How Long Til’ Black Future Month: Stories by N.K. Jemisin
This is a beautiful melange of fantasy & science fiction told from a black perspective. Some stories feel like a red hot bullet right between the eyes in our current context. There’s a story about the spirit of a city becoming aware she not merely a human walking its street with the idea that these city spirits travel and awaken their kin across the world over time. We’re presented with a Jim Crow-era story of a black witch and her children encountering a demonic fey-like entity posing as a beautiful blonde white woman. There are stories of secret agents from an alternate universe Haiti sneaking through New Orleans to take out a white cabal. You get the transformational narrative of a young chef introduced to alien ingredients and becoming a sorceress who can create food that radically affects her customers. The most resonant for me was the opening story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” where a beautiful utopia is described, a place where all prejudices are gone, and humanity lives in beautiful harmony and follows a path that parallels and reflect our own. You can read that story, and you most certainly should here.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
I had heard about LeGuin and her science fiction novels for years, knowing they would be good but sort of tiptoeing around “classics” as I so often do, wanting to wait for the “perfect time” to read them. I think in the case of The Lathe of Heaven, I read it at a time in the world where it is matched up with what is going on so perfectly. The novel is set in Portland, Oregon, in the year 2002. The environment has collapsed, and now rain pours down on the city at all times. A large portion of the population is living in abject poverty, suffering from protein deficiencies. George Orr is a technical artist who abuses drugs to prevent himself from dreaming. He ends up getting caught and forced to go to “voluntary” psychiatric treatment. His psychiatrist is a sleep specialist named Haber. Orr reveals that when he dreams, he wakes to a world altered by those visions in his sleep. Haber is incredulous until Orr dreams of a change to the office, and it materializes. Haber begins to believe that he can “cure” Orr while harnessing this power and keep tweaking reality until it is perfect. However, the world starts changing in unpredictably volatile ways, and Orr works to remember what the world really is and decide what he should do with this gift. The Lathe of Heaven is a mindblowing novel, not a very long but deeply impactful one.
The Crooked God Machine by Autumn Christian
This was a book I picked up totally on a whim after seeing it mentioned on Reddit’s r/horrorlit community. Autumn Christian was 19 years old when she wrote The Crooked God Machine, and it definitely feels inspired by the passion and anger of a teenage soul. The story takes place on The Black Planet, a seemingly familiar yet terrifying landscape. There is a masked god that appears on television screens every night, screaming at his people. The main character Charles watches as his family falls apart from the madness seeded into his world over the decades. Family members voluntarily have mechanical “spiders” implanted in their heads to remove all physical and emotional sensation to rid themselves of pain & suffering. Serial killers become celebrities and have parades in their honor. The priests terrorize the populace with regular cullings, including an impromptu barbeque at Charles’s high school graduation. Shuttles come from Hell to pick up new condemned & Plague Machines soar through the sky raining down blood and disease. As Charles comes of age, he decides to discover why his world is this way and eventually learns more than he ever wished to know. This is the literary equivalent of a David Lynch film or H.R. Giger painting. It’s quite disturbing but not the wildest thing I’ve read, and it definitely needs some polish, however, I was thoroughly entertained and finished the book in about three days.
Little Eyes by Samantha Schweblin
I loved Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds short story collection last year and knew this was one I’d read as soon as it came out. Little Eyes drops us into the middle of a world where kentukis, digital pets operated by an anonymous user, are being purchased worldwide. People who own the creatures are called “Keepers,” while seeing through the camera lens eyes of the animals are the “Dwellers.” The novel is primarily short stories divided into chapters which we jump between. Some arcs are told from the point of view of people who have brought these “pets” into their home. One of these is a divorced father who thinks his son will love it but finds the little stuffed mole becoming a figure he is desperate to connect with as the rest of his life falls apart. Another is the girlfriend of an artist who has been transplanted to Oaxaca, Mexico growing more resentful of her partner. On the Dwellers side, we meet a Croatian man who purchases kentuki licenses and breaks through the randomized nature by selling them on a black market for people looking to spy on specific users. There’s an elderly woman in Lima, Peru, whose son buys her access because he’s always working. She becomes enamored with the young German woman who owns the bunny kentuki but starts to see a darker side to the relationship. Then there is a schoolboy in Antigua who so desperately wants to touch snow as a kentuki and becomes swept up in a revolution to free the kentukis and give them autonomy. Little Eyes is a science fiction novel with existential horror elements that wraps these stories up in some deeply unsettling ways that will resonate with the reader for a long time.
Class Notes: Posing As Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene by Adolph Reed, Jr.
I’ve been leaning more into fiction these last two months, which lets the few non-fiction texts I read get better absorbed. This is a must-read for anyone interested in really getting deep with issues brought up by Black Lives Matter. Adolph Reed, Jr wrote the essays in this collection during the Clinton administration, so while the topics may be historical, the ideas he is presenting are universal. Reed is a Black American and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. His focus is on the intersection of race, cultural, and economic politics in America. He has a particular interest in deconstructing the arguments made by Black political leaders who are on the liberal/centrist area of the spectrum as ignoring the roots of and material solutions to problems experienced by Black people living in poverty or working poor. There is an excellent essay in this collection that differentiates Black people’s experience who grew up middle class during Jim Crow and those who grew up poor and how within the Black community there was an oppressive economy. Middle-class Blacks exploited the labor of their poor brethren who were trapped because of Jim Crow. Reed also details how Christianity has been soaked into the Black culture in extremely toxic ways making certain regions more intolerable to LGBTQ people and more accepting of open misogyny and the shaming of poor Black people. What Reed does is outline how homogenizing “the Black community” as a single-minded clump of people is a racist act and benefits both the exploitative agenda of White leaders and particular bad faith Black leaders. Reed makes no bones about despising the libertarian-leaning Louis Farrakhan, Rainbow Coalition era Jesse Jackson, and showboating pastor Al Sharpton as individualists more interested in promoting their personal brands and supporting the exploitative economic structures already in place. Reed is such a compelling voice in the discourse, and everyone would benefit from reading and absorbing his ideas.