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 city 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 figure out how to 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.
This was, I’m ashamed to admit, the first N.K. Jemisin book I’ve ever read. I don’t say this because I subscribe to the belief that there are books which are “required reading” in the fantasy genre (because I absolutely don’t), but rather because on reading the stories in How Long ’til Black Future Month, I was struck by just how damned gifted Jemisin is as a writer. And yet I’m only finding that out now.
But then, “gifted” isn’t really the best word to use here. These stories are very much a reflection of the sort of thing that Jemisin has been saying for years. Some of them explore the concept of black excellence, which isn’t a result of someone being “gifted” so much as it is the result of clawing and scraping and working harder and better than anyone else. Because that’s what it takes for a person of colour to succeed. To be “excellent”, rather than “good enough”.
Nowhere is this emphasized more than in “Valedictorian” — a story about an hard-working, over-achieving black girl who is pressured to underachieve by her family and her society, ostensibly to protect her from some horrible fate that her dystopian world will inflict upon her.
Jemisin crafts a whole bunch of fantastical and science-fictional worlds which serve as a commentary on our own society. These can be contemporary, historical, or completely imaginary… and yet they all have a message that rings true. There’s 22 stories here, and while in most anthologies or collections you would expect to find a few duds, that’s… just not the case here. Sure, there were some that hit me harder than others, but there is genuinely not a weak story in this book, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Through the impressive variety of Jemisin’s worlds, concepts, and characters, there is a tangible undercurrent of real emotion. It would be easy to dismiss or belittle the legitimate anger, but it’s so much more than that.
Yes, there’s a fury there. Some of the criticisms of our world are scathing. But there’s also an undeniable sense of hope. An acknowledgement that, yes, things are pretty shitty at the moment. Yes, some of us are fucking exhausted. But things can, and will, get better.
I don’t believe in required reading, but this book has come the closest yet to changing my mind.