Nalo Hopkinson’s stories are hybrids, blending science fiction and fantasy, Western and Afro-Caribbean influences, pain and joy, the real and the unreal. She has a particular talent for blending the magical and the mundane in surprising ways.
As a writer of short stories that are specifically fantasy and science fiction, Hopkinson demonstrates her understanding of how a story needs to follow it’s own internal logic to be successful; any outside, novelistic standard of structure or expectation is thrown out the window in favor of internal integrity. Any collection of short stories will have tales that are stronger than others, and that is especially true in a case like Hominids, where the stories have been written over a long span of years and not designed to be thematically linked. Of course, they are thematically linked in many ways, as the work of a single author tends to be, intentional or no. Many of them share common ground in terms of character types (young girls, middle aged gay men) or repeated imagery and phrases (the question “salt or sweet?” recurs in at least three stories, likely more).
Most of the stories are set in a Western 21st century milieu, but are infused with folk tale spirit and speculative flair. A great example of this is the penultimate story in the collection, “Ours is the Prettiest,” which riffs off of the Borderland series of speculative story anthologies first introduced by Terri Windling in the 1980s and revived by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner in the last few years. Bordertown is the aptly named liminal zone between the “real” world and a realm known as Elfland, populated by magical types of the faerie variety. Hopkinson infuses the typically Euro-Western approach of the past collections with new vibrancy by establishing other countries and races in Elfland, and brings a mish-mash of diverse cultures and backgrounds to the characters that inhabit Bordertown itself.
While I tend to be partial to short stories that fall somewhere in the ten-to-fifteen page range, I also enjoyed her shorter stories that were more like brief vignettes. “A Young Candy Daughter” is a reimagining of the childhood of Jesus- if he were a she and the child of a single black mother. The story is so sweet and immediately got to the heart of what it would mean to have the power of a god in the mindset of a child, as well as how we look differently at a single mother as religious symbol vs. the real world single mother. Other stories tackled things like self-image and ancient female power (“The Smile on the Face”), or the banality of death in the modern world (“Old Habits”), or the implications of art and the possibilities of time travel (“Message in a Bottle”). Each has an emotional core dressed up in speculative trappings and sprinkled with history. Hopkinson is also highly skilled in using dialect in ways that make characters and environments feel richer and more realistic, never devolving into caricature.
Though there weren’t many of them, the weakest tales are those whose endings don’t feel earned- where the story is either too short or the motivations of the characters too assiduously hidden from the reader. I would say “Blushing” is one of the few that fell flat for me. It is a modern retelling of Bluebeard, and while the twist in the end is fascinating, it comes so suddenly out of left field that I found it ultimately unsatisfying. And I don’t know if it is my reading or the story itself, but the final title in the collection, “Men Sell Not Such in Any Town,” had a similar effect, and ultimately felt somehow unfinished. These were really the only two I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, and in a collection of 18 stories, that isn’t a bad outcome.
I could draw a lot of comparisons between Hopkinson and other current short story artists-- like Kelly Link or Elizabeth Bear-- as far as the ideas of internal vs. external logic and the strength of so many different voices, but Hopkinson also has a non-Eurocentric approach that sets her apart and further distances readers from well-worn tropes and techniques. This is my first experience with Nalo Hopkinson, but it certainly won’t be my last.