Fucking short fiction. When I love it, I love it. See: Philip K. Dick, Julio Cortazar, Maureen McHugh, and Charles Yu. The rest of the time the dial rests at “disinterested hmm.” While there were a handful of short stories I could genuinely love in Nalo Hopkinson’s 2015 collection Falling in Love With Hominids, the majority were shrugs, mehs, and well I guess if you insists. My bad. I swear I’ll never request another short story collection for review again, scout’s honor.
I read Falling in Love With Hominids in what amounts to slow motion, and while many readers insist that this is a great way to read anthologies and collections, I find it equivalent to dragging a dead weight around with me for months. A number of the stories felt more like writing exercises than well-rounded works, and the comment I wrote most frequently in the margins was “nice central image, not a lot of meat to it though.” That, perhaps, would also be an accurate one-sentence review of this collection. As it is with short stories, however, your mileage will vary. Drastically. The NY Journal of Books liked it as did Danika at the Lesbrary. As did every other review I’ve read of this so far.
Thing is, when Hopkinson nails it, she really nails it. Other thing is, none of the stories were bad, though many felt too fragmentary to be sent off and published, in my not-at-all-humble, almost-impossible-to-please-when-it-comes-to-short-stories opinion. Other other thing is, I dislike reading anthology reviews that cover every single story. In my unceasing quest to find the perfect short fiction collection review format I am going to zoom in on my favorites: “The Easthound” (2012), “Message in a Bottle” (2005), “Old Habits” (2011), “The Smile on the Face” (2005), and “Blushing” (2009).
I was bound to like “The Easthound”: it is a post-apocalyptic tale, and a strong start for the collection. In this version of the end times, adults are transformed into flesh-eating monsters by a virus. Children are immune, and they band together, watching their friends closely for the signs of puberty that will one day make them dangerous, foreign, and murderous. There is an interesting metaphor to be had there, though Hopkinson didn’t fully exploit its potential.
“Message in a Bottle” won me over with a very cool concept, a concept I can’t tell you about without violating spoiler law. Keywords are: relationships between parents and their non-parent friends (she did this particularly well), time travel, art, and the flaws of anthropocentric thinking. I regret that none of these stories were published in 2015: otherwise this would be an award nomination suggestion list. Harumpf.
“Old Habits” may ride on a faintly kitsch concept—ghosts, in malls! Ghost malls!—but it showcased the collection’s most driving writing. Take, for flavor, its opener: “Ghost malls are sadder than living people malls, even though malls of the living are already pretty damned sad places to be. And let me get this out of the way right now: I’m dead, okay? I’m fucking dead. This is not going to be one of those stories where the surprise twist is and he was dead! I’m not a bloody surprise twist. I’m just a guy who wanted to buy a necktie to wear at his son’s high school graduation.” This story wins for “story where Nikki highlighted the most striking lines.” Funny how the story I thought I would hate (seriously, ghost malls?) turned out to be one of my favorites. That, in a nutshell, is the power of good writing.
This was my second time encountering “The Smile on the Face,” though I haven’t got a clue where I read it the first time. (Maybe Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Horror issue?) It is mostly about how much it sucks to be a teenager, with hints of the supernatural. I liked it, though I can understand why some have shrugged it off as having too high a ratio of ho-hum teen drama to horror/fantastic.
“Blushing” is a horror short about newlyweds with a secret that was a bit meager, but delightful for the gruesome-horror-lover in my heart. I don’t have much to say about it: it is a short, delicious morsel hiding near the end of the collection.
Falling in Love With Hominids was my first real brush with Hopkinson’s writing, and while the stories I liked I liked a lot, even those did not manage to reach the level of colliding nuance, meaning, story, wordplay, and art that makes me love a short story as much as a novel. My bar may be unreasonably high, but this collection left me with the general impression that Hopkinson’s writing lacks the kind of murky depth I seek out in fiction. I look forward to exploring more of her writing (in novel form), but today I’ve concluded that her short stories are not her shining star—or mine.
Two out of five flying elephants.
Where I got it: From Netgalley, for review