Big books intimidate me. I mean thick books—epic works. After all I have a book of reproductions of famous paintings with an eighteen inch spine, too big to sit upright on any of my bookshelves, but it’s only a little over a hundred pages and I’ve read or at least thumbed through it at least a dozen times. My fear of long books makes it odd that I majored in English in college, although back then I had a lot more time to read, especially since I didn’t have any math homework. What I’m eventually going to get to here, after making epic circles around the subject, is that N.K. Jemisin’s novels have been highly recommended to me by people whose opinions I trust, and yet I look at her book The Fifth Season in its nearly five hundred pages of glory, and it’s just part one of a trilogy, and I feel as frightened as I did when faced with having to read Great Expectations, for a class, although at least I wouldn’t be tested on Jemisin’s book. Also, and this is not necessarily an excuse, I love short stories. I’d even say I prefer short stories to novels. The beauty of a novel, especially a really long one, is, if you read before falling asleep like I do, you have something both familiar and new to look forward to each night. The beauty of short stories—and I have a lot of anthologies—is you can finish one before falling asleep and have something completely new waiting for you the next night.
So How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? was a good way to give in to my friends’ suggestion. It’s a short story collection, and even though some of the stories were pretty long, they kept me up until I finished and if I didn’t have to get up for work the next day I probably would have finished the entire book in a single night, and it’s probably just as well that I didn’t because I had something to look forward to.
And there’s something else. If I hadn’t seen a picture of N.K. Jemisin it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me that she’s a woman, or that she’s African American. Maybe I would have. The collection’s title, from an essay about Afrofuturism that Jemisin wrote, certainly implies it, although I might not have thought about it until late in the collection. The privilege of being a white guy makes it easy to overlook things like that. It wasn’t really until I started reading another African American science fiction author, Octavia Butler, several years ago that I realized most of the science fiction authors I read as a kid were white guys. I don’t remember when I figured out Andre Norton was a woman, but I didn’t realize she was until some time after I’d read a few of her books.
Getting back to N.K. Jemisin’s collection, the final story, Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters, is set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that struck a wide range of people but disproportionately affected people of color. The same is true of COVID-19. And that brings me to another point. Fiction—especially science fiction—allows us to see the world from different perspectives. Because writers are influenced by their backgrounds there’s great value not just in reading diverse works but reading works by diverse authors. Imagination is great, and many authors can imagine diverse perspectives, but experience counts too; it might even count more. As much as we struggle with the past and present we are all part of a broad community, and understanding how different parts of the community, communities within the whole, see things can strengthen that. Admittedly it can also be misleading. Octavia Butler was surprised when people read her short story Bloodchild as an allegory for slavery, although she also said, “I feel that what people bring to my work is at least as important to them as what I put into it.”
So I didn’t just pick up Jemisin, or, for that matter, Butler, out of a desire to check a diversity box or as a form of virtue signaling, although I know I risk looking like I did just by talking about it. And, with the importance of diversity in mind, I felt a pressure to like Jemisin’s stories. This was an entirely internal and self-inflicted pressure, of course. If I didn’t like her stories no one would ever have to know. I’ve got shelves crammed full of other books I could talk about, and if diversity were solely a box to be checked there’s a pretty broad spectrum within those shelves. That is to say I wouldn’t be talking about How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? if I didn’t really like it, and in fact I felt the stories got better and better the farther I got into it, and that made me want to start reading again from the beginning.
But I’ve got The Fifth Season and its sequels to look forward to over several nights.