Black Stars

edited by Nisi Shawl & Latoya Peterson

Cover image

Publisher: Amazon Original Stories
Copyright: August 2021
ISBN: 1-5420-3272-5
ISBN: 1-5420-3270-9
ISBN: 1-5420-3271-7
ISBN: 1-5420-3273-3
ISBN: 1-5420-3268-7
ISBN: 1-5420-3269-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 168

Buy at Powell's Books

This is a bit of an odd duck from a metadata standpoint. Black Stars is a series of short stories (maybe one creeps into novelette range) published by Amazon for Kindle and audiobook. Each one can be purchased separately (or "borrowed" with Amazon Prime), and they have separate ISBNs, so my normal practice would be to give each its own review. They're much too short for that, though, so I'm reviewing the whole group as an anthology.

The cover in the sidebar is for the first story of the series. The other covers have similar designs. I think the one for "We Travel the Spaceways" was my favorite.

Each story is by a Black author and most of them are science fiction. ("The Black Pages" is fantasy.) I would classify them as afrofuturism, although I don't have a firm grasp on its definition.

This anthology included several authors I've been meaning to read and was conveniently available, so I gave it a try, even though I'm not much of a short fiction reader. That will be apparent in the forthcoming grumbling.

"The Visit" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This is a me problem rather than a story problem, and I suspect it's partly because the story is not for me, but I am very done with gender-swapped sexism. I get the point of telling stories of our own society with enough alienation to force the reader to approach them from a fresh angle, but the problem with a story where women are sexist and condescending to men is that you're still reading a story of condescending sexism. That's particularly true when the analogies to our world are more obvious than the internal logic of the story world, as they are here.

"The Visit" tells the story of a reunion between two college friends, one of whom is now a stay-at-home husband and the other of whom has stayed single. There's not much story beyond that, just obvious political metaphor (the Male Masturbatory Act to ensure no potential child is wasted, blatant harrassment of the two men by female cops) and depressing character studies. Everyone in this story is an ass except maybe Obinna's single friend Eze, which means there's nothing to focus on except the sexism. The writing is competent and effective, but I didn't care in the slightest about any of these people or anything that was happening in their awful, dreary world. (4)

"The Black Pages" by Nnedi Okorafor: Issaka has been living in Chicago, but the story opens with him returning to Timbouctou where he grew up. His parents know he's coming for a visit, but he's a week early as a surprise. Unfortunately, he's arriving at the same time as an al-Qaeda attack on the library. They set it on fire, but most of the books they were trying to destroy were already saved by his father and are now in Issaka's childhood bedroom.

Unbeknownst to al-Qaeda, one of the books they did burn was imprisoning a djinn. A djinn who is now free and resident in Issaka's iPad.

This was a great first chapter of a novel. The combination of a modern setting and a djinn trapped in books with an instant affinity with technology was great. Issaka is an interesting character who is well-placed to introduce the reader to the setting, and I was fully invested in Issaka and Faro negotiating their relationship. Then the story just stopped. I didn't understand the ending, which was probably me being dim, but the real problem was that I was not at all ready for an ending. I would read the novel this was setting up, though. (6)

"2043... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" by Nisi Shawl: This is another story that felt like the setup for a novel, although not as good of a novel. The premise is that the United States has developed biological engineering that allows humans to live underwater for extended periods (although they still have to surface occasionally for air, like whales). The use to which that technology is being put is a rerun of Liberia with less colonialism: Blacks are given the option to be modified into merpeople and live under the sea off the US coast as a solution. White supremacists are not happy, of course, and try to stop them from claiming their patch of ocean floor.

This was fine, as far as it went, but I wasn't fond of the lead character and there wasn't much plot. There was some sort of semi-secret plan that the protagonist stumbles across and that never made much sense to me. The best parts of the story were the underwater setting and the semi-realistic details about the merman transformation. (6)

"These Alien Skies" by C.T. Rwizi: In the far future, humans are expanding across the galaxy via automatically-constructed wormhole gates. Msizi's job is to be the first ship through a new wormhole to survey the system previously reached only by the AI construction ship. The wormhole is not supposed to explode shortly after he goes through, leaving him stranded in an alien system with only his companion Tariro, who is not who she seems to be.

This was a classic SF plot, but I still hadn't guessed where it was going, or the relevance of some undiscussed bits of Tariro's past. Once the plot happens, it's a bit predictable, but I enjoyed it despite the depressed protagonist. (6)

"Clap Back" by Nalo Hopkinson: Apart from "The Visit," this was the most directly political of the stories. It opens with Wenda, a protest artist, whose final class project uses nanotech to put racist tchotchkes to an unexpected use. This is intercut with news clippings about a (white and much richer) designer who has found a way to embed memories into clothing and is using this to spread quotes of rather pointed "forgiveness" from a Malawi quilt.

This was one of the few entries in this anthology that fit the short story shape for me. Wenda's project and Burri's clothing interact fifty years later in a surprising way. This was the second-best story of the group. (7)

"We Travel the Spaceways" by Victor LaValle: Grimace (so named because he wears a huge purple coat) is a homeless man in New York who talks to cans. Most of his life is about finding food, but the cans occasionally give him missions and provide minor assistance. Apart from his cans, he's very much alone, but when he comforts a woman in McDonalds (after getting caught thinking about stealing her cheeseburger), he hopes he may have found a partner. If, that is, she still likes him when she discovers the nature of the cans' missions.

This was the best-written story of the six. Grimace is the first-person narrator, and LaValle's handling of characterization and voice is excellent. Grimace makes perfect sense from inside his head, but the reader can also see how unsettling he is to those around him. This could have been a disturbing, realistic story about a schitzophrenic man. As one may have guessed from the theme of the anthology, that's not what it is.

I admired the craft of this story, but I found Grimace's missions too horrific to truly like it. There is an in-story justification for them; suffice it to say that I didn't find it believable. An expansion with considerably more detail and history might have bridged that gap, but alas, short fiction. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-01-08

Last modified and spun 2023-01-09