Emergency Skin, N.K. Jemisin

By now we’ve all heard the incredible news that the Grande Dame Nouvelle of Black speculative fiction, and spec-fic in general, N.K. Jemisin herself, is one of the 2020 recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grant. (If you hadn’t heard–well, now you have!)

I’m a huge Jemisin fan, considering the heir apparent to the throne left vacant when Octavia Butler left us all too soon. I’ve enjoyed all of her work, along with most of the rest of the book-buying world–is there anyone left who doesn’t see the genius of The Broken Earth Trilogy?

However, my favorite of her works (so far) is also her most unexpected, in my opinion–the short novelette Emergency Skin, one of the half-dozen titles in the Forward Collection made available exclusively as Kindle e-books last fall. I’ve read enough N.K. Jemisin to expect myself to have a very strong response to her work. I still didn’t expect to whoop, cackle and cheer at this short the way that I did. (Internally, of course. Except for the cackling–some of that was out loud.)

I was thoroughly surprised by the speculative premise and the sneaky optimism written into this quick, spare story of a rather unusual space colonizer. Spec-fic and fantasy are my favorite reading campgrounds but I can’t deny that these days they’re pretty grim, pessimistic places to be–everything seems to be a dystopia, a gritty reboot or a crapsack world made of pain in need of an antihero. It’s not the most emotionally rejuvenating literary space, to put it mildly.

Jemisin is no stranger to grim, gritty, and mean but she neatly reverse-engineers all of that into something wryly funny and hopeful without losing any of her usual creative edge. It’s short and very densely plotted so I won’t spoil it for you in this review but let me just say this; when I first realized where it was going I literally howled with laughter, Even now, every time I think of the story’s conclusion I have to smile a little. It’s a feel good bit of incisive, socially aware speculative fiction and I can’t recommend it enough. If you only read one of Amazon’s exclusive Forward short story collection, I recommend this one (although it’s a very close tie with Blake Crouch’s Summer Frost). If you’ve never read any of Jemisin’s work before and are curious now that she’s an actual MacArthur Genius–give it a whirl. Finally, if you love sci-fi but need a little bit of hope with your interplanetary/biological/environmentally dystopic shenanigans–you definitely could do with a big dose of Emergency Skin.

(This blog has affiliate relationships with online booksellers like Bookshop, so any clicks and purchases made from here may result in a commission being paid. While I usually don’t link to Amazon (for reasons I’ve explained), creative initiatives like the Forward Collection are one of the saving graces of the platform and one of the reasons I can’t just chuck the whole site away just yet(that and the number of marginalized and BIPOC authors who find their self-publishing platform empowering). So, you’ve been warned. There’s Amazon links in here. It won’t happen again any time soon.)

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