Falling in Love with Hominids: A mixed bag by a gifted, playful writer

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFalling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson fantasy book reviewsFalling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson

Falling in Love with Hominids takes its name from a Cordwainer Smith passage. In her introduction, Nalo Hopkinson cites him as a refuge and a comfort during difficult times in her life. The anthology contains 17 stories. Several are short and probably qualify as flash fiction. Generally, Hopkinson writes the kinds of stories I like, and Falling in Love with Hominids includes fantasy, dark fantasy and outright horror, often incorporating folklore and a style of writing that evokes Jamaican oral story-telling language.

Jana read Falling in Love with Hominids, too. What did you think, Jana? (I’ll put Jana’s comments in blue text.)

I agree, Marion — this collection was definitely a mixed bag for me, too. Some of the stories were outright fantastic, some had a lot of potential but needed more room to grow, and some were just too short to catch my interest. I did appreciate that Hopkinson included explanatory notes for each story, since I always love reading about the authorial process, and some of the pieces wouldn’t have made any sense without that background information.

My favorite story by a large margin is “Shift.” Shakespeare’s play The Tempest is wonderful, but I can’t check my twentieth-century sensibilities at the door all the time, and parts of that play have always troubled me. Hopkinson confronts those parts head-on. We begin with Caliban, who is in human form. He gathered up enough strength to swim away from his powerful sea-witch mother, and hopes for the love of a good (human) woman to ground him and save him from Sycorax’s pull. If a woman will kiss him and look into his eyes, he will become what she sees. Caliban tells his story as if he were the prisoner, the victim, of these heedless women, but then another voice enters the story, that of his sister, with a different tale to tell. And yet, her words aren’t the whole story either, in this complicated, authentic tale of families, colonialism, identity and magic. Hopkinson’s prose glides between the accurately mundane (underpants whose elastic has broken and is knotted) and the gloriously supernatural. One character speaks in the island style, and just when I thought there was a bit too much, another character commented on it:

“You are our mother’s creature,” you hiss at her. “Look at you, trying so hard to be ‘island,’ talking like you just come off the boat.” In your anger, your speech slips into the same rhythms as hers.”

This story continued to deliver twists and insights up to, literally, the very last word, which was my favorite moment.

“Shift” was, to be sure, one of the most interesting and successful stories in this collection. I love Shakespeare’s plays, and I’m all for reading historical pieces with awareness for their historical context, but I’m a twentieth-century person who finds racism and misogyny to be extremely distasteful. Luckily, Hopkinson does, too, and writes well-known characters like Caliban and Ariel as modern creatures with centuries of emotional baggage. Giving them equal voice and complementary narratives rounds out the plot, showing the reader how their experiences have changed them in different and similar ways. And that last sentence, with so much left unsaid and so much potential, is perfect.

“Delicious Monster” is set in everyday Toronto, and is another story of families, this one a meditation on fathers and sons, and suns. The day of a solar eclipse, Jerry goes to visit his father and his father’s lover, Sudharshan. The visit is awkward and the tension in the room rises; clearly, Jerry’s father Carlos and Sudharshan were having an argument. From the odd-looking bird that Sudharshan cares for, to the strange young man Jerry meets along the way, the story is filled with oddities that coalesce into a beautiful bit of mythology. And I think that someday someone will write a thesis on Textual Interpretations of Houseplants in the Work on Nalo Hopkinson.

This is a story about everyday people in an everyday city, and yet it’s also about the mythical and divine living hand-in-glove with that everyday normalcy. As Hopkinson peels back the layers of Jerry’s life and what he (and the reader) assumes is his father’s normal relationship with Sudharshan, “Delicious Monster” unfolds like a beautiful flower. And if people don’t start examining the use and importance of flora in Hopkinson’s fiction, I will be extremely disappointed.

“Blushing,” “The Easthound” and “Flying Lessons” are horror stories, convincingly delivered. In “Blushing” a new bride decides to unlock the door to the one room her husband has told her off-limits. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The bride’s quest takes her through an odd part of town, filled with goth shops and leather shops, but the story did not end quite the way I expected. The imagery; the key whose handle looks like an egg, the wedding dress, the house, stood out for me.

I have to admit that, at the onset of “Blushing,” I assumed it would be yet another Bluebeard adaptation. How many of those do we need? Luckily, Hopkinson’s imagery (particularly that key) and the inventive twist she puts on the story both cured my disappointment and made me ashamed for feeling it in the first place. Very, very well done.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJana, she has written a Bluebeard story. It’s in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer‘s Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology; and, as you’d expect, it’s a slightly different take on the story we know.

Oh, really? I’m not against the idea of re-telling fairy tales, it’s just that many authors seem to be going back to the same wells over and over again, and I’d like to see them branch out more. But like I said, I did like “Blushing” a lot, and I thought Hopkinson did a great job with it.

“The Easthound” gives us a group of young people in a world where all adults have transformed into ravening monsters. The feral kids trying to survive call it “sprouting.” The group knows that any one of them, at any time, could “sprout” and would devour the rest of them. The suspense of the story is wrenching, and against it, Hopkinson shows us a word-game that is both delightful and heart-breaking.

The word game that the children play, trying to tell a story line-by-line while incorporating the last two words from the previous contributor’s sentence, was a great example of the ways children try to cope with the stress of the world around them. Even when puberty doesn’t mean turning into a wolf-like creature and tearing one’s friends limb from limb, it’s pretty rough. This was one of my favorite stories because Hopkinson perfectly captured the voices of the children and the difficulties of their existence in a changed world.

In the short and elegant “Flying Lessons” I thought I knew what was happening from the second line, and I was right. That didn’t make the ordeal of the main character any less terrifying.

Oh, it’s absolutely terrifying, and the small details unfolding into Carol’s attempts to fly up out of her body are played out perfectly. Because the preceding notes are related to The Little Prince, though, I was expecting an entirely different kind of tale. This is the one occasion that the explanation didn’t relate to the story, creating an unpleasant disconnect in my mind.

Descriptions that start off mundane and grow vivid, strange and beautiful make “Left Foot, Right” more than just a story about survival, guilt and shoes. It becomes a short visit to a different world.

Stories like “Left Foot, Right” are where Hopkinson really shines. She starts with the mundanity of the real world and populates that world with very real people and the rhythms of their lives. Gradually, the “realness” of that world drifts into stranger and stranger waters, until it’s just barely recognizable. Because she has such a sure grip on her characters, the departure from reality doesn’t seem like a cheap trick, but rather a glimpse of the weirdness that we don’t normally see. And I haven’t read “Travels with the Snow Queen,” the shoe-related Kelly Link story which was on Hopkinson’s mind while writing “Left Foot, Right,” but I very much want to now.

In “Emily Breakfast” a man’s plan to make a nice weekend breakfast for his husband is thwarted when he discovers one of their three chickens is missing. It is not as simple as it sounds. For one thing, the pets in this story aren’t quite like ours. I enjoyed the lush descriptions, but I thought the character of the husband was under-developed. Cranstson, the main character, has a stronger relationship with their cat, Rose of Sharon. And I liked the cat, but I loved the chickens.

I’m not normally a big fan of chickens, but I would buy some of these chickens in a heartbeat. “Lush” is exactly the right word for the descriptions, too; the setting is as much a character as Cranston or the cat, Rose of Sharon. The “villain” was a bit of a surprise, since this is a short story and the supporting cast isn’t as well fleshed-out as Cranston, but on the whole this was a very entertaining read.

“Old Habits” is a ghost story from the perspective of the ghosts. I liked the setting, a shopping mall, although I was surprised at how many people had apparently died in this mall. The needs of the ghosts make this story dark, if not quite horror, but I’m not sure I would classify it as a complete story.

I thought the setting and concept for “Old Habits” were both great, but I was surprised at just how many ghosts were in that shopping mall. The idea that ghosts have to relive their deaths every day, and try to capture sensory information from those moments, was bittersweet. But this feels like more of a character study than a full story.

All stories have backstories; sometimes, the backstory is more interesting, and that’s the case with the charming vignette “Snow Day.” This is delightful, and funny, but I would not say it’s a story. The tale of how it came to be written, though, is great. “Herbal” and “Whose Upward Flight I Love” are also vignettes, although once again in “Herbal” concrete physical details make the events seem real.

“Herbal” is a great example of a vignette which is just as effective and well-structured as a full-length novel. The image of an elephant paddling through the air is a lot of fun, and Jenny’s efforts to first accept this reality and then bring the elephant back are equally fun. “Snow Day” was too short and strange for me, and “Whose Upward Flight I Love” felt more like a writing exercise than a polished story. Again, I can see the connections between the mundane and the unreal that Hopkinson was aiming for, but those two stories missed the mark.

“Soul Case” is a strange story with lots of suspense, but I don’t know how well it would work without the information Hopkinson provides beforehand. After reading this, I wanted to go learn much more about quilombos, societies created by escaped slaves, and Palmares in particular.

Without Hopkinson’s notes, “Soul Case” wouldn’t have made any sense to me. As it is, it still feels like an unfinished story — the characters are difficult to differentiate and the ending is rather abrupt. It’s a scenario and setting that I’d love to see Hopkinson return to in depth, because all of the elements of a great story are there.

“Message in a Bottle” and “A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog” both partake of science fiction elements, and manage them pretty well. “A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog” has a darker quality, while there is a lot of humor in “Message in a Bottle.” “Message in a Bottle” addresses the attitudes of childless people, and also pokes gentle fun at the art world. It took me a while to warm up to this one; but watching Greg’s changing attitudes as he moves from being childless to being a father kept me chuckling.

“Message in a Bottle” was less successful, to my mind. Greg’s role as the observer of Kamla’s odd behavior allows for a lot of fun at the expense of childless people who become parents, but the fantastical elements of Kamla’s story (and her claims about clones and time travel) weren’t explored to my satisfaction. I wonder if it would have worked better if the narration were from Kamla’s point of view rather than Greg’s.

“A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog,” about a woman obsessed with orchids, has an interesting premise and some cringe-inducing science fiction elements. I wouldn’t call it body horror, necessarily, and the natural world does come up with some rather strange ways to propagate itself… but still, ick. A very successful story that will definitely give me nightmares.

I liked the growth of the main character in “The Smile on the Face,” as teenaged Gilla evolves from a shallow, fashion-obsessed teen to a strong young woman. The story deals with magic, folklore, body image issues and bullying. I liked it, but I thought the ending, which veered away from the action to deliver a public-service-announcement-style lesson, went on for too long.

I really did like most of “The Smile on the Face,” especially since the friendships between Gilla and Kashy, and their mutual friend Foster, were so authentic and supportive. This was very much a woman-empowerment story, tapping into the fantasy many young women have of striking back against their tormentors. Personally, I would have been happy if it had ended with Gilla eating the party-goers and flying off into the night, but that may be a little wish-fulfillment of my own.

“A Young Candy Daughter” follows a Salvation Army bell-ringer and a young mother with her daughter, with some surprising results, while “Men Sell Not Such in Any Town” has high-fantasy language and offers a nice homage to Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market.”

“A Young Candy Daughter,” while short, is an interesting play on the idea of God among mortals. Again, there are the rhythms of island accents which Hopkinson conveys so well. “Men Sell Not Such in Any Town” shows that Hopkinson is as well suited to high fantasy as she is to science fiction, horror, and magical realism; indeed, I don’t think any genre is outside her scope.

Hopkinson has included a story she wrote for the shared world Bordertown. The story, “Ours is The Prettiest,” was not successful for me. While I found the viewpoint character, Damiana, plausible, I never got a grip on Gladstone and Beti. The pacing seemed jerky, in part because the story shifts between a parade in the Bordertown city, and flashbacks to what has happened between Gladstone and Beti before. A character named Screaming Lord Neville, who Hopkinson says is not original to her, ran away with the story for me. I think that if I’d read any Bordertown stories and understood the shared experiences of the characters, I might have liked this one more.

I agree completely, Marion. I’m also unfamiliar with the Bordertown series and its concept of shared characters/worlds, so there were many elements to this story that didn’t work well for me. That’s not Hopkinson’s fault. Screaming Lord Neville (who Hopkinson says she borrowed from Ellen Kushner) steals the show, Damiana is a complicated person in her own right, and seeing some multi-cultural elements in a magic system which can be exclusionary or monochromatic was a welcome change. I just don’t know enough about this universe or its characters to connect with Gladstone or Beti, and their fates were difficult to care about as a result.

As usual, this anthology was a mixed bag, but I’ve seen enough of Hopkinson’s work to know that usually I like her characters, and I love her playful way with language. I’m going to seek out her novels now.

I’ll absolutely look for Hopkinson’s previous work, and I look forward to seeing what new worlds and characters she’ll create in the future. It’s rare to find an anthology which is great from beginning to end, but there were enough successes in Falling in Love with Hominids that I would feel comfortable recommending this collection to other readers.

Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson fantasy book reviewsPublication date: July 20, 2015. An alluring new collection from the author of the New York Times Notable Book, Midnight Robber. Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, Sister Mine) is an internationally-beloved storyteller. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as having “an imagination that most of us would kill for,” her Afro-Caribbean, Canadian, and American influences shine in truly unique stories that are filled with striking imagery, unlikely beauty, and delightful strangeness. In this long-awaited collection, Hopkinson continues to expand the boundaries of culture and imagination. Whether she is retelling The Tempest as a new Caribbean myth, filling a shopping mall with unfulfilled ghosts, or herding chickens that occasionally breathe fire, Hopkinson continues to create bold fiction that transcends boundaries and borders.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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2 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    Wow, what a review! Thanks, guys!

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