Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson

North America Project 2022

My objective in undertaking this project was to discover who were the North American Alexis Wrights and Marie Munkaras. Ok, Toni Morrison is probably the Alexis Wright equivalent (I don’t think I’ve discovered a Kim Scott yet, and I don’t think Australia has an Octavia Butler or Zora Neale Hurston), but who are all those edgy, angry writers, mostly women in Australia at least, at the boundaries of literature and race and gender relations?

Well one of them is clearly Nalo Hopkinson (1960- ).

Hopkinson “was born in Jamaica, in the Caribbean. I lived for years in Guyana as well, and in Trinidad/Tobago. But the bulk of my life so far has been spent in Toronto, Canada. After about 35 years of that, I moved to the USA for a professorship in Creative Writing.” Nalohopkinson.com/About (in a section titled ‘Powered by ADHD’).

Midnight Robber (2000) is Science Fiction but as with much Women’s SF the SF is just a frame for a story about people. Men’s SF, straight SF, is generally about the SF – a universe is established and it is explored by stick figures. Women’s SF quite often follows the conventions of straight SF, a universe is established and its rules are adhered to, but the purpose is to provide an environment in which the behaviours of one or a few people may be interrogated.

Hopkinson has fun with Midnight Robber‘s environment, making her whole universe one giant Jamaican carnival. I of course missed most of the references but they’re here on Wikipedia if you want them. In brief, Earth is uninhabitable; Jamaicans have established themselves on a new planet, Toussaint; prisoners are exiled to another planet, New Half-Way Tree, in a parallel universe from which there is no return (it has a very 1788 New South Wales feel). The Indigenous people of New Half-Way Tree, the Douen, are smallish, I guess around 1.5m, with lizard-ish and bird-ish characteristics, and they live in trees – very reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.

At the start of the book, Tan-Tan is a young girl, her father is Mayor and her mother finds ways to fill in her time while Tan-Tan is cared for by AIs – the house, her nurse, the cook and so on – via an implant in her ear. So a lot of the first part of the book is establishing how that works, and how the family dynamics work.

Then Antonio, the father, comes home early to catch his wife and her lover on the sofa; challenges the lover to a duel; in cheating, accidentally kills him; and to forestall being hanged he ‘jumps’ to New Half-Way Tree, accidentally taking Tan-Tan with him.

But wait, you mean you never hear of New Half-Way Tree, the planet of the lost people? You never wonder where them all does go, the drifters, the ragimuffins-them, the ones who think the world must be have something better for them, if them could only find which part it is? You never wonder is where we send the thieves-them, and the murderers? Well master, the Nation Worlds does ship them all to New Half-Way Tree, the mirror planet of Toussaint. Yes man, on the next side of a dimension veil.

Sorry, I forgot to say the whole novel is in patois, hours of poetry that I occasionally lost track of when the thread of the novel was interrupted for a side story.

On New Half-Way Tree Antonio and Tan-Tan slowly build a new life in a rough settlement in which a couple of strong-minded convicts maintain a reasonably fair order. You might think at this point Hopkinson could be making points about the treatment of Douen as inferiors – in fact, the way they are made to work, the way they look down and mumble when addressed is a direct metaphor for slave behaviour around whites – or about survivalism; but her central purpose is to discuss the treatment of young women by men they trust; and all the SF which follows, the “alien contact” as Tan-Tan goes to live with the Douen, is secondary to this central purpose.

This is a powerful and disturbing work written by a woman who is angry about men, about family men. And we should honour her anger by not skirting around the core of this work, as some of the summaries I read, do –

Over a number of years, from say age 9 to 16, with no one to protect her, Tan-Tan is raped.

Eventually she is driven to kill her rapist. In plunging down on her, he plunges down on her knife and dies. For this Tan-Tan knows the town ‘authorities’ will hang her, so she escapes into the forest with a male Douen, Chichibud, on the back of Benta, a Douen who can fly.

For the remainder of the novel Tan-Tan lives in the forest, with a Douen family, and then after her own “tall people” begin seeking her out, with an outcast Douen her own age; sometimes righting wrongs in isolated “tall people” communities, giving rise to the legend of Tan-Tan, Robber Queen. But she does not, cannot, forget that she was raped and neither can we.

This is a great book, a celebration of Jamaican culture and a masterpiece of Women’s SF, exactly the book I was looking for, hoping for with this project.

.

Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber, Warner Aspect, 2000. Audible version read by Robin Miles, 13 hrs


I said I would publish this review at the end of March, but I’m away working for a second or third consecutive week and I’ve run out of draft posts and the time to write new ones. I’ve been reading and listening to  some interesting books so hopefully I’ll knock out a couple of reviews over the weekend.  I’ll name next month’s (April ’22) North American book soon: Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves

39 thoughts on “Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson

  1. This sounds great! For some reason I thought Hopkinson was a crime writer, not SF, but this sounds like exactly the sort of novel I would like. I do struggle with reading patois though so I will investigate the audiobook.

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    • I recommend it unreservedly. The patois just flows (and I suspect it is toned down a little in the reading). I found I really enjoyed the Wikipedia entry after I’d listened, for explanations of Jamaica-specific names. I like events in a book to come at me in the order the author intended, without having them foreshadowed by Wiki (or the blurb).

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    • My big stretch when I’m working is to answer comments promptly. I’m glad we got Hopkinson to Birmingham UK via Australia and Canada. Buried in Print, Consumed by Ink and Grab the Lapels have inspired me to undertake some interesting and enjoyable reading this year and no doubt into the future

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  2. I understand your dilemma about running out of draft posts. I’m at that point too, trouble is I don’t feel like writing any new ones at the moment!

    As always I appreciate how you don’t skirt around the difficult topics. Tan Tan’s childhood sounds miserable. I also appreciate your thoughts on SF, as I seem to be reading more of it lately.

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  3. Now, this sounds like a book I’d have no interest in. Too SF-y. But I also know that I often like SF when I do decide to read it – it’s just not my first choice.
    It’s interesting to hear you say that women’s SF is more of a background to the characters. I know I’d like that better than the stick figures. Ha!
    Tan-Tan’s life sounds harsh, but I’m definitely intrigued by the author’s message.
    Do you think you’ll read another of her books? I’m thinking I could try her short stories – that doesn’t feel as intimidating as a full novel.

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    • If I were Canadian I’m sure I’d feel that Hopkinson was a writer whose work I needed to keep up with. I feel that way about Marie Munkara for instance, so I feel guilty about not having read all her work.
      I hope you (Naomi – I’m not sure my indents are working) do read one of the short stories.

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      • Even though it’s unfair, I don’t think most Canadian readers do feel that she’s a force with which to be reckoned; there’s still quite a divide between “genre” and “literary” fiction here.

        Naomi, you might like The Salt Roads or New Moon’s Arms instead. Don’t be put off by the marketing for New Moon’s, it’s very islandy and Calamity is close to your age and I think you’d find it quite moving (and there’s a nice romance in there for you, too, Bill, but thematically it might not be right for your year’s project).

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      • This year I’ll concentrate on reading 12 different authors, spread as evenly as possible between US and Canada and Black and First Nations. Next is Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves (from the library and it expires in 9 days – I’d better get a trip soon).
        But that said, I’ll keep reading Hopkinson who really speaks to me. There are six on Audible and who knows, I might see one in a book shop. (And what excellent covers!).

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      • Marcie, I feel I missed part of your Comment. I guess I don’t expect Hopkinson to be mainstream, I don’t think Munkara is really. We Lit.Bloggers are such a small circle that it is hard (for me) to know what is being read in the real world – Jane Harper! – compared with the writers we regard as ‘important’.

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  4. You know what they say, if you don’t feel like writing, don’t! I love writing and if I retire it will be to write more.

    I got the impression the issues at the centre of this work were being skirted around, and I wanted to make it clear that all the rest is just (very good) supporting material to Tan Tan dealing with abuse.

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  5. What is the scifi aspect of this book? That is something I often end up asking about scifi by women, such as Butler. Some of these books may be better categorized as post-apocalypse. I bet you’d be good at recording your thoughts on a book with a microphone and sharing the sound for on your blog. The way your thoughts can wander, connect in interesting ways, etc. It’s very oral tradition to me.

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    • Melanie, you and I have slightly different definitions of SF. For me SF is a field – with important historical antecedents – that rose out of US pulp fiction in the 1950s and driven by a large number of talented (yes, mostly male) writers, quickly encompassed a wide range of futuristic subjects, starting with rocket-borne gunslingers (EE ‘Doc’ Smith), but going on to include alien contact (Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles), robots (Karel Capek and I Assimov), the aftereffects of nuclear war (JM Ballard and many others); and elements of postmodernism (PK Dick, Kurt Vonnegut).

      Post-apocalypse has always been mainstream SF, as have distorted middle American theocracies and sentient androids, which Atwood and McEwan respectively pretend to have invented with no reference to the 70 years of thought and writing that preceded their (mediocre) works.

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      • Except, doesn’t Atwood say that she’s NOT SF but Speculative Fiction? On those grounds you can ignore her contributions if you like! I’ve only read The handmaid’s tale of her speculative work so can’t comment.

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      • Sees to me that Atwood is splitting hairs. If we apply the “duck” test, she may say it is a swan, but others can think elsewhile.

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      • Whoops, sorry Bill. New computer, and I’ve mistyped my suburb! The problem for old dogs is not learning new tricks, it’s remembering the old ones!

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      • Yes, she says. But as far as I’m concerned that’s just dishonest obfuscation. She can deny the derivative nature of her “SF” all she likes, but it doesn’t make it true.

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      • Neil it gives me a feeling of power for you to require my approval.
        To carry on from ‘suburbs’. This week I was barred admission to a mine because my vax passport didn’t show my third jab. To get the updated version I had to link Big Brother (‘MyGov’) to Medibank, BUT my Medibank address is my PO Box and Big Brother insists on residential addresses. A lovely lady at the Medibank help desk really did help and eventually I was linked and in the mine (she gave me a link code despite the further obstacles MyGov threw up).

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      • All of the sub-genres you list are ones I acknowledge as science fiction. I suppose it’s novels that are set in the future, one that doesn’t look like our own but isn’t different due to science (nuclear, environmental, whatever) either, that throw me off, hence the Octavia Butler example. Your list gave me a hankering for my old sci-fi anthology from college, which has excellent pulp stories in it. Classic stuff!

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      • It was interesting! Especially since I read the Zora book about her time in Haiti and Jamaica, I’ve been thinking about more Caribbean fiction. My library doesn’t have Midnight Robber, but it does have Falling in Love With Hominids, which is a sci-fi retelling of The Tempest, my favorite Shakespeare play. I’ll grab a copy. Have you read other stuff by this author? It seems she’s done a few novels, some graphic novels, and even children’s books.

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      • Never heard of her before I began this year’s North America project, but I’ll definitely be reading more. Another woman author next month – unread by me, but much better known – The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich.

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  6. I was fascinated by this comment: “Men’s SF, straight SF, is generally about the SF – a universe is established and it is explored by stick figures. Women’s SF quite often follows the conventions of straight SF, a universe is established and its rules are adhered to, but the purpose is to provide an environment in which the behaviours of one or a few people may be interrogated.”

    It certainly makes sense to me … it’s the women’s style that I most like. I’m not interested in the universe so much as the people. So then I think, why bother create a universe at all? I know, because the writer thinks a different universe might help them highlight whatever it is they want to highlight, but if the focus becomes the intricacies of the universe I’m done.

    But, not all SF is about different universes is it? I’m thinking – though my memory is vague – something like Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s cradle?

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    • Vonnegut and PK Dick in particular were influenced by early postmodernism and, I’m guessing, though they made their living through SF publishers, were influenced to diverge quite widely from mainstream SF though continuing to include futuristic elements in their work.

      Le Guin, Lessing for a while, Octavia Butler and (new to me) Hopkinson choose to use SF backgrounds for their work the better to expound their ideas. And I love them for it.

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      • What about John Wyndham? As I recollect, from my teens, some, many, of his works were not set in invented worlds but were about odd things happening in this one? How do you place him? I remember enjoying, in particular, The Midwich cuckoos, and The trouble with lichen. I read Day of the Triffids but, though it’s probably his most famous, it left less of an impression.

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      • Wyndham was my introduction to SF too, and yes English, European and US SF developed separately until say 1960. You misunderstand about “invented universes”. An invented universe, the world on which the action is set, may look a lot like ours, but something has been tweaked (or outrageously changed) in order that a particular idea may be explored – telepathy, invasion by Martians, and so on.

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  7. Yay, I was anxious that this one wasn’t the right door into her work for you, but it remains my favourite of hers, and I’m so happy that you found so much of interest and challenge in her worldbuilding and story.

    Did you mention the patois because it so quickly became an inherent part of the story/the reading (on audio) or were you just being funny about it, knowing how resistant many readers can be to that kind of voice on the page? It felt so natural to me that I could not imagine the story being told in any other way/rhythm.

    A lot of the plot has slipped away from me over the years, so i really enjoyed your post and all the detail and quotations. Now you’ll just need to keep in mind that, if you do continue on with her, each book is a little different from the rest, so you won’t find another Midnight Robber. There are glimpses of it in her short fiction though. (If you really enjoyed this particular novel, Nnedi Okorafor’s She Who Fears Death would make an interesting comparison for sure.)

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    • I am always conscious of other bloggers’ favourite authors, not that it seems to slow me down – I did an adverse review on a book Liz Dexter took the trouble to send me from England – but it does make me feel bad. So yes ‘Yay’. In fact as you know I am a fan of womens SF. I live here in Perth surrounded by women, some of them damaged, all dealing with stuff, all of them perfect and Midnight Robber really struck home.

      Not being funny! I struggle with dialect but as I was trying to say, patois was an integral part of this work and the reading flowed like poetry.

      I’ll definitely read more Hopkinson. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Okorafor’s – Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix – but Audible have a couple of other novels (also short stuff and Star Wars).

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