I found Nalo Hopkinson several years ago through nothing more sophisticated than browsing the shelves. I had just read a science fiction novel by another Caribbean-born writer and really enjoyed the cadence of the dialog. So I was thrilled when I stumbled across Midnight Robber; Nalo Hopkinson’s second novel, a New York Times Notable book of 2000 and a finalist for several different science fiction awards.
Nalo Hopkinson was born in the Caribbean but has spent most of her adult life in Canada. If you spend time following science fiction awards, scholarship, panels at conventions and anthologies than you may have heard of her, if not – good luck. Her fiction is infused with the language, culture and style of her hybrid island culture, and one of her goals in Midnight Robber was to imagine what if technology had developed without so much western culture and influence behind it? What would language be like on a planet that had been colonized by the people of the Caribbean 500 years ago? What, in fact, would people who had been colonized themselves and came from a post-colonial time period do when they were put on a planet with other sentient life? But all of those are just background questions to the main story, which is based on a girl and a legend. The girl is Tan-Tan, and the legend is of the Midnight Robber.
Tan-Tan was born a privileged and wealthy girl on a privileged and wealthy world, one of the many Nation Worlds prepared and maintained with nanomites, massive amounts of tiny particles that built everything there was, analyzed everything everyone did, and kept everyone safe and protected. Granny Nanny, or the Grande Nanotech Sentient Interface, knows what goes on in the houses, minds and bodies of nearly everyone on the planet, except for a few religious nuts who run a pedicab company. It’s time for Carnival, and that means sightings of Tan-Tan’s favorite Carnival character, the Midnight Robber. Brandishing weapons, a cape, and an elaborate sombrero, the Midnight Robber stops people in the streets to tell them in a lyrical symphony his tale of woe, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and exile from his land that led to him having no choice but to become a bandit. If passersby enjoy his tale, they give him coins or small gifts. Tan-Tan has made up her own Robber Queen to play by herself or with her house’s eshu (computer) and her nurse.
When Tan-Tan’s selfish and power-hungry father, Antonio, commits a crime of passion, the only options the town has to choose from are life imprisonment or exile. Using a bit of hacked nanny-song (Granny Nanny’s version of programming), Antonio manages to take Tan-Tan with him in his exile to New Half-Way Tree, the prison planet. Lush and ripe, the planet is full of strange and dangerous plants, bugs, people, and species. Learning how to live on a planet full of hard labor and criminals without connection to her eshu ends up being the least of the hardships Tan-Tan has to face on her way to becoming living legend.
At the beginning and woven throughout the novel there is a narrator, telling Tan-Tans’ story to what seems like a single person. Spread throughout the story the narrator tells folk-tales about Tan-Tan the Robber Queen in the sensual, lyrical speech Hopkinson created for this novel. She has an essay about the process on her website, where she says linguists call what she has done “code-sliding,” kind of like hacking languages:
I realized after a while that I was using a Trinidadian mode of address for emphasis/irony and a Jamaican one to signal opposition; the latter coming at least in part out of my recognition of the ways that Rastafari has created "dread talk" as a language of resistance. I'm fascinated with the notion of breaking an imposed language apart and remixing it. To speak in the hacked language is not just to speak in an accent or a creole; to say the words aloud is an act of referencing history and claiming space. The people of the Nation Worlds in my novel have done that, have left Earth to a place where they can make their own society. Their speech, written and spoken, reflects the reasons they've made that journey.
I don’t want to give too much away about the rest of the story because it is such a wonderful book, I want everyone to read it and fall in love with Nalo Hopkinson and buy all of her stuff and make her rich. The appeals are easy to name, but they might not work for all readers. One of the things I love the most about it is obviously the language, but some readers I know find it distracting and hard to comprehend. Here’s a sample from the beginning:
It had a woman, you see, a strong, hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush, the devil bush on the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree. When she walk, she foot strike the hard earth bup! like breadfruit dropping to the ground. She two arms hard with muscle from all the years of hacking paths through the diable bush on New Half-Way Tree. Even she hair itself rough and wiry; long black knotty locks springing from she scalp and corkscrewing all the way down she back. She name Tan-Tan, and New Half-Way Tree was she planet.
This dialect is only used during speech and the first-person narration, but still some readers may find it too difficult. Another appeal is plot. The plot is so strong, heart-wrenching, and so beautifully told that I don’t really want to tell you most of it on this blog. I just want to talk about how pretty the words are and convince you to discover the plot for yourself.
Lastly, science fiction is a genre that while it has a lot of characters of color, most of them, as Hopkinson puts it, have been “white-washed.” There may be lots of diversity in science fiction in terms of color, but not as much in terms of culture. My favorite example is from the best science fiction show EVER Babylon 5. In the pilot episode the head doctor on the space station was strongly African, and the second in command Asian. In the first regular episode, after the network had made their changes, the head doctor was African-American but light-skinned with a more European profile and the second in command was changed to someone who said she was Russian but had no accent. Trying to be representative of different cultures apparently just bores a mass audience to tears – so they give the form without the substance. This book does not do that. It is heavily steeped in Caribbean culture. Some people like that and some people don’t, and it is not always the most comfortable question to ask. So…I think it is an appeal, because I find it fun.
Sorry this was so long, but I keep thinking about more things to say. There are definitely some things in this novel that might steer readers away from it – bad language and some violent (ie not romantic) sex scenes. But it is a brilliant novel by a fascinating and talented woman and it deserves a lot more recognition. So, buy it for your libraries!