Bestselling novelist N.K. Jemisin’s marvelous and wide-ranging debut story collection takes its title from her 2013 essay “How Long ’Til Black Future Month? The Toxins of Speculative Fiction, and the Antidote That is Janelle Monae.” It’s a sharp critique of the racist and sexist attitudes promulgated by predominantly white male speculative fiction writers, editors and readers from the genre’s so-called Golden Age until recently. (The essay isn’t included in her new book but can be read on her website, nkjemisin.com). In it, Jemisin recounts how, as a young, self-confessed geek, she loved watching reruns of old shows like “The Jetsons” and the original “Star Trek” with her father, another die-hard science fiction fan. Yet even as a girl, she noted the disturbing absence of brown-skinned people in “The Jetsons’ ” cartoon future.
One person’s utopia is another’s apocalypse, a notion this acclaimed author explores in much of her work. In 2016, she became the first African American writer to receive the Hugo Award for a novel. She went on to make history when that book’s sequels netted back-to-back Hugos, making her the first writer to receive three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel, among other honors. Fans of those books will be delighted to find a stand-alone story from the same disaster-ridden world in “How Long ’Til Black Future Month” — “Stone Hunger,” in which a young woman’s ability to tap into her vast continent’s seismic power brands her an outcast. “The world hates what she is; she learned that early on.” As in most of the stories here, the protagonist of “Stone Hunger” refuses to accept the sectarian role dictated by those who rule, or seem to rule, the broken world she inhabits.
A post-human dystopia forms the backdrop for “The Trojan Girl” and “Valedictorian,” stories that share what Jemisin calls the same “cybergothy universe.” In the first, a barbed take on Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” and the segrationist Jim Crow laws in 19th and 20th century America, rebel Artificial Intelligences (AIs) survive within the Amorph, a rogue cyberworld whose denizens push against the constraints set by their human creators: “Thou shalt not self-repair. Thou shalt not surpass the peak of human intellect. Thou shalt not write or replicate.”
In a deft reversal of that tale, Zinhle, the brilliant young human protagonist of “Valedictorian,” finds herself caught between the transhuman AI elite, who would welcome her into their world for political reasons, and the subjugated humans — Zinhle’s family, friends and teachers — who are unable to acknowledge or encourage her genius. “She understands why so many people hate her now,” Zinhle realizes. “By existing, she reminds them of their smallness. By being different, she forces them to redefine ‘enemy.’ ”
Some of Jemisin’s strongest stories deal explicitly with the horrors of racism in a world that is recognizably our own. “Red Dirt Witch” subverts the classic trope of the predatory Faerie Queen who steals human children, most famously exemplified by Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Emmaline, a young mother in early 20th century Alabama, struggles to protect her daughter Pauline from the White Lady, who would seize the girl as part of the fairy tithe. When the White Lady shows Emmaline a vision of the future that shows the destruction of “bright black minds … breaking their spirits and funneling them into jails,” it’s up to Pauline to offer a countervailing vision of a man “brown as fig jam” on the White House steps, alongside a woman “black as molasses, her gaze hard and high and proud.”
The gorgeously written “The Narcomancer” immerses readers in the complex world of Jemisin’s two epic fantasy Dreamblood novels. Jemisin creates a culture as intricate, strange and compelling as that of ancient Egypt (an inspiration for the books). Here as elsewhere she doesn’t flinch from portraying characters who face difficult, often terrible, choices and catastrophic events; but her deep compassion for her characters allows readers to breathe — and often grieve— alongside them.
The author displays a lighter touch in two accounts of the power, emotional and magical, associated with sharing a good meal. This sense of communality extends through all her stories, especially those that extol the way that great cities irrevocably change their inhabitants and are in turn changed by them. These can be real places, like New Orleans and New York, or imaginary ones, like the setting for “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” a timely riff on Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”
The final story in this collection, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters,” is an unforgettable depiction of New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina: a biting reminder that not all dystopias are fictional and not all “natural” disasters are caused by the elements alone. The young Jemisin disheartened by the whitewashed future depicted in “The Jetsons” grew up to become a writer who is changing it with her boundlessly imaginative and diverse renditions of worlds to come — including that of “The Fifth Season,” now in development for a TV series.
Hand’s novel “Curious Toys” will be published next year.