In the foreword to Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson writes that as a teen she despaired of the human race. I remember that feeling; perhaps as recently as last week. Then again, I also empathize with her closing line, “so part of the work of these past few decades of my life has been the process of falling in love with hominids.“
Me too, Ms. Hopkinson. Me too.
This is an imaginative, provocative collection of stories that reflect the complexities of human existence, the moments of good and the impulses of bad. The collection contains eighteen pieces that were written over the course of years, some written to specific themes, and published in variety of venues. Each piece has a short introduction that generally provides background to the story, usually in regards to the story influences. “Shift,” for instance, mentions Peter Straub, “Ours Is the Prettiest” gives some background to Bordertown, while “Delicious Monster” mentions the plant that inspired it. I appreciate the information and the variety of insights; anthologies that are presented without context often feel disjointed, while authors that provide long explanations for the story origins distract from the actual pieces.
And what a collection this is. Explaining the subject and emotion of her works is challenging–I don’t read much in the literary fiction genre, and there aren’t many like her in sci-fi and fantasy. It’s rather like Octavia Butler sat down to brainstorm with Angela Carter in a beach cottage rented from Jeff Vandermeer. Though the stories draw on fantastical elements, they are usually written in contemporary setting with folk-tale structure. A few have a pronounced horror feel, such as “Blushing,” which clearly originates with the Bluebeard tale. “The Easthound” opens with a look at a post-apocalypse life of a group of children starving themselves, hoping that by preventing puberty they prevent the dreaded “sprout.” Others are more balanced, but still flirt with the awful. In “Soul Case,” a group of indigenous people protecting themselves against invasion at great cost. The ghosts in “Old Habits” are forced to relive the moments of their death every day–in a shopping mall. Beauty, horror, sacrifice, sexuality, miracles and greed are all wrapped up together.
Hopkinson’s stories frequently reflect her upbringing in the Caribbean, drawing upon a diversity of mythology, language and cultures not often seen in sci-fi and fantasy. The inclusion gives a chance to integrate issues from the various backgrounds without feeling didactic. “Ours is the Prettiest” has a glancing look at domestic abuse in lesbian relationships. In”The Smile on the Face,” a self-conscious teenage Gilla asks her mother for micro-braids, indirectly raising the volatile topic of ‘nappy hair:’
“Her mum came over, put her warm palms gently on either side of Gilla’s face and looked seriously into her eyes… “you want to tame your hair,’ her mother said… ‘You want hair that lies down and plays dead, and you want to pay a lot of money for it.”
There were a few missteps for me. Possibly it is me and the short story form; I’m impatient with stories that clearly feel like an exercise in cleverness, such as “Snow Day” which was a challenge to reference certain works. “Message in a Bottle” has the feel of a budding novella, and the truncated ending did a disservice both to the fascinating sci-fi concepts and the desperate emotion of one of the characters.
The writing is lovely, vivid; sometimes challenging when it integrates the patois of the multi-lingual. Sometimes its playful, particularly in “Emily Breakfast,” which centers on a talented cat and a missing chicken. Sometimes the language is clear but its the ideas that cause mind-stretch, as when a time-traveler tries to explain a particular shell:
“Every shell is a life journal, made out of the very substance of its creator, and left as a record of what it thought, even if we can’t understand exactly what it thought. Sometimes interpretation is a trap. Sometimes we need to simply observe.“
Many, many thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for a reviewer’s copy. Please note that all quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof, but I could not resist sharing some of the wonders of Hopkinson’s style.