Falling in love with hominids – despite our many failings.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual assault. The individual story summaries contain general plot details and/or vague spoilers. If you’re rather approach the collection with unsullied eyes, skip these.)
Millie liked sleeping with the air on her skin, even though it was dangerous out of doors. It felt more dangerous indoors, what with everyone growing up.
“Who knows what a sea cucumber thinks of the conditions of its particular stretch of ocean floor?”
(“Message in a Bottle”)
Confession time: This is my very first time reading Nalo Hopkinson, despite the fact that I’ve collected several of her novels over the years. (So many books, so little time!) Given how much I enjoyed Falling in Love with Hominids, I aim to rectify this ASAP.
Falling in Love with Hominids is Hopkinson’s second collection of short fiction, published some fourteen years after Skin Folk. She’s also edited/contributed to four others: Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (2000); Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003); So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (2004); and Tesseracts Nine: New Canadian Speculative Fiction (2005). Born in Jamaica and raised in a middle/creative class literary environment, Hopkinson moved to Toronto at the age of sixteen and currently lives in Riverside, California. Her work often draws on Caribbean history and language, and exhibits wonderful diversity: gender, race, sexuality, nationality, you name it.
These hallmarks are on full display in Falling in Love with Hominids, which features eighteen new and previously published tales. An eclectic mix of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, fairy tale retellings, and the outright absurd, the stories found here are both highly entertaining and marvelously profound. The protagonists grapple with a variety of issues, from the mundane to the otherworldly: navigating the perilous landscape of adolescence; the politics of black hair; sexual abuse and assault; racism, misogyny, and homophobia; grief and loss; what it means to be human (and whether this status can even be relegated to humans); and the possibilities of alien visitation and botanic sentience.
Ever since starting the Dive Into Diversity reading challenge this year, I’ve made it a point to take notes on diverse characters in my reads. After the first three stories in Falling in Love with Hominids, I nearly gave up – diversity is the rule here, not the exception, as is so often the case. Only three stories don’t feature a character who is explicitly non-white, LGBTQ, disabled, etc.; and in these cases, the cast is rather small, and race isn’t mentioned at all.
The other fifteen stories showcase casts that are as diverse as the plots are imaginative; characters who are black, Native American (Rosebud Sioux, to be exact), Indian, Latino, Armenian (maybe), and biracial; multiple gay and lesbian protagonists, some in committed relationships, others not – one gay man even recently out of the closet, after a decades-long marriage that resulted in children; interracial relationships and blended families; fat women and seemingly disabled children. In a refreshing change of page, it’s white, heterosexual characters who are the rarity.
As is the case with most anthologies, I enjoyed some stories more than others. Even so, there isn’t a single dud here: every story is enjoyable enough, though it’s true that some will stick with me much longer than others.
** begin spoilers **
“The Easthound” – In Millie and Jolly’s world, adolescence is a time fraught with danger and despair – for it’s when kids mature that they begin to “sprout.” Like their parents (all dead now) at the outset of the pandemic, teenagers transform into monsters seemingly overnight: rapidly growing, ravenous cannibal creatures that are a strange mix of those two horror movie staples, zombies and werewolves. Though they burn out quickly – done in by their taxing metabolism – usually they survive just long enough to crack open the skulls (or chests, or abdominal cavities) of their friends and loved ones. For this reason, most warrens of children exile their more mature members. When Millie wakes one morning to find what passes for Jolly’s bed empty, she goes out in search of her twin. Wonderfully creepy, and an apt metaphor for the teenage years. 5/5 stars.
“Soul Case” – This historically-inspired fantasy (Hopkinson first devised this story while writing her upcoming novel Blackheart Man, about a “maroon” community of escaped slaves set several hundred years in the future) features a magical battle between the Garfun village and their more well-armed invaders. The three “Knowledgables” are able to thwart the attack, but not without great cost to one of the witches – who, before the day is done, will sacrifice herself to save her community from karmic retribution. 5/5 stars (and Blackheart Man cannot get here soon enough!).
“Message in a Bottle” – In an attempt to protect the significant treasures of the past, future humans send genetically modified human clones back in time to pose as children and act as “curators” of a sort. Due to their unusual features, these time travelers are mistaken for disabled, contemporary humans (Delayed Growth Syndrome, or DGS kids) and are often marginalized: not only do they look odd, they act a little off too. That’s because they’re really adults, outfitted with the memories and knowledge of their Originals. Greg’s niece Kamla is one such future anthropologist: and it’s a piece in his exhibit that she’s sworn to protect. With ruminations on philosophy, art, and the very nature of what it means to be human, this is a weighty read – but a fun one, too! The animal lover in me especially appreciated Kamla’s take on sea cucumbers and molluscs. 5/5 stars, and then some.
“The Smile on the Face” – Rooted (see what I did there?) in the story of Margaret of Antioch, teenager Gilla channels the spirit of the half-dead cherry tree in her front yard to fend off a sexual assault. There’s so, so much to love about this story.
The ancient tree began talking to Gilla when she hit puberty and started to “fill out”; her large breasts and butt frequently make her the target of unwanted male attention, while her ample belly and unruly hair prove additional sources of stress. (In one especially memorable exchange, Gilla begs her mom – a Professor of African and Middle Eastern Studies – for micro-braids: “You want hair that lies down and plays dead, and you want to pay a lot of money for it, and you want to do it every six weeks.”)
Naturally the class predator Roger begins his campaign against Gilla by spreading rumors and slut-shaming before graduating to sexual assault and attempted rape – during a game of Postman, no less. When Gilla publicly accuses him of rape, nearly everyone rushes to her defense – save for Gossip Girl Clarissa, to whom Gilla makes this promise: “if something bad ever happens to you and nobody will believe your side of the story, you can talk to me. Because I know what it’s like.” Young women supporting other young women? Love. 5/5 stars.
“Left Foot, Right” – In the tradition of fairy tale heroines who always seem to suffer some form of foot trouble, Jenna continues to limp around town in one battered pump weeks after the death of her sister, Zuleika – to whom the shoes originally belonged. (The girls were fighting over the footwear when their car swerved off the road and into a river. I can relate, in a way; decades after the fact, my right hand still bears a scar from when my younger sister Meesh cut me with my own cheap plastic ballet slipper.) Every week Jenna revisits the site of the accident, tossing a brand-new pair of pumps into the water as an offering. But only when Jenna confronts the second life lost that day can she and her sister finally move on. I love reimagined fairy tales, and this one’s no exception. 5/5 stars.
“Old Habits” – A spirit remains tethered to the place its body died – and in “Old Habits,” that place is the mall. Every day the ghosts are forced to relive their deaths. Not that they mind, or at least not as much as you’d think; for these morbid reruns are their only chance to experience the trappings of corporeal existence. This story’s great on its own – the narrator’s death scene is an exercise in tragicomedy – but it’s Black Anchor Ohsweygian’s demise that really struck a chord with me. (A homeless woman killed by an overzealous mall cop – how timely.) 5/5 stars.
“Emily Breakfast” – When one of their three fire-breathing chickens (“Chickens are descended from dragons, you idiot.”) goes missing, it’s up to Cranston and Sir Maracle’s flying cat, Rose of Sharon, to hunt down the kidnapper and bring Emily Breakfast home. I loved the unusual menagerie of animals, but the overall tone is a little too cutesy-fantastical for my taste. At least Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner are rescue chickens though? 3/5 stars.
“Herbal” – After an elephant rampages through her apartment, Jenny finds that she misses the big guy. Fun and weirdly absurd (floating pachyderms!), but a little on the short side. 3/5 stars.
“A Young Candy Daughter” – You think being a parent is hard? Try raising a young God (a black girl named La’Shawna ftw!), learning how to do good in the world. Think: that one episode of The X-Files where Mulder tries to craft the perfect wish. 5/5 stars.
“A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog” – Tammy Griggs is a fat (“Lots of surface for my tattoos.”) botanist who discovers that one of her orchids has hijacked a rat, modifying its anatomy to transform it into the ultimate urban pollinator – so naturally, she decides to use this new species to find a date of her own. It’s a win-win! Well, except for the poor robo-rat. 4/5 stars, mostly because the rodents broke my heart. Rats and mice rock, okay.
“Shift” – Hopkinson describes this as “a paradigm shift on The Tempest.” I haven’t read the source material, but no matter: I enjoyed “Shift” just the same. Caliban fled from his mother Sycorax, who’s confined to the sea. Immediately upon washing ashore, he meets his new girlfriend, an unnamed white woman who wears her golden hear in plaits and (he thinks) has a thing for black men (much like Miranda). But his sister Ariel is in hot pursuit, determined to deliver Mother’s favorite child back to her. Caliban, who transforms into the man (or boy, in mom’s case) the women in his life picture him to be. When confronted by Sycorax and Ariel, the new woman unexpectedly challenges Caliban: “Who do you think you are?” 5/5 stars.
“Delicious Monster” – After a life spent living in the closet, Carlos has finally found happiness. The bad news? It’s with a God who must soon depart, in order to fulfill an ancient promise between two families. A rumination on parents and children, and the passing of torches. 4/5 stars.
“Snow Day” – Ships from another world appear in the midst of a Toronto winter and ask the Earth’s animals – human and non – to make a choice: are you an Adventurer or a Beautiful Loser? Hopkinson’s submission to the Canada Reads Project, this short story incorporates the titles of that year’s five shortlisted novels: Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen; No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield; Rockbound by Frank Parker Day; Volkswagon Blues by Jacques Pulin; and – my favorite – Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. “Oh, hell yeah. I used ‘oryx and crake’ in a sentence.” I cheered. 4/5 stars, mostly because I wanted more.
“Flying Lessons” – Learning to leave your body during sexual abuse…I think? It’s a short and obscure one. 4/5 stars.
“Whose Upward Flight I Love” – In which the park service wrestles with trees fighting to break free of the ground to which they’ve been tethered and return to their homeland. I think this is a metaphor for romantic relationships, but damned if I know. 3/5 stars.
“Blushing” – This retelling of the Bluebeard folktale sees the nobleman marrying a woman who, much to his surprise and delight, is as depraved as he. The twist really caught me by surprise. 4/5 stars.
“Ours Is the Prettiest” – This short story is Hopkinson’s contribution to the shared-world anthology Bordertown, recently revived by Ellen Kushner and Holly Black (submission solicited by same). This is the first I’ve heard of it, so I was a little in the dark. Though the characters and their backstories eluded me, I still found the tale enjoyable enough and (mostly) easy to follow. It takes place on Jou’vert, the annual parade that kicks off the week-long Jamboree. Damiana is trying to keep Beti away from Gladstone, her paramour of several weeks who’s prone to fits of jealousy and violence, and is currently in a fit because she spotted Beti talking to another woman. But it’s not Gladstone Beti’s worried about – not when she’s being pursued by her brother from the Other Side. 4/5 stars.
“Men Sell Not Such in Any Town” – In which the rich want nothing more than to want more, and are willing to pay handsomely for the privilege. Masochism, delivered by robots. 3/5 stars.
** end spoilers **
I struggled for the better part of a week with the overall rating for this anthology. Normally, I try to average out each individual story rating; given the number of threes here, I’d normally give Falling in Love with Hominids four stars overall. But the best stories are so damn shiny that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it! “Message in a Bottle,” “The Smile on the Face,” and “A Young Candy Daughter” are all so lovely and memorable and downright trenchant that they could carry the collection on their own. If they had to, which they don’t.
Final verdict: 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: YES! Diversity is the rule here, not the exception, as is so often the case. Of eighteen stories, only three stories don’t feature a character who is explicitly non-white, LGBTQ, disabled, etc.; and in these cases, the cast is rather small, and race isn’t mentioned at all.
The other fifteen stories showcase casts that are as diverse as the plots are imaginative; characters who are black, Native American (Rosebud Sioux, to be exact), Indian, Latino, Armenian (maybe), and biracial; multiple gay and lesbian protagonists, some in committed relationships, others not – one gay man even recently out of the closet, after a decades-long marriage that resulted in children; interracial relationships and blended families; fat women and seemingly disabled children. In a refreshing change of pace, it’s white, heterosexual characters who are the rarity.
I kept notes on diversity for the Dive Into Diversity reading challenge, but nearly gave up just three stories in – it would have proven easier to single out the heterosexual white male characters than vice versa.
Animal-friendly elements: Yes and no; it depends on the story. For example, the fire-breathing chickens in “Emily Breakfast” are all rescues, but Cranston and Sir Maracle use them for eggs and “jokingly” named them Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. “Message in a Bottle” is quite animal-friendly – Kamla, a time-traveling curator from the future, waxes poetic on the inner emotional and intellectual lives of sea cucumbers and molluscs – and then, two stories later, the protagonist eats still-live crab with her teeth.