Review: Black Stars, edited by Nisi Shawl & Latoya Peterson

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Jan 8 21:55:33 PST 2023

Black Stars
edited by Nisi Shawl & Latoya Peterson

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

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.

"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


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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