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

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.

Follow B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy