Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
When we look up at the night sky, space is black as far as the eye can see. Yet, when we read novels about it or watch something on TV on in the movie theatre, it is white beyond all comprehension.
That was the thought that launched the collection we’ll be discussing today. Funded in part through a Kickstarter campaign, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond is a colossal anthology of some forty short speculative stories, written by and (by and large) about people of colour.
In this allegedly enlightened day and age you’d think there’d be no need for such a project. You’d be wrong, as the collection’s co-editor Bill Campbell argues:
Science fiction often implies that racism will be dead in the future. At least, they never really address it so we can only assume it will be. [But] if racism were truly dead, roughly 6 out of every 7 cast members would be people of colour as opposed to, say, 2 out of every 15. [...] That’s one of my problems with popular culture. Hopefully, Mothership is part of the solution. After all, as this collection exemplifies, there are a lot of creative people out there doing quality work who are more than ready and are exceptionally qualified to give this culture some much needed... colour.
The world ends, in different ways, in both of today’s tales. In “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows,” an early N. K. Jemisin joint, the apocalypse has already come and gone—albeit surprisingly quietly. In this mundane milieu time is perpetually reset to a point before it all went wrong for some unrevealed reason:
The day started over after about ten hours. Incomplete reality, incomplete time. She’d stayed awake to watch the rollover numerous times, but for a phenomenon that should’ve been a string-theorist’s wet dream, it was singularly unimpressive. Like watching a security camera video loop: dull scene, flicker, resume dull scene. Though once the flicker had passed there was grilled fish and stale milk in her fridge again, and her alarm clock buzzed to declare that 7:00 a.m. had returned. Only her mind remained the same.
Helen yearns for something more, of course; something she finally finds online, where “the mingling of so many minds kept time linear.” To wit, her only connection to the world beyond the walls she’s come to see as a sort of sanctuary is by way of the blog posts that punctuate “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows.”
Then, when Helen publishes a poem, she’s surprised to receive a direct message in response from an appreciative new member of the group. What follows is a furious exchange of feelings via emails; emails that connect the two users in a very real sense, just as the conspiracy theorists who have been wondering why the world ended posit a new possibility: that “the only people still alive across the proliferated realities were those whose ties to the world had been weak from the beginning. [That] friendship, family, love, could be the reason that some people just disappeared.”
Will Helen and her new friend make that leap? I dare say they may. I was certainly rooting for them to...
Ten years on from its initial outing in Ideomancer, where it’s still available to read for free, “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” remains an affecting fiction about connection in a fundamentally disconnected era. It’s as relevant today as it was way back when Facebook was a baby.
The wonderful worldbuilding that Jemisin has made her trademark is engrossing even here, where it exists in magnificent miniature. In addition, she handles Helen and her friends well, representing just the right mix of the internet’s incessant negativity and the sense of belonging that can come from participating in its more mature communities.
Furthermore, the story’s structure serves a powerful purpose: by alternating between Helen’s narration and bits from her and her followers’ blogs, Jemisin shows how the drudgery of the day to day can be enlivened and enriched by our exchanges with other people. In our world as well as this one, I warrant.
Our second story is still stranger, structurally, and somewhat less successful. But that might be because “Monstro” is apparently part of something larger, namely “an insane novel” in the making by Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz “about a strange invader virus-type thing that takes root in the poorest, hottest places in the world.”
That’s exactly what happens in Haiti here, in a terrifying tomorrow not too estranged from today. La Negrura, or The Darkness, is a disease that makes black people blacker... so of course folks make fun of it at first. But this is just the first phase of an infection that “gets sketchy as hell”:
A lockdown was initiated and a team of W.H.O. docs attempted to enter the infected hospital in the quarantine zone. Nine went in but nobody came out. Minutes later, the infected let out one of their shrieks, but this one lasted twenty-eight minutes. And that more or less was when shit went Rwanda. [...] An outbreak of homicidal violence, according to the initial reports. People who had never lifted a finger in anger their whole lives—children, viejos, aid workers, mothers of nine—grabbed knives, machetes, sticks, pots, pans, pipes, hammers and started attacking their neighbours, their friends, their pastors, their children, their husbands, their infirm relatives, complete strangers. Berserk murderous blood rage.
In the midst of this, our unnamed narrator—a nineteen-year-old student spending the summer with his mum in the Dominican Republic—makes an immensely wealthy friend, does a bunch of drugs, and falls in love; for through Alex, he meets Mysty:
Chick was as much of a loner as I was. She never bought anything for anyone, didn’t do community work, and when she saw children she always stayed far away. Animales, she called them—and you could tell she wasn’t joking.
No, she wasn’t anything close to humane, but at nineteen who need humane? She was buenmosa and impossible and when she laughed it was like this little wilderness.
And so we see how similar these stories are. In both, lonely people find comfort in one another while the world ends. In both, the apocalypse is little more than an extreme situation that pushes our protagonists to make the moves they otherwise wouldn’t.
Love will always find a way, eh?
A greater sense of connection between the little and the large—that is, the backdrop and the characters—makes “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” the more satisfying of the two touching tales we’ve considered today. There remains much to recommend “Monstro”—not least Diaz’s confident characterisation, nor the unadulterated horror of the scenario he hints at, meanwhile his monsters put me in mind of Tom Pollock’s—but its apocalypse is just too far apart from the beating heart of the more normative aspect of its narrative.
“Monstro” is also available online, albeit behind a paywall, but I’d recommend you order a copy of Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond instead of supporting The New Yorker’s practically primeval practices. In truth, I’ve hardly scratched the surface of all that this tremendous collection has to offer in the course of composing today’s column... but hey, that’s exactly what time off is for.
Which is to say: happy holidays, all!
We’ll talk again in 2014.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.