The Strata of a Writer: N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

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N.K. Jemisin has had a helluva year. In August, she became the first novelist to pick up three Hugo awards for best novel in a row—all three for the books of the Broken Earth trilogy. She also took home a Nebula award for the final novel of the series, The Stone Sky. These feats put her both in the vaunted company of such luminaries as Asimov, Herbert, Gaiman, and Le Guin, and in her own league entirely. On the heels of all that awards recognition arrives Jemisin’s first collection of short stories, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? assembling 22 of her short fictions, spanning the years from 2004 to 2017. It is a glimpse of the work that made her the writer she is today, and a promise of all the stories she has yet to tell.

Though there are a few newly published entries—“Cuisine des Mémoires,” which, like another story included here, “L’Alchemista,” focuses on the cultural power of food—most of these tales were previously published, and intheir collected form, they constitute a practice and engagement with science fiction over the course of Jemisin’s career, from the very first story she published, to brief sojourns to worlds she would return to in longer form, to responses to other writers’ works.

Many of these stories were written before she became a published novelist (with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, in 2010) as a sort of proof of concept exercise; as such, they provide an early glimpse of worlds as they formed. “The Narcomancer” takes place in something like the world of the Dreamblood duology, beautiful and veined with tragedy. “Stone Hunger” is an early take on the world that came into season in the Broken Earth trilogy. (In her forward, she notes that she plays with the concept of genii locorum—“places with minds of their own”—in several of these short fictions, an idea that is operative throughout Broken Earth.) “The Trojan Girl”, a cyberpunk story about the quest for freedom, was a test case for a novel that never came to be; instead, it finishes up in “The Valedictorian,” a story about the dangers of excellence. The Hugo Award-nominated “The City Born Great” is another nascent work: Jemisin is currently expanding it to novel length, with publication expected next year.

Several stories are explicit reactions to works by other science fiction writers. “Walking Awake,” about a woman who manages the people who will become host bodies to aliens, responds to Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters. Never having read The Puppet Masters, I don’t understand the intertext, but the story works on its own terms. I was on steadier ground with “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” which opens the collection, and is in conversation with Ursula K. Le Guin’s heavily anthologized “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The ventriloquism and then subversion of Le Guin’s writing style and themes made me smile—especially the well-timed deployment of an expletive. It is a thoughtful upending of Le Guin’s dys/utopia. (For the record, I am a Le Guin superfan.)

When my sister was learning to play the fiddle, she used to thump around in her room on the floor above mine, scattering through jigs and reels, picking up this tune and riffing off into that one. There was a steady beat to her practice, tying the slow and fast, the happy and sad, the minor and major that poured off her violin; the through line was her, and her instrument. How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? feels like this to me: the practice of a craft, one that walks around the room trying out voices and worlds, fiddling with perspectives and points of view. The stories are both familiar and strange, the history of a writer coming into her own.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is available now.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Prison Planets, Mechanical Animals, and Stories from a Black Future

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Rowankind, by Jacey Bedford
In an alternate 1802, privateer and witch Ross Tremayne is tasked by the seven lords of the Fae with confronting the mad King George III, who might not be quite as mad as he appears. Meanwhile, her reformed pirate crew is having trouble going straight, magical creatures are running amok, and Ross’s partner—a feral wolf shapechanger—isn’t quite ready to face up to his responsibilities. Bedford’s Rowankind series is a fun dive into a weird and compelling alt-history—with added swashbuckling, sorcery, ghosts, and shape-shifters.

Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech, edited by Lauren Beukes and Selena Chambers
Animals often show up in literature as a means of exploring humanity, allowing us to compare and contrast ourselves with creatures that share the planet with us, yet are so different as to be almost alien. So too will it be, speculate the contributors to this anthology, with machines and automata made in the form of living beings. Editors Lauren Beukes and Selena Chambers bring together 15 new stories exploring biomimicry—the design of machines that mimic the animal world—from the likes of Carrie Vaughn, Kat Howard, Aliette de Bodard, Nick Mamatas, and more, alongside essays from real-world design experts.

Bright Light: Star Carrier: Book Eight, by Ian Douglas 
Ian Douglas delivers the exciting eighth installment of the Star Carrier series. Trevor Gray has been stripped of his command—beached. As humanity faced certain defeat against an invading alien force with technology and firepower superior to anything Earth can summon, Gray threw in his lot with the artificial intelligence known as Konstantin—but the gamble didn’t pay off, and now he’s become a bystander to humanity’s last stand. At least until the second part of Konstantin’s plan kicks in, and Gray suddenly finds himself tapped to travel to the distant star Deneb, where he’ll use the use the advanced AI Bright Light’s help to contact another alien race—and perhaps find a way to stave off disaster for the human race.

Abandoned, by W. Michael Gear
Gear is an an anthropologist and archaeologist who has published more than 50 books, many co-authored by his wife. The second book in the horror/military SF Donovan series picks up where Outpost left off;. On the beautiful, resource-rich, and extremely deadly planet Donovan, Supervisor Kalico Aguila has founded a new colony called Corporate Mine, where she and her people mine for minerals and precious metals. Another group of settlers have somehow managed to survive Donovan’s unfriendly lifeforms at an old, abandoned base, and live in fear of being discovered by the corporate forces that seek to extract Donovan’s riches, no matter the human cost. Gear explores the inner workings of a group of very human characters trying to survive the deadly perils of an alien planet—and the deadly perils of their fellow humans—and reveals more tantalizing secrets of the strange planet and its stranger indigenous lifeforms.

How Long ‛til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin solidified her place as one of the most important SFF writers of the 21st century with her third consecutive Hugo win for The Stone Sky earlier this year. With her next novel still a year away, it’s a perfect time to explore the true breadth of her talent, which comes through to grand effect in her first collection of short fiction. The highlight is the Hugo-nominated ‛The City Born Great,” the biography of a living city and the basis for the aforementioned next book, but there is much more to savor in these 22 tales. Jemisin is an essential voice in modern-day SFF; she writes both as a fan—her story “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” for example, was penned as a direct response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—and for fans—there’s a new story here set within the universe of the Broken Earth trilogy. Essential.

Infernal Machines, by John Hornor Jacobs 
John Hornor Jacobs delivers the third and concluding book in his Incorruptibles trilogy, an under-the-radar gem that deserves discovery by many more readers. Shoe and Fisk, mercenaries in a world that combines fantasy, ancient Rome, and the Wild West, find themselves dealing with an emperor sliding into insanity; an invasion by an overwhelming enemy force; and Livia Cornelius, highborn lady of Rume and mother of Fisk’s child—who he has never seen. Fisk is determined to find his way to them, even if it means crossing battlefields and front lines. We’re mystified as to why these books haven’t caught on—Chuck Wendig brilliant billed them as The Lord of the Rings meets The Gunslinger, a description as accurate as it is irresistible—but hopefully that will change now that you can binge them all, one after another.

Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher
Making a new start in the world of T. Kingfisher’s (aka Ursula Vernon) Clockwork Boys series, Swordheart follows Halla, a housekeeper who inherits the estate of her great-uncle, and all that goes along with it, including a trapped immortal swordsman. Halla frees him by removing the sword that cursed him, putting him in her debt and setting him against all enemies, including her own in-laws. The real threat, though, comes from the very sword that freed him.

Choices: All New Tales of Valdemar, edited by Mercedes Lackey
Here is another collection (the twelfth!) of stories set in the long-enduring fantasy kingdom of Valdemar. The greatest thing about this anthology series—aside from the chance to revisit a beloved imagined world—is that Lackey is more than willing to open her doors to new, up-and-coming writers whose names might not be familiar, but whose love for Lackey’s creation is splashed across every page. This volume includes 23 new tales.

The Razor, by J. Barton Mitchell
Who doesn’t love a good prison planet? In Mitchell’s fourth novel, engineer Marcus Flynn certainly doesn’t. He’s framed for murder and sentenced to live out his days on the Razor, a max-sec prison planet. Marcus’ first days in the place are bad enough, but when the planet suddenly experiences a catastrophic event that drives all the guards and personnel to flee, things go extremely sideways and he finds himself trapped with the worst of the worst on a dying world. Marcus is offered a way out, but it means taking part in a deadly mission to retrieve valuable data from a quarantined research lab. He pulls together a team of allies from among the inmates and dives into a boiling maelstrom of vicious killers and unfriendly aliens, and slowly begins to realize there may be more behind his trip to the Razor than he realized.

The Eternity War: Exodus, by Jamie Sawyer
Sawyer delivers the second book in his Eternity War series, picking up the story of Lieutenant Keira Jenkins and her crew of Jackals—a group of Simulant Operations Programme soldiers who were raw, green recruits at the start of the first book, and are only a bit less so now. They’ve survived a run-in with the terrorist network known as the Black Spiral, a circumstance complicated by an unexpected betrayal. But survive they did, and now they’re drifting in space, their ship damaged. As they fall into the clutches of the Asiatic Directorate, any hope of getting back to Alliance-controlled space seems to vanish, especially because Jenkins has a history with the Directorate—and it’s not a happy one. Sawyer is known for writing fast-paced, action-forward novels with characters compelling enough to keep you gobbling up one book after another. Two books in, we can say with confidence that The Eternity War series is right in his wheelhouse.

What new SFF is on your list this week?

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