What started out as the topic of an essay written back in 2013 has now become the rallying cry behind multiple award-winning writer N. K. Jemisin’s first short story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month? Following on the heels of her third Hugo win in three years for The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin’s new collection is an encapsulation of her artistic vision, from the start of her career to where she is today.
How Long ’til Black Future Month? illustrates time and again that Jemisin’s skill isn’t limited to novels, nor is it limited to worlds of epic fantasy; her short fiction shows that Jemisin just has talent, and it shines no matter the world.
Her stories run the gamut from hard science fiction, to cyberpunk, to alien invasion, to steampunk, to urban fantasy, and more, and more, and more. Jemisin’s vision is limitless, and in every story, in every world, you get the sense that she is testing the waters, tasting the air, getting a sense of how this genre works, and how she can best use it to her strengths. There’s something for everyone in these stories, and while they’re not in any sort of chronological order, there is a sensation throughout of a muscle flexing, of learning and pushing, growing stronger. Jemisin says in the prologue that much of the short fiction work she was doing was not only about growing as a writer, but growing as a person as well, and challenging her own internalized ideas about race and genre as much as she was challenging the problematic writers and issues that came before her. Much like watching her rise as a novelist, reading the wide breadth of these tales, witnessing Jemisin weave her way across a myriad of worlds and stories, you cannot help but get the sense that there is little she cannot do, or learn how to do.
Many of her short stories revolve around similar themes: community, revolution, justice, revelation, power, and more. Jemisin isn’t satisfied with just looking at a system from the outside, and documenting what’s seen; she’s far more interested in digging her hands into the cogs and gears of how such systems work, who they benefit, and how they can be recreated so that there is a more even flow of justice, of power to those who have none, of compassion for those who have been ignored. Systems are upended, or have the potential to be, in much of her short fiction, and watching her characters grapple with the idea of new worlds at their fingertips make for some of the best stories in the collection.
“The City, Born Great” (published here on Tor.com) sees a young queer, black man come into his own as the avatar of New York City, and finally have the power to stand up for himself, and for the city he loves. “The Ones Who Stay And Fight” is a direct but gentle rebuke to Le Guin’s infamous “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas,” as a city on a distant world has dedicated itself to helping everyone it can—by taking inspiration from our world, and how often times, we don’t. “Walking Awake” finds a technician in the grip of a moral crisis as she continues to feed children to alien masters that harvest their bodies and minds, and must decide if she will step up and stop them. “Stone Hunger” sees a young girl in a world of devastation hunting down the man who destroyed her life, and she may very well destroy everything to get her hands on him. “Red Dirt Witch,” sees an older, black woman, a practitioner of the old ways, face off with an immortal Fae who wants to eat one of her children, set in early 20th century Alabama. While there are plenty of stories that deal in other modes, or lean into more tragic examination, (some examples being, “Non-Zero Probabilities,” “Cloud Dragon Skies,” “The Evaluators,” “The You Train,” and “L’Alchemista,”) the majority of How Long ’til Black Future Month? is not only about characters of color being given the opportunity to see the systems affecting them, but also giving them the chance to seize the power that runs those systems, and use them to protect themselves, safeguard their communities, and write their own futures.
It was never going to be a question of how wonderful N. K. Jemisin’s first short story collection was going to be, only a matter of when it was going to be published. And I’m happy to report that in How Long ’til Black Future Month? you’re treated to the evolution and growth of one of the best science fiction and fantasy writers currently working in the field, and get to, over the course of twenty and more stories, witness her becoming the writer we know and love today. There is something for everyone in this story, from sweeping space opera, to steampunk, to the epic fantasy that would become some of her novel work, including the Dreamblood Duology and the Broken Earth Trilogy. In each of these stories, Jemisin works to answer the question fundamental in her title, showing that black future month is coming any day now—thanks to the work done by prominent black writers in the past, those writing now, and more to come in the future they’re writing today, maybe even inspired by this very collection. Jemisin is doing her part to build that future for them, and with such a powerful collection, that day isn’t far off now.
How Long ’til Black Future Month? is available from Orbit.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.