N. K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (Hachette, 2018) [IBR2020]

Once upon a time, I didn’t think I could write short stories.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month Takes its name from an essay that I wrote in 2013…. It’s a shameless paean to an Afrofuturist icon, the artist Janelle Monáe, but it’s also a meditation on how hard it’s been for me to love science fiction and fantasy as a black woman. How much I’ve had to fight my own internalised racism in addition to that radiating from the fiction and the business. How terrifying it’s been to realize no one thinks my people have a future. And how gratifying to finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.
Now I mentor up-and-coming writers of color wherever I find them …And there are so many to find. Now I am bolder, and angrier, and more joyful; none of those things contradict each other. Now I am the writer that short stories made me.
So come on. There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read much contemporary science fiction. Nearly every year now, BASS and Pushcart have stories that use science-fiction elements, particularly near-future dystopias predictable by current climate science. But they still read as literary fiction rather than science fiction. I’ve never understood the sharp line of demarcation between them, but it’s there. The point is, I’m out of my element. The most recent SF/F writer I’ve read to any degree is Harlan Ellison (I did read Sagan’s Contact if that counts); my bookshelves hold an assortment of Golden Age collections and anthologies: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, etc.

Be that as it may, I greatly enjoyed nearly all of the stories in this collection. I’m a bit overwhelmed, in fact, since there are twenty-two stories. I take three months and twenty-two posts to consider a BASS anthology; most collections include maybe ten or twelve stories. So I’m off-balance, not sure how to communicate how beautifully something like “The Ones who Stay and Fight” or “Cloud Dragon Skies” or “The Narcomancer” worked, or how much fun “The Effluent Engine” was, or how deeply “Red Dirt Witch” touched me. There are many, many professional reviews of this volume, so I can stick to my own method of reacting and analyzing my reaction. But still, how to do that with so much to react to?

I decided to let Jemison lead the way via her Introduction.

As she mentions above, the title is from an essay available on her website, an essay inspired by her childhood sense of being excluded from a genre she loved, and by Janelle Monáe’s video
“Tightrope”. It starts with her noticing, as an adult, the cartoon The Jetsons doesn’t include any black people at all. The future was all white.

So Jemisin created a future with black people in it. Even black women. In many of the stories, race isn’t a primary issue, it’s just one of the many features of a character, a feature that brings along a history and a culture and preferences, which is true of white characters as well (surprise!).

<div On rereading my fiction to select pieces for this collection, I’ve been struck by how hesitant I once was to mention characters’ races. I notice that many of my stories are about accepting differences and change …and very few are about fighting threats from elsewhere. I’m surprised to realize how often I’d write stories that are talking back at classics of the genre.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

That “talking back” made the first story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” unforgettable. It’s talking back to Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a story published in 1973. I just read it a few months ago. LeGuin’s story “Pity and Shame” appeared in BASS 2019. I hadn’t read her before (stop judging) and it didn’t seem commensurate with her reputation, so I went looking for something to get a better idea of her work. “Omelas” it was, a story that shows the ugly truth that beneath any Utopia is an ugly Dystopia, a story that kicks Utilitarianism to the curb (I just this week am reading Bentham’s presentation of felicific calculus for a philosophy mooc and I couldn’t get either of these stories out of my mind).

But where LeGuin honors those who walk away from Omelas – forego the pleasures of a Utopia built on the suffering of another person – Jemisin challenges us to do more: to stay and fight. Her situation is a bit different, as she’s dealing with the pollution caused by the ugly idea that some people are worth more than other people. For me, it brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the original Utopia, which makes the case that, if people are going to be more than mindless automatons, evil is going to happen. So do you throw up your hands and give up? Do you accept it in the “what a shame” category? Do you walk away? Jemisin’s Paris Review interview makes the case that, at this time, there’s really no place to go that isn’t benefiting from the underpaid, suffering-laden labors of others – that is, those who have been “othered.” That leaves staying, and fighting to change things.

Perhaps you will speak of Um-Helat to others, and spread the notion farther still, like joyous birds migrating on trade winds. It’s possible. Everyone—even the poor, even the lazy, even the undesirable—can matter. Do you see how just the idea of this provokes utter rage in some? That is the infection defending itself . . . because if enough of us believe a thing is possible, then it becomes so.

Literary conversations are a great tradition. Sometimes they span centuries, sometimes years, sometimes months.

Another story I read as not really pushing back but running along the same lines is “Non-Zero Probabilities”. I thought of Heinlein’s story, “The Year of the Jackpot” when a statistician noticed all the cycles he keeps track of – the 54-year cycle, the 18.3, the 9+ year cycles, the 41 month cycle, and all the others – would peak and trough at a single moment in the near future. He predicted massive acts of random craziness, such as people taking their clothes off for no reason (which is the instigating incident in the story).

Adele, the protagonist of Jemisin’s story, is obsessed with luck. She prays in the tradition of several religions, uses special herbs, wears a St. Christopher medal and personal good-luck charms, things she happened to be wearing when something good happened.

And for good reason: New York is experiencing an upswing in the occurrence of very-low-probability events, which all seem to be happening. Some are bad (a train derailment downtown) (but some are, arguably, good (cancer remissions, more lottery winners). Adele finds herself in the middle of one of these events, a concatenation of unlikeliness involving a child, a frisbee, and a snowcone vendor.

“I work on Wall Street,” says another woman, who speaks briskly and clutches a bag of fresh fish as if it’s gold. Might as well be; fish is expensive now. A tiny Egyptian scarab pendant dangles from a necklace the woman wears. “Quantitative analysis. All the models are fucked now. We’re the only ones they didn’t fire when the housing market went south, and now this.” So she’s going to pray, too. “Even though I’m kind of an atheist. Whatever, if it works, right?”
Adele finds others, all tired of performing their own daily rituals, all worried about their likelihood of being outliered to death.

I love this idea of non-zero probability. No matter how low it is, if it’s not zero, it can happen. I still remember a science teacher long ago telling us about uncertainty and randomness in physics, and how it’s possible that all the oxygen molecules in the room in which you’re sitting will move to one side and leave you gasping for breath. Possible, yes. Of course, there really isn’t enough time in the history of the universe for this to have happened anywhere in the universe, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

While the math in Heinlein’s story provided lots of fun in other stories (“The Crazy Years” came up frequently), the plot was romance, as the statistician and the impulsive ecdysiast find themselves, unlikely as it is, in love. Jemisin’s story goes in a deeper direction, as she confronts the idea that maybe this isn’t all bad:

She still plans her mornings around her ritual ablutions, and her walks to work around danger spots – but how is that different, really, from what she did before? Back then it was makeup and hair, and fear of muggers. Now she walks more than she used to; she’s lost ten pounds. Now she knows her neighbors’ names. …
Some people react to fear by seeking security, change, control. The rest accept the change and just go on about their lives.

I connected that with the current moment. We can acknowledge the tragedy and loss of the past few months: so many have died, have long-lasting symptoms, have financial catastrophes, and for families with children there’s incredible stress. But there are also some moments of wonder, brilliantly creative work coming across the internet, examples of neighbors helping each other, nature’s residents reclaiming empty streets, some people finding the slower pace of life without the running to the gym and appointments after work is kind of nice. Maybe some of us might want to keep some aspects of lockdown.

I’m sure there are other correlations I don’t recognize given my thin repertoire of SF/F reading. For example, Jemisin gives “Walking Awake” as a response to Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, which I haven’t read.

<div On If you’re coming to these tales as someone who primarily knows me through my novels, you’re going to see the early forms of plot elements or characters that later got refined in novels. Sometimes that’s deliberate, since I write “proof of concept” stories in order to test drive potential novel worlds….sometimes the re versioning is completely unconscious And I don’t realize I’ve trodden familiar ground until long after. The world of the Broken Earth trilogy wasn’t my first time playing with genii locorum, for example – places with minds of their own. The concept appears in several of my stories, sometimes flavored with a dash of animism.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read Jemisin’s trilogy, but I recognize immediately the stories she’s referring to here. One is “The City Born Great,” a tale of a New York street kid who discovers he has a role to play in a great drama: “This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.” This isn’t a metaphor; it’s an actual quickening and he’s instrumental in the birth. One of the later stories, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” gives us a young man struggling to stay alive in New Orleans during Katrina; he, too, discovers a city can be more than roads and buildings.

Then there’s “Cloud Dragon Skies” which isn’t about a city but about the Earth deserted by most after an ecological catastrophe. Those who remain have made a life for themselves, a life different from before, but a life they enjoy and celebrate:

I was a child when the sky changed. I can still remember days when it was endlessly blue, the clouds passive and gentle. The change occurred without warning: one morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us.
We adapted. We had never taken more than we needed from the land, and we always kept our animals far from water. Now we moistened wild cotton and stretched this across our smoke holes as filters. Sometimes the clouds would gather over fires that were out in the open. A tendril would stretch down, weaving like a snake’s head, opening delicate mist jaws to nip the plume of smoke. Even the bravest warriors would quickly put such fires out.

But those who left Earth for an artificial ring habitat think they’ve figured out a way to fix Earth. The people who live there want nothing of it. Turns out, Earth wants nothing of it, either. It’s a story where we’re never sure if the cloud dragons and the reactions of the sky are natural or supernatural; it could play either way, which is a delightful trick.

I’m guessing the world imagined in “The Narcomancer” is at least related to Jemisin’s Dreamblood novel series. It’s a wonderful story that blends characters with different viewpoints into a single mission, and requires each of them to do something for the other. It is one of the few “threat from without” stories, but it also has several threats from within that are strung along the thread of the rescue mission. I was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit at the end.

I can’t close this post without mentioning a few other stories that don’t fall into one of these categories. “The Elevator Dancer” is very short, pretty much a current-day story with fascist overtones about a guy who’s just run out of enthusiasm for life and maybe, just maybe, rediscovers it while monitoring the elevator security cameras.

It is shameful and sinful to question the will of God. Still, the guard cannot help wondering. He does not want to think this thought, but it’s like, like temptation, it comes anyhow. And, well …
if …
if a tree falls …
if a tree falls and there’s no one around to hear it (but God)…
would it really bother with anything so mundane as making a sound?

or would it

One of the longest stories is “The Effluent Engine” which I have discovered is a Steampunk Romance. I’ve finally read something Steampunk! It’s set in New Orleans in the early 19th century (I’m gathering) and features a spy who is a Haitian woman trying to help her country get back on its feet following the slave rebellion that freed her people. That she falls in love with a Creole woman is the icing on the cake. Some of the escapes and double-crosses are a little facile, but it’s very enjoyable.

“Cuisine des Mémoires” is a natural for this former Top Chef addict. The cooks and judges on the show always talk about how the greatest food evokes emotion and memory; Jemisin turns that into a story that’s part mystery and part delicious. It features a very special restaurant, and a very curious diner who just can’t leave well enough alone:

The hunger to know burned in me right alongside the warm satisfaction of the meal itself, and underneath all of that lay anger. It was irrational anger, I knew. Someone had looked into my heart and found a long forgotten moment of love, plucked it forth and dusted it off and polished it up and shoved it back in, sharp and shiny and powerful as it had been on the day of the memory was made. But I didn’t have Angelina anymore, and that turned the memory from one of sweetness into one of pain.
So I had to know how they done it.

As a special treat, you can listen to LeVar Burton read the story at Stitcher.

There’s another cuisine story, “L’Alchemista”, on more of a Chopped theme. A stranger shows up with a bag of strange ingredients and a recipe. What do you think might happen?

I could go on about nearly all the stories. Several involve computers, AI, robots, and the like. Some are about the struggles to stop abuses of power. Some are about skills they don’t teach in computer programming classes. And, of course, race and power: “Red Dirt Witch” takes a look at the future from the past, and a mother makes the wisest decision a mother ever made: to believe in the hope of her daughter, even when her own hope has run out.

If this is contemporary science fiction, maybe I should be reading more of it.

2 responses to “N. K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (Hachette, 2018) [IBR2020]

  1. Most enjoyable, as always, Karen. Not to the point where I’ll pick up the book, hahaha, but I am glad to learn of it.

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