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.

Goodreads

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?

Everything’s Eventual – Stephen King

Short stories are hard to write. That might sound weird or wrong to people who don’t know better or have never thought too deeply about it before, but it’s true. Just because it’s short, doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Think about it: with a novel, you have at least 200 pages with which to begin the story, develop the characters (and the story), then end the story. With a short story, you have to do all that in far fewer pages. If you can do that in 20 pages or less…and the story is also really good…I commend you. This might be easier for some people than for others, but it’s still tough in general.

As much as I love Uncle Steve–and I love him quite a bit–I’m not afraid to say that his writing can be verbose. I love him despite that, as frustrating as it can be sometimes. Because of his sometimes-verboseness, I find myself in awe of his ability to write great short stories. I’ve read a number of short story collections by a number of authors, and while I wasn’t disappointed with any of them, SK comes in at the top of my list as the Master of Short Storytelling.

Everythings Eventual

Everything’s Eventual, published in 2002, is a collection of 14 short stories. Some of them are better than others, relatively speaking, but they are all very, very good. As a Dark Tower fan, and as a fan of Randall Flagg, this collection has been given a special place in my heart. There were two new-to-me DT-related stories in this collection, as well as two stories featuring Randall Flagg. Score! I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read the DT-related stories before now, but I blame that on the SK reading project I have going and my brain’s need to stick to the plan and do things in order.

Some of the stories in EE are straight-up horror and would scare anyone. A few, I think, would be considered more personal horrors–they might not be universal. And some of the stories aren’t horror at all, but show the darker sides of human beings and the darker feelings we experience in everyday life. And as always with SK, there is that touch (or more) of dark humor in each story. You can’t help but laugh even though you might not find the same thing funny if it was happening to you. I love that SK’s stories–whether short stories or novels–can make me laugh in the middle of being scared shitless or being intensely sad. SK is very good at making me feel ALL THE THINGS. That’s the mark of an excellent writer, in my opinion.

If you’re an SK fan, you’ve most likely already read this one. If you haven’t, I recommend it. I would also recommend this to someone who wants to read SK but doesn’t know where to start, maybe for people who don’t necessarily want to jump into his most horrific/gory stuff. I always think recommending SK’s short stories to someone who isn’t sure about him is a good idea–it gives them a taste without making them commit to an entire novel they might not like. And I think this collection could be a good place to start.