Friday, December 21, 2018

Review - How Long 'til Black Future Month?

How Long 'til Black Future Month?
by N. K. Jemisin
Date: 2018
Publisher: Orbit
Reading level: A
Book type: short stories
Pages: 416
Format: e-book
Source: library

Hugo award-winning and New York Times bestselling author N. K. Jemisin sharply examines modern society in her first short story collection.

N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed speculative fiction authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story "The City Born Great," a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis's soul.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I haven't read any of this author's longer works yet. I figured trying some of her short stories might be a good introduction to her writing (and a quick way to figure out if I'm going to click with it).

Here are my thoughts on the individual stories:

"The Ones Who Stay and Fight"

It's the Day of Good Birds in Um-Helat, where every soul matters, and even the idea that some might not is anathema.

I have a feeling that I might not have gotten as much out of this story as I could have, as I suspect that it's emulating (or at least heavily referencing) Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"... which I haven't read. The story is told from a second-person point of view, and ostensibly to some sort of bigot who can't bear to hear about an egalitarian utopia. This threw me at first because, being unfamiliar with the author and the short story that's referenced, I wasn't sure if the "you" the narrator was addressing was supposed to be the reader (which would be both presumptuous and condescending) or simply another character. I figure it's probably the latter, though I couldn't say for sure.

I'm not sure how I feel about a short story that requires the reader to be familiar with another author's work; I think I prefer it when stories can stand on their own. That said, this one was fairly strong, technically speaking, and I found myself wanting to know more about the city of Um-Helat and its history. We're given tantalizing glimpses of it, but I wouldn't mind seeing those ideas fleshed out in a longer form.

"The City Born Great"

I curb stomp it with the full might of Queens and something inside the beast breaks and bleeds iridescence all over creation. This is a shock, for it has not been truly hurt in centuries.

Well, that was different. I'm not sure that I liked it, but it was interesting. The basic premise is that cities need to be birthed as living, breathing creatures... but there are also other forces that don't want them to be born at all. The story is told from the perspective of a black street kid in New York City, and the Enemy takes the form of cops. It was an interesting way to work through a fascinating premise, while also making a statement about race in America.

For some reason, though, I just didn't click with the main character. I didn't feel the peril as much as I thought I should. Part of that might just be because of the short format; we don't really have time to get to know this nameless kid before we're being asked to care about what happens to him. The writing itself is decent, but I just didn't feel much about this one.

"Red Dirt Witch"

Emmaline groaned and put a hand in the air for strength; all of her children had forgotten how to mind, all at once.

I can't really say I loved this one. The premise of the fey (or White Folk, as they're known here) preying on black children in the South is interesting, but for some reason, I found myself a little bit bored. (I'm not the biggest fan of evil fey stories to begin with, so maybe that's all it is.)


"More problematic than they're worth," Franca said, putting her free hand on one ample hip, "and so will you be if you're here a-begging. Or if you're a flasher, go find the widow Annabella down the street; I hear she's not picky."

Sometimes short stories seem almost like appetizers, leaving you hungry for more. This was one of those. I want to know what happens to Franca and the mysterious man after the end of this little morsel.

"The Effluent Engine"

As she moved her brocade bag, she noticed the young woman's eyes, which were locked on the bag with a hint of alarm. Jessaline was struck at once with unease--had she noticed the derringer handle?

I didn't really like this one. It was too long, and the writing was quite a bit weaker than in the other stories I've read so far. I almost wonder if it was written years ago, when the author hadn't found her style yet.

It's a sort of alternate-history thing, set in New Orleans in the 1800s (I'm guessing). Jessaline has been sent to find someone who can help her build an engine that will run on the waste produced by rum production. We've got a bit of a F/F romance here, but I didn't like the way the story ended. Jessaline is this kick-ass spy character throughout most of the story, but then at the end, her love interest, Eugenie, basically informs her that she (Jessaline) will be retiring for her own safety and that Eugenie will be making enough money for the both of them. I don't really like this "kept woman" trope, no matter whether it's a man or a woman doing the keeping. What's Jessaline going to do with the rest of her life? Sit around all day and eat penuche? (One thing I did like about this story were the little touches--like the mentions of food and language--that brought the setting to life.)

"Cloud Dragon Skies"

I looked over at my suitor. His face was jubilant, adoring. This was his gift to me. I was touched by it, even as my soul wept in anguish.

The last story I thought was a bit too long. This one I thought was a bit too short. It's an interesting premise: the world was dying, so there was an exodus to a colony beyond Mars. Some folks decided to stay behind, and they've chosen to live simply and in harmony with nature. The narrator, Nahautu, is the unmarried daughter of a village elder. One day, people from the colony come back in their hazmat suits to study the sky, which has turned all kinds of weird colours because of the poisons in the atmosphere. They've figured out a way to change the sky back to blue. Nahautu and her father don't like the idea; they've gotten used to their colourful sky full of dragon-shaped clouds.

There are hints of a romance between Nahautu and one of the young men from the sky, but it was more Nahautu telling the reader she was falling for him than anything we could actually see. This needed to be developed more, because what happens in the end of the story seems really disempowering, like Nahautu had no say in the matter, and it makes the ultimate resolution of the romance a little questionable. Was it really her choice?

"The Trojan Girl"

The emulated warehouse dissolved in a blur of light and numbers. Meroe let himself dissolve with it, leaping across relays and burrowing through tunnels in his true form. Zo ran at his side, a flicker of ferocity. Beautiful. Behind them came Faster, and a fire-limned shadow that was Never. Diggs moved in parallel to them, underneath the Amorph's interaction plane.

This story has a highly imaginative premise. It takes place inside a computer network of some sort. The characters are all basically code, originally created by humans, but now beings in their own right. I thought it was a really interesting place to start but, like with some of the other stories, I was let down by the execution. The character development just didn't seem to work for me. I get that Meroe is a piece of code, part of a "wolf pack" that are essentially predators. However, based on some of his actions, I felt he was a bit different from the others. Not so violent, not so willing to tear others apart simply for his own gain. But then, after something pivotal happens, the story makes reference to his "newfound compassion" and I was just sitting there thinking, "Wasn't he always kind of like that?" It's one of those cases where we're being told something rather than shown it.

Aside from that, there was one rather cringe-worthy bit that kind of reinforced stereotypes about Asians: namely, that they all look the same and have no imagination. (This could've easily been avoided by making those characters something other than Asian, if the author wanted them all to look identical. As it was, though, it just read like an uncomfortable stereotype.)


It is so easy to have principles. Far, far harder to live by them.

This has an interesting premise, but it's kind of short. It reminded me a little of The Hunger Games at first, with the tributes of teenagers, but it ended up being something else entirely. It's a good start, but... I want to know more about this world and how it came to be.

"The Storyteller's Replacement"

So many dead to speak for. And in every palace I visit, so many tales to tell.

This story takes the form of a story within a story. The main tale is one of King Paramenter, who has an unhealthy obsession about appearing virile. He thinks eating a male dragon's heart will help him in the bedroom, but all he can find is a female dragon's heart. You can guess how that goes.

I liked the old-fashioned fairy-tale flavour of this one. Pride and greed always go before a fall, it seems. I'm not sure if the whole framing device with the storyteller was actually necessary (unless there was some significance there that I missed), but I enjoyed this story overall.

"The Brides of Heaven"

A tendril of mist hung above the liquid's surface, curling slowly in the still air as if to beckon her. Such was the aura of the place that it seemed wholly natural to whisper aloud, "Hello?" And even more natural to wait for an answer.

I'm not sure if this was meant to be a cautionary tale, but that's how I read it. (It's also slightly Islamophobic, but I can't really speak to the intent there.) Basically, there's this colony of Muslims on a foreign planet. But they're all women, because the men's stasis unit malfunctioned before they landed. One woman is a zealot, and she basically ends up screwing over the whole colony because she thinks she's doing God's will.

I wasn't really a fan of this one. Aside from the names and the mentions of prayers, the Islam part seemed like it had been really glossed over. (The mention of facing east to pray didn't help. Why would you do that on an alien planet? Not all Muslims on Earth face east, anyway.) The idea of a dying colony of women was interesting, and I guess the segregation of the sexes because of religion made sense for plot purposes, but I couldn't help but think this was a warning against doing any sort of colonization missions like this in the future. Basing the composition of the colonists on something like religion is risky. What happens if someone turns into an extremist? What happens if someone wants to turn their back on the faith? Those are interesting questions that could've been explored, but the story was too short to do anything other than throw in a little shock value because of a zealot/madwoman (we're never really sure which) and her actions.

"The Evaluators"

"Well, we have a problem with overpopulation and its effects: overcrowding, homelessness, starvation, worse. We're correcting now, but the problem took a long time to develop, so it will take a long time to resolve."

"And in the meantime, your people must simply suffer?"

"Unfortunately, yes."

This story is a good example of human hubris, although I doubt the author intended it to be. Humans are probably the last species who should be getting all self-righteous about killing. We do it all the time for no good reason. Stories like this just make me think that it's a good thing we haven't encountered any alien species upon which we'd force our "values".

Aside from the subject matter, this one was hard to read. It's written as a series of transmissions/messages/e-mails/records, with lots of dates and bracketed notes. I wasn't a fan of the format.

"Walking Awake"

"Go away," she said. "I don't want to dream about you anymore." She had not been happy before these dreams, but she had been able to survive. The dangerous thoughts were going to get her killed, and he just kept giving her more of them.

One thing I've noticed is that quite a few of these stories have microaggressions. Sometimes they're racial, but in this story they were ableist. The use of the words "defect" and "defective" when referring to someone with bipolar is insulting. Yes, it may have been part of the attitude of the characters in the story; unfortunately, since it was told in the third person, that wasn't necessarily clear (I would've have less of a problem with this if the story had had a first-person point of view, because then we would've known we were just reading the narrator's judgments... not necessarily the author's).

Aside from that, I didn't really like this one. There were some continuity problems, and I just couldn't get behind the premise, which is more of an urban legend than anything (i.e., if you die in a dream, you die in real life). It just didn't seem like a plausible mechanism for achieving the goal. The story had a cool overall premise with villains that might give one nightmares, but a weak execution.

"The Elevator Dancer"

Shift change, changeshift, humdrum and ho hum, and on the little screen a woman dances. She is in the elevator. She is alone in the elevator and she is dancing because there is no one to see her but the security camera, and the security guard who watches its output on the little screen.

This story takes place in some sort of theocratic dystopia. It's very short, but I wasn't a fan of the style. It's too artsy, with stream-of-consciousness passages that are more like run-on sentences, and a culmination that looks like it came out of a book of pretentious poetry (complete with lowercase letters and weird line breaks). It's an odd shift away from the style of most of the other stories. Though the author was able to cram a lot into just a few pages, I can't really get excited about it either way.

"Cuisine des Mémoires"

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 the memory was made.

I quite enjoyed this one. It involves a mysterious restaurant in New Orleans that can recreate any dish from any moment in history. It examines the nature of memory and why it's important, and how we can end up living within it if we're not careful. The premise is kind of supernatural, but the themes are more universal.

"Stone Hunger"

It's hard to think through the clamor of fever and pain, even the air sounds loud in her ears, but she decides at last that the city-dwellers have peculiar taste in art.

This is a weird story, and I couldn't figure out what was going on at first. Was the girl tasting earthquakes? It took a while before I understood what the deal was. This is sort of a post-apocalyptic fantasy, and it introduced so many ideas and so much history that I don't think it really worked as a short story. I would've much rather seen some of these ideas fleshed out in a longer work.

The writing gets a little artsy at times, resorting to run-on sentences, sentence fragments, strange uses of italics, and even a lack of punctuation. Those bits are kind of random, too, so they feel more like places where the editor just fell asleep.

"On the Banks of the River Lex"

He was not like many of his fellows, who were confined to the places where they had been conceived and nurtured. Where there was life, there was death, and where there was death, was his domain. He was one of the few who could, if he wished, travel the whole world. It was good to be Death.

This story takes place in the ruins of New York City after some unspecified apocalypse, where all that remains of humanity are our thoughts and myths, personified. The plot follows Death as he encounters an intelligent octopus at a ruined aquarium, and witnesses the cycle of life. It's an interesting little snippet of a premise, but I found myself wondering more about what had happened to the world than about the octopus and its descendants. Maybe that's missing the point, but... that's just how I felt.

"The Narcomancer"

The land of dreams was as infinite as the mind of the Goddess who contained it. Though every soul traveled there during sleep, it was rare for two to meet. Most often, the people encountered in dreams were phantoms--conjurations of the dreamer's own mind, no more real than the palm trees and placid oasis which manifested around Cet's dreamform now. But real or not, there sat Namsut on a boulder overlooking the water, her indigo veils wafting in the hot desert wind.

In trying to create a world that values inclusion, the author inadvertently made it even more sexist. It's a world where the major religion involves goddess worship... and yet most of the clergy are male. The exception is the Sisterhood, and they're looked down upon by the men. Having a male as part of the Sisterhood struck me as both ridiculous and as a misguided attempt at inclusion. In a world where women already have so little of their own, why would a man be allowed into that sacred space? And why would women have so little of their own to begin with--in a world where they're nothing but property to be raped and mistreated--if their entire religious system is based on worship of the feminine? That didn't make a lot of sense.


The woman was breathing hard, barely coherent. "When they give you that award, your legacy ends. It means they think you've done all you're going to do, the best you'll ever do. It means they stop listening."

This story is truly bizarre. Aside from the premise (which is unique and weird enough that I don't want to spoil it), it's told in a series of six chapters... which are all out of order. It's experimental, to say the least. And rather disturbing. I really don't know what to make of this one.

"Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows"

It had taken the threat of true isolation, of wandering lost through endless wastelands until thirst or exposure killed her, to make her see the apartment as haven and not prison. So half-blinded by tears she had run back, thanking God that her shoes were cheap. One of them had an uneven sole, which scuffed a little crescent-shaped mark into the dusty soil. The moon had led her home.

The premise of this one is really interesting. A group of random people, connected by the Internet, are all that's left after some sort of quantum apocalypse. Each exists in their own pocket universe, but if anyone forms too close of an emotional bond with another, they disappear. Nobody knows if they cease to exist or if it's some form of escape from this new world. It's a really neat idea, and I can't help wondering about the word choices, especially toward the end; are they random, or are they hints at what happens next?

"The You Train"

There was a T train waiting at the platform this morning. Did you see it? No, I never heard of the T either. Maybe it's new.

The doors were open when I first stepped onto the platform, but when other people showed up, the doors closed and the train left. I wonder where it went?

I have no idea what this one is about. Sentient subway trains? A metaphor for suicide? I honestly have no idea. Sometimes I just want to read a story and not have to analyze it for meaning; I hate feeling like I'm back in high school, reading for grades rather than enjoyment. (The stream-of-consciousness style--complete with run-on sentences--and second-person POV didn't really work for me here, either.)

"Non-Zero Probabilities"

Adele finds others, all tired of performing their own daily rituals, all worried about their likelihood of being outliered to death.

This is an interesting premise. New York City is suddenly under the control of luck... both good and bad.

It's yet another one of those stories that act like an appetizer. Nothing really gets resolved. There's potential there for a much longer story. Just when you start enjoying the ride... it ends.

"Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters"

The lizard laughed. Its laugh was a strange, high-pitched trilling sound, and with each exhalation, the water around Tookie reacted, tiny pointillations dancing on the murky surface. When it stopped laughing, the water became still once more.

I don't know if this was supposed to be the show-stopper piece of this book, but I found it a little dry. It takes place during Katrina (and shortly thereafter) and involves talking dragons. There was something about the way this one was written that made it really grate against my brain. It could've been the dialogue. (I've never seen people replace "there's" with "it's" before; it took me a while to figure out it was part of the vernacular and not an error.) The story is an indictment of hatred and apathy, but... it just didn't excite me, one way or the other.

So... I'm not quite sure what to make of all this. I think I have one of the author's novels in my TBR pile, and collection didn't make me not want to read it, so that's something. I'm really wondering why I didn't enjoy these stories more, though. The writing in most of them is pretty strong, and the subject matter is interesting. A lot of them, though, felt incomplete, or just not long enough; that may be why I didn't like some of them more than I did.

Overall: 2.84 out of 5


  1. Thanks for breaking it down by story.

  2. The Ones Who Stay and Fight did nothing for me. No real character development, the world building was done in a stultifying fashion, and the same ambiguity you point out — whether the narrator was speaking to the reader or to a possibly unnamed second character— only helped to make things worse (to me at least).

    I hoped that was a fluke and the next story would be better. No such luck. The stream of consciousness narration from a character with nothing to hang on to — I don’t know his motivations, his desires, his conflicts — gave me nothing, no reason to care for this character. I’m a patient reader, and I waited for this to be rectified, but to no avail. I'm hoping the next story will improve things, otherwise I may have to bail on this collection.

    I picked it up in the first place because I read an interview Jemisin gave in either The Writer or Writer's Digest. I loved what she had to say. And then I checked her out online, and found pretty much nothing but praise.

    These short stories though, at least the first two that I've read, aren't even good (in my opinion). I read a lot of short fiction, too. The short story is probably my favorite form of fiction. I've got a whole bookshelf of anthologies, and I've got subscriptions to Black Static, Interzone, Crimewave, Cemetery Dance, Not One of Us, and more. Most of what's out there is serviceable, some even good, and once in a while you'll find a gem. Considering the praise, I expected a bag full of gems with How Long 'till Black Future Month, and so far I've been disappointed.

    Thank you for doing your review, story by story. Much appreciated. My question to you is would you recommend I continue. Is it worth it? Does it get any better?

    Thanks again for your reviews.


    1. If you didn't like the first few, it's hard to say if you'll like any of the others. A few are written in a very different style, so you might find something you like if you continue.