I left N.K. Jemisin‘s book for last in this set of 3 sci-fi themed posts, because it feels the most contemporary / visionary and also because it simply is a hard act to follow. Jemisin’s stories pack a punch, they manage to draw the reader into worlds that inhabit that goldilocks zone between the familiar and the really strange. The zone where things are off, but close enough to what we know to seem uncomfortably familiar.
Because these (22!) stories touch on a plethora of settings and themes, ranging from mythical / fantasy to front porches and kitchens all the way to digital worlds, I’ve picked out a few to give you an idea of what’s in this book, but really, there’s just so much to discover in here, so much to talk about!
In “The City Born Great” the narrator is urged, by a stranger named Paulo, to “Listen.” Not to Paulo, not to anyone else in particular, – listen to the city, its traffic, its bridges, its buildings. The narrator is at the fringes of a society that has no place for him, other than possibly a jail cell. Rejected even by his mother, he has learned to fend for himself, do what needs to be done. He already has a special relationship to the city itself:
I’ll starve to death some day, or freeze some winter night, […] but I’ll sing and paint and dance and fuck and cry the city before I’m done, because it’s mine. It’s fucking mine. That’s why. (20)
Paulo helps him see that there is more to this young man’s connection with the big city, that he has a special responsibility, as a sort of doula at a crucial point in the city’s life.
“Red Dirt Witch” introduces us to Emmaline, the local witch. People turn to her when they are desperate for help, but the rest of the time, they’re wary of her. She doesn’t mince her words:
Nadine was afraid she might be pregnant again. “I know it’s a sin,” she said in her quiet, dignified voice while Emmaline fixed her some tea. […]
“Sin’s makin a world where women got to choose between two children’ eatin’ and three children starvin’.” (38)
Emmaline is warned in dreams and by a spirit that a ‘white lady’ is coming. Emmaline knows she needs to prepare, even if she doesn’t quite know who or what the ‘white lady’ is.
In “L’Alchimista”, a brilliant chef with a temper is challenged by a peculiar guest right after she’s chased off her kitchen help.
“The Effluent Engine” takes us to New Orleans, not to the future but to a steampunk past, where a young woman has an important mission to fulfill that could change the lives of many.
“The Trojan Girl” is one of the more experimental (ihmo) stories, it takes place in a digital / virtual reality.
“Valedictorian” takes us to a place that is safeguarded by ‘firewalls’, though it is not a digital world. We meet Zinhle, who is about to become valedictorian of her class, in a society where that’s not a good thing: standing out in any way is not okay. Mediocrity is encouraged, and Zinhle knows that those who excel, those who are different, are taken away. Her parents and friends are here, this place is safe, but Zinhle does not want to be less than she knows she can be. And she’s curious: what IS behind the firewalls?
“The Storyteller’s Replacement” – when the king needs advice and the storyteller can’t make it, a wizard is sent in his stead. The king’s problem: there are rumors of his impotence, so he wants to disprove those ASAP. The wizard knows of lore that consuming a male dragon’s heart should fix the problem, but… dragons are hard to come by. When the only one that is found turns out to be a female with one egg (which the king’s men break), her heart it is. The king is pleased when the queen and his concubines all become pregnant. However, magic isn’t that simple.
With yet another hurricane in the news these days (Dorian), the last story in the collection feels the most immediate. “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” follows Tookie, a small-time drug dealer, who decides to stick around though the city has been evacuated. The water rises, and as he tries to navigate the flooded streets to get his old lady neighbor to safety, he realizes there is something else, something big in the water. You can actually read the whole thing online in Uncanny Magazine.
If any of this piqued your interest, go pick up a copy of How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? at your local (preferably indie) bookstore or request it from your local library. It’s definitely worth your time!
more posts on Black Literature: https://outsideofacat.wordpress.com/tag/black-literature/