of this story, which explores different ways people judge and oppress each other. There’s an intriguing magic system in this world that I’m excited to learn more about.
The world of “The Trojan Girl” was originally supposed to be a novel, but Jemisin says she chose not to write it, and finished her exploration of that world in “Valedictorian.” As I read the stories, I didn’t realize they took place in the same world, but knowing that is pretty cool! “The Trojan Girl” has characters that act like a wolf pack, and their un-humanness reminded me of the genetically altered wolf soldiers in Marissa Meyers’ Lunar Chronicles series. I’m really disappointed I don’t get to see more of what happens after “Valedictorian,” as the main character, Zinhle, is a super smart girl with incredible integrity, who lives by three rules that keep her true to herself. She might have been my favorite character in the collection, but it’s so hard to choose.
The final story in the collection is called “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters.” Tookie is staying in his home despite an incoming hurricane and is visited by a talking lizard with wings. We see Tookie and his elderly neighbor trying to survive the days following the storm, while the lizard alludes to a great danger keeping the devastation going. The way Jemisin weaves fantasy and commentary on failures in our governmental systems here is ingenious. I’m torn between wanting more of this and thinking it’s perfect as it is. I definitely want to see a movie based on this story though. A socially-conscious hurricane movie with dragons and sea monsters? Sign me up.
Though there were some I liked more than others, all of these stories are worth reading multiple times. They explore different aspects of society and humanity, allowing the reader to really think about how they interact with the world. I am glad this was my introduction to Jemisin’s work, and I’m excited to dive into some of her series next.