FICTION: THE COLOUR OF THE FUTURE

November 10, 2019

Email

"Once upon a time, I didn’t think I could write short stories,” writes N.K. Jemisin in the introduction to her short story collection How Long ’Til Black Future Month? And then she proceeds to go ahead and present a series of stories that prove that she was, indeed, wrong in this assumption. These are stories in which the evolution of Jemisin as a writer is evident; stories that show her readers where she’s come from and how. It’s a graceful growth, and a muscular one. We can see Jemisin flex her skills as well as her ideas — sometimes a little more forcefully and less subtly than she has grown to in her novels. Tiny moments here and there may feel a bit didactic to those who have read her more recent work, but not in any overwhelming way, and certainly not in a way to reduce any enjoyment of the reading experience.

The stories span multiple genres, with some connecting directly to Jemisin’s award-winning novels. ‘The Narcomancer’ is set in the same Ancient Egypt-inspired world as her Dreamblood novels and ventures into the same world-building with characters able to harness dreams and help people ease into death, but who remain forced to make difficult choices that may go against the grain of who they believe they are.

‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight’ is a direct response to Ursula Le Guin’s seminal story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ and is set in an imagined utopia, one in which “everyone — even the poor, even the lazy, even the undesirable — can matter.” No one must ever think that anyone is unequal; it is forbidden, and anyone who thinks so must be removed. It is this that makes the city of Um-Helat remain perfect: “This is the paradox of tolerance, the treason of free speech: we hesitate to admit that some people are just f****** evil and need to be stopped.

Multiple sci-fi award-winning author puts out her first collection of short stories that cements her position as a hugely talented, unique and necessary voice

“This is Um-Helat, after all, and not that barbaric America. This is not Omelas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.” Jemisin, like Le Guin, asks her readers: at what cost is utopia acceptable? What price is too high to pay? Jemisin, of course, is no stranger to addressing issues of race, as she has so brilliantly done in The Broken Earth trilogy and, though it is easy to read any number of colonised races into the narratives of The Broken Earth’s disenfranchised Orogenes, with some of the stories in How Long ’Til Black Future Month it is very clearly the racist experiences of African Americans that Jemisin is drawing on. For instance, In ‘Red Dirt Witch’, a “White Lady” in Southern America wants to steal a young black child away from her mother and, as hard as this is, it may well bring about a change in their world that would result in a black president eventually.

The stories in How Long ’Til Black Future Month? that are connected to Jemisin’s novels may have been the seeds for those books, perhaps meanderings from them or paths she later developed into bigger roads. The title of the collection is taken from an essay called ‘How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? The Toxins of Speculative Fiction, and the Antidote that is Janelle Monae’, in which Jemisin recounts how watching The Jetsons cartoons as a child worried her because everyone in it was white. Where did all the black people go in this vision of the future? Where was their representation in this fiction? Where was the all-inclusive future that would make every child feel there was space for them?

At least I see more “foreign” and femme names on book spines and in tables of contents these days. I see readers demanding fiction featuring different voices, spoken by native tongues, and I see publishers scrambling to answer. And while the voices of dissent have grown as well — bigots trying to rewrite history and claim the future for themselves alone — they are in severe minority. — Excerpt from the introduction

Jemisin has now become the answer to what the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genre has been looking for: an unapologetic woman of colour who staunchly refuses to cower before the predominantly Eurocentric male gaze that has controlled much of the genre up until the very recent past. This is Afrofuturist fiction, but it’s opening up representation for all people of every race and colour with visions of the future that feature those who have been left aside in fiction.

Jemisin is unabashed about how important this is, how important representation in fiction is and in that representation she’s as necessary for the written word as Monae is for the musical. Jemisin is the first African American writer to win the Hugo, one of the SFF genre’s major award, and then in an unprecedented string of wins, she was awarded the Hugo three years in a row for The Broken Earth trilogy. No writer has ever managed this before, so clearly, Jemisin is here to stay and make an impact.

What really stands out about this collection is the sheer variety of voices Jemisin employs to tell her stories and the niftiness with which she builds different worlds. The stories cross genres, too. There are straight up aliens-and-space-ships science fiction, there are creepy witches from horror, there’s urban fantasy, entirely imagined fantastical worlds and even a story about dragons that has the feel of a traditional fantasy. And, as much as some of the stories take on a serious tone, there is just as much humour in others as you would need to balance out the experience of reading a solid anthology.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

How Long ’Til Black Future Month?
By N.K. Jemisin
Orbit, US
ISBN: 978-0316491341
416pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 10th, 2019