Book Review: How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin

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.


Y’all, I love N.K. Jemisin (and her books, heh). I started with her Broken Earth series and immediately recommended it to everyone I know who loves fantasy. Then I read her Inheritance series, which in my mind is the tiniest bit less good than the Broken Earth series, but I still loved it.

And now I’ve *finally* read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, and she is just as good at writing short stories as she is at writing novels.

In the Introduction, Jemisin talks about why she started writing short fiction. While attending a writing workshop, she was advised to learn to write short stories. She didn’t understand the advice — she knew the short story is a completely different art form than the novel, and the pay for short stories was, at that time, “abysmal.” What finally convinced Jemisin to start writing short stories was the argument that writing those would improve her longer fiction. She didn’t know if that was true, but she decided to spend a year writing short fiction to find out. And she found out that writing short fiction *did* improve her longer-form fiction.

She says she wasn’t too good at the short story at first, but she definitely improved, because the stories in How Long ’til Black Future Month? are SO GOOD. And it’s obvious that some of the short stories in BFM were expanded on and used for her novels.

I enjoyed all of the stories in BFM, but my favorite is “The City Born Great,” and it just so happens that this story is the basis for her upcoming novel The City We Became, so I’m super excited for that. (I was already super excited, but now I’m doubly super excited, which is a lot of excitement.) I just love the idea of cities going through stages until their souls are ready to be born, and having one person chosen to represent the soul of a city and be its midwife, so to speak. I’m really looking forward to a longer version of this one.

I also loved “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters,” about the haunting of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If there were ever a time that supernatural and mythical creatures were going to show themselves, I have no doubt that it would be directly after a natural disaster like a hurricane or a major earthquake when people are already dazed and have let their guards down.

If Jemisin’s How Long ’til Black Future Month? sounds like your kind of thing, I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury #VintageSciFi

How did I not know that The Illustrated Man (published in 1951) is a collection of short stories? I don’t know why I was under the impression that it’s a novel. Weird.

The Illustrated Man himself is a vagrant covered in tattoos. Tattoos that he received from a woman he claims is a time-traveler. Tattoos that are animated, each telling a different story. There is a blank spot on one of his shoulder blades, if I remember correctly, that fills itself in if someone is in the Illustrated Man’s presence for too long, and it tells the future of that person. The Illustrated Man has been working for carnival freak shows, but keeps getting fired or run off because of his (apparently more freakish than they want) tattoos.

The book starts with the narrator meeting the Illustrated Man, being told his story, and then watching his tattoos for the rest of the night. The short stories collected in the book are supposed to be the stories the tattoos are telling. They are all science fiction stories.

I thought about giving a brief description of each story here, but there are 18 stories in total, and that would make for a very long post. If you’re interested, you can easily look up their synopses on Wikipedia or elsewhere, I’m sure.

Instead, I’m going to talk about the stories that I really enjoyed or that really creeped me out…

First and foremost, the short story that inspired Elton John to write “Rocket Man” is in this collection! It’s titled “The Rocket Man” (imagine that), and right away it reminded me of Elton John’s song, so I HAD to do that research. And sure enough, Bradbury’s story was the inspiration for the song. How cool is that?! I love Elton John and was so excited to learn that little tidbit.

In “The Veldt,” the children are the bad guys, and I have never been able to handle evil children in books or movies. It’s just so unnatural. [shudders]

The Last Night of the World” really made me feel some kind of way because it’s about a couple that finds out the world is going to end that night, and they have to decide how they want to spend their last night together with their children. What would your last night look like if you knew the world was going to end? Would you do anything special?

I thought “The Exiles” was super cool because it’s about the deceased authors of banned books –Dickens, Poe, and Shakespeare, to name a few — inhabiting Mars in some weird afterlife. Shakespeare’s Three Witches are there, too. It’s a neat story with a sad ending.

Marionettes, Inc.” really creeped me out because it’s about realistic robots (AI) developing feelings and thoughts of their own and turning on their human owners.

The Other Foot,” made me think a lot about how I wanted the story to end. If you haven’t read it, I don’t want to say much more than that and give the story away. I was raised to be the better person, but that’s not usually fun, and it’s almost always super frustrating.

The City” was super creepy because the city itself is the AI, and it does gross things to the humans that show up. Blech.

There are 11 other stories in the collection, and I didn’t dislike any of them. I thought some were better than others, but they were all good. I’m not sure the framework of the Illustrated Man and his tattoos works as well as Bradbury wanted it to, but that doesn’t matter, honestly. It’s about the stories, and Bradbury does short stories so well.

Have you read The Illustrated Man? What were your favorite stories?

Book Review: Foundation, by Isaac Asimov #VintageSciFi

I’ve been meaning to read Foundation for years. When I was a kid, my dad and my Nonny had these science fiction magazines, the kind that looked more like a mass market paperback than what we think of as magazines today. I don’t remember the titles of them — there were a couple different ones — but I remember them having a lot of Isaac Asimov stories in them, and I loved those stories. I read through all of those magazines, but kind of forgot about Asimov when I didn’t have more of his stuff to read. I’ve thought on and off about reading some of Asimov’s books as an adult, but never got around to it. When I found out about Vintage Science Fiction Month, I knew that Foundation needed to be on my reading list.

Foundation is written in five parts, and is set in some future time when numerous planets in the Milky Way are inhabited by us and the whole system is overseen by the Galactic Empire. The story opens with a mathematician moving to the planet Trantor to work for Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian who uses math to predict future events. Unfortunately, almost as soon as the mathematician arrives, he is picked up by the Galactic Empire’s security force and finds out that Seldon is about to be put on trial for treason because he has predicted the fall of the Empire and a return to barbarism. Seldon has put together a group to save civilization after the fall, and the result of the trial is that he and his group are exiled to a remote planet at the edge of the Empire, where they set up the Foundation.

When the Galactic Empire began to die at the edges, and when the ends of the Galaxy reverted to barbarism and dropped away, Hari Seldon and his band of psychologists planted a colony, the Foundation, out here in the middle of the mess, so that we could incubate art, science, and technology, and form the nucleus of the Second Empire.

The future course of the Foundation was plotted according to the science of psychohistory, then highly developed, and conditions arranged so as to bring about a series of crises that will force us most rapidly along the route to future Empire. Each crisis, each Seldon crisis, marks an epoch in our history.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov

The next four parts of the book are set in different (future) times after the exile, and those parts take place on Terminus, the planet the Foundation was built on. We watch the Foundation grow and advance while the Empire declines.

I was maybe into the third section of the book when I realized that this felt like a collection of connected short stories, so I did some research. Foundation was indeed, originally, four short stories published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine between 1942 and 1944. A fifth, introductory story was written when the first four stories were collected for the novel, which was published in 1951. I wonder if some of the science fiction magazines I read as a kid were Astounding Science Fiction, and I wonder if I read these stories and just don’t remember them.

What I found most interesting about Foundation are Asimov’s ideas about how a civilization basically starts from scratch and ends up in a place of technological advancement, relying on history to show them the way. It is an interesting progression.

I also found it interesting to see how the society on Terminus dealt with the fatalism of Seldon’s predictions. It’s one of those “we know that this thing is the right thing to do, but if we do this thing, then what Seldon predicted won’t come to pass, and civilization will end, so we need to do this instead, even if it feels like the wrong thing now.” It doesn’t leave much room for morality or critical thinking, which brings up questions about individualism vs. mob mentality.

I think Foundation (the novel) holds up well even though the first short story was published almost 80 years ago. Ideas and questions about leadership, economics, religion, individualism, and morality will always be relevant. The only thing that kind of disappointed me was that because each section takes place a number of years after the previous section, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with that section’s characters. I really wanted more of the mathematician’s story from the first section, but he’s there and gone so quickly. After I realized this was going to continue happening, I was able to prepare myself for it, but I still want some of the characters’ backstories (and future stories).

I plan to read the rest of the series, or at least the original trilogy, at some point this year. I’m interested to see where Seldon’s predictions continue to take the Foundation and how society continues to advance (or not). I foresee things getting worse before they get better.

Who Goes There? The Thing! #VintageSciFi

Who Goes There?, written by John W. Campbell, Jr., is my second book for Vintage Science Fiction Month. Originally published in August 1938 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine under the pen name Don A. Stuart, this is the novella that John Carpenter adapted for his 1982 movie The Thing.

In Who Goes There?, a group of scientific researchers are in the Antarctic studying various things when they come across some weird shit buried in the ice. First they find the body of something that they know right away doesn’t belong on Earth. This leads them to the discovery of the space craft the alien was flying when it crashed. They try to thaw the space craft out of the ice with thermite, but it ignites and is destroyed. What they’re left with is a big chunk of ice with an alien frozen inside.

So of course they want to thaw the ice and get the alien out so they can do tests on it and all that jazz, but it turns out that the alien is just in a kind of frozen suspension and once the ice is thawed, it gets up and goes about its business. And its business (from the human perspective) is taking over the world, which it does by absorbing living things around itself in order to BECOME those things, and more specifically, consuming the humans around itself, because that’s obviously the best way to be successful with that taking-over-the-world agenda. And the way the alien life form does this is very interesting, so I’ll leave the details out of this post in case you don’t want ALL the spoilers.

But what this book is really about, aside from the science involved (and don’t ask me how realistic the science is, because I have no clue, honestly), is how you deal with a situation in which an alien can become an imitation of any of the people you’re isolated with in the Antarctic. These guys (yes, they’re all men) have no idea who might be an alien imitation and who might be the actual person they look like. How do you test for that when all of your scientific tests are based on terrestrial life forms? How do you trust one another? What do you do to ensure the safety of the rest of the planet? And they’re men, so of course most of it involves violence and killing (and having not been in a situation like this, I have no idea how I would react, either).

At 75 pages, Who Goes There? can easily be read in one sitting, and I found it pretty interesting. I found it interesting to try to come up with solutions that were somewhere between zero and OH MY GOD EVERYONE MUST DIE. Heh.

Then I watched The Thing to see how they compared. I am a big John Carpenter fan, so I knew I would like it (and be pretty terrified), and I had already watched it when I was 9 or 10 years old (I’m pretty sure my uncle let me watch it with him). I remembered it being scary, and I remembered that the dogs didn’t get a happy ending, but that’s about it.

I watched it right before bed.

That was a mistake.

I have a firm belief that old (horror) special effects are way more terrifying than today’s CGI, and you cannot convince me otherwise. The special effects in The Thing are ON POINT and utterly disgusting. And I must have blocked the vast majority of that film out when I watched it as a kid (or I covered my eyes a lot), because I DID NOT remember the alien being that disgusting and scary. WHY DID IT SOMETIMES HAVE TO LOOK LIKE A DISGUSTING ALIEN SPIDER?! No. Just no.

The basics of the movie (alien, distrust, violence) followed the basics of the book. The differences were mainly additions to and slight variations of the original storyline. If the movie had followed the 75-page novella exactly it would have been a very short movie. So I get it. The premise was the same and the way the researchers handled the situation was basically was the same. The ending of the movie is far more bleak than the ending of the book.

Have you read Who Goes There? or have you seen The Thing? What are your thoughts about how they handled the situation? Would you have done anything differently?

Book Review: The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick #VintageSciFi

The year is 2025 and the world is split into two superpowers: Wes-Dem and Pac-Peop. World War III has kept millions of people around the world in underground “ant tanks” for 15 years. The war is fought primarily by “leadies,” robots built specifically for this purpose, and the “tankers” are responsible for leady production.

In the meantime, the government and the military machine have remained on the surface. President Talbot Yancy delivers inspirational speeches and keeps the tankers updated about the war through video. Every month the tankers are given a quota of how many leadies they need to produce for the war effort.

When Nicholas St. James, the president of the Tom Mix tank, is forced to go to the surface to buy an artiforg pancreas from the Black Market, he finds out that the war ended 13 years ago. And don’t worry, that isn’t a spoiler. You find out about this sham within the first two or three chapters of the book. It’s the why and how of the elite perpetrating this conspiracy where the story really gets good…and upsetting.

At its core, TPT is about a fucked-up world in which the rich elite keep the rest of the population under their collective thumb by keeping them in constant fear of an outside enemy (sound familiar? feel familiar?). And while this idea has been used numerous times by various authors, PKD has this way of making it feel like a new idea. He has a distinctive writing style that I really like, and I always enjoy the distinctive ways he addresses his recurring themes of struggles with personal identity and how fragile reality is (including the idea that the everyday world is an illusion cooked up by some powerful entity or person[s]).

Similarities to current events/government aside, some of my favorite elements of TPT are Dick’s made-up inventions and names for things. The tankers are told the surface isn’t safe because they might contract the Bag Plague, “where those virtues get in and cause your head to expand until it pops like a blown-up paper bag.” Or they might get the Stink of Shrink instead, where one’s head “diminish[es] in size, features included, to the circumference of a marble.” The elite travel in flapples, which I imagine as personal helicopters. Artiforgs are man-made human organs that last for a very, very long time (forever?).

The main bad guy in TPT is Stanton Brose, and PKD’s description of Brose made me laugh out loud:

“…a mound of rubber, winking and blinking, flapping seal-like its pseudopodia and peeping at him while with its slitlike mouth it gaped and grinned, pleased at his dismay; pleased to horrify both by how it physically looked and who it was.”

I mean, this is a human man PKD is describing, but he really gets across how disgusting this guy is, literally and figuratively speaking. This is the guy who gets all the artiforgs, so he just lets himself go. He knows he can always have failing organs replaced. He is the top of the elite. He has all the power. He can get away with just about anything. Dude is nasty in every way.

Then, of course, there’s the rest of the story where all the action takes place. There are murders, time travel, the use of super advanced weapons, super computers, and all the other stuff you would expect from a super advanced society in the “future” (just a reminder: this story takes place four years from now; WWIII starts in 2010).

I buddy-read TPT with two of my favorite people, sj and Will. sj is the ultimate PKD fan and my personal go-to for anything PKD-related. She had some thoughts she wanted to add…

sj: If you haven’t read a lot of pulp sf, it can be off-putting at first. It moves fast cos that’s how it was written (often cranked out in a matter of weeks or months in order to keep the lights on), and also how it’s meant to be read.

No, don’t take time to puzzle over the made up words, you’ll figure it out as we go, keep up! 

PKD in particular had a habit of putting shit in there that had NO BEARING ON THE STORY, it was just a cool thing he thought of while in the middle of his current amphetamine binge (I meant “cranked out” both literally and figuratively up there). “Fuck it, throw that in there, too.”  So you have to keep reading cos even though that one thing is REALLY FUCKING COOL AND YOU WANT TO FIXATE ON IT, it never had any importance and if you think too much about it, the rest won’t make any sense, either. 

Most pulp sf has this glorious radiance, where you never really know what’s going to happen next, and ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN cos 95% of the time, the author had no fucking clue til they got there. Which is one of the reasons I love it so much.  

TPT is a little over 200 pages, so it could easily be read in a day or two. sj pointed out that this was the first book she recommended to me seven years ago when we first “met” on her blog. I FINALLY READ IT, SJ…and I really dug it. Thank you! Plus we read it together, which made it extra special.

Up next is Asimov’s Foundation, I think.

(Vintage Science Fiction Month takes place every January and is hosted by Andrea of the Little Red Reviewer and Jacob of RedStarReviews. They have a twitter account just for this: @VintageSciFi_.)