Please note that this might be a little spoilerific, for which I do apologise. Not to have spoilers was making it difficult to talk about some of the things that I found most interesting about the novel.
Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, a fast-paced hard SF novel, uses some familiar SFnal ideas to explore the experiences of Africans taken into bondage, loss of identity and gender politics.
It opens on the world of Toussaint, a world settled mainly by Afro-Carribbean people (specifically those from Trinidad). Toussaint is portrayed as a largely crime-free utopia maintained with nano-tech and an always on internet. This is bound up with Trinidadian heritage to create a compelling and believable society. Impressively, Hopkinson manages to evoke this world with a light touch, keeping the novel lean.
Toussaint and human beings arrival there, as a new home, is contrasted with the experience of African slaves in the middle passage and the privations suffered by their ancestors as they were transported to the new world. The main difference, of course, being that the inhabitants of Toussaint arrived as free people. Although Toussaint is mostly portrayed in a positive light – there’s little that is worse than the transatlantic slave-trade – it is worth noting that there are occasional grumbles about the more subtle lack of freedom people have with the constant presence of the Nanny through the web.
The protagonist of the novel, Tan-Tan, starts the novel living alone with her mother because her father, the mayor Antonio, had left her mother when he caught her having an affair with another, younger man. This relationship is interesting because it’s clear that Antonio had many affairs, but it seems that often the community is more forgiving of his indiscretions as a man, and a man of power.
Hopkinson frames the novel with a tale about the Midnight Robber, the importance of which isn’t immediately clear (though by the end, as the real connection of Tan-Tan to the tale is revealed as a reader, one is satisfied).
The Midnight Robber is also a character from the carnival, and by using this, amongst other traditional stories from Trinidadian folk history and Creole for conversation, the novel has an interesting texture. I have to admit that I was ignorant of much of this. Though I have a general idea about the history of the settlement of the Americas by Europeans, the inhumanity of the slave trade, its consequences for the continent of Africa and the repercussions that it had for the experience of its people when they were taken to the new world, losing their culture and history, my grasp of Caribbean culture and society is far weaker. One obvious thing, again, to note is that, though the Creole and the Carnival were created from a mix of all the different cultures that made up the population of Trinidad and – though it may have debts to the older African customs – it was clearly the product of forced resettlement. However, the continuation of the customs on Toussaint is more a celebration of their roots.
Despite the issues that there may have been with the lack of privacy in Toussaint, I think that, on balance, its inhabitants are generally content. Tan-Tan is torn away from this when her father (who is described as doting upon her; something which takes on a different character as the novel progresses) takes revenge upon the Quashee, the man with whom his wife had an affair, by attempting to humiliate him in a ceremonial duel at the carnival. His victim dies and in a society which doesn’t tolerate violent crimes, exiling the perpetrators to an alternate version of reality, Antonio decides that he’ll leave on his own terms.
This trip the first part of a descent from the utopia, to her eventual being ostracised by all. On their arrival in their new home (New Halfway Tree) they are met by one of the native life-forms, a douen (Chichibud), who helps them find the nearest human settlement.
The relationship between the douen and the humans is one where, though the people are mostly the descendants of slaves and ingrained is the belief that they should treat all humans as equals, this doesn’t extend to the douen, who are – despite their appearance – clearly sentient and intelligent beings.
Antonio and Tan-Tan’s self-imposed exile initially appears, if less comfortable than what they were used to, bearable. However, over the years we come to learn that Antonio’s interest in his daughter is an unhealthy one which, when the reader thinks back to some of his thoughts from earlier in the novel, lends a creepier air to the relationship. As she ages, we learn that he repeatedly raped her and (despite tearful apologies and promises never to do it again with the demand that she not tell anyone) made her pregnant, which forced her to have an abortion.
In the same way that the reaction of their neighbours to his wife’s indiscretions was less than fair, his wife on New Halfway Tree, Janisette, blames Tan-Tan for her problems, imputing that she’s a slut and leads her father on. When, on her sixteenth birthday, having decided that she’s to run away to another with a friend to escape her father’s abuse, she finds that she’s about to become even further separated from her people and culture. Antonio once again forces himself upon her after beating her, in a demonstration that rape is never about sex and all about the perpetrator. Angry and fearful she kills him. Murder, regardless of the context, is always punished with death on New Halfway Tree.
Realising this, Tan-Tan escapes to live with the douen (all of whom do not accept her) as Chichibud realised the danger that she would be in, and the injustice of her likely fate, were she to stay with her people. Their world is one she is even less suited to and she struggles with the life. Also, she discovers that her fathers final assault had left her pregnant and, as she was unable to go back to live with humans, she is not in a position to abort the foetus.
Her growing separation from her own people sees her increasingly adopt the guise of the Midnight Robber (which leads us back to the framing story). Although the novel has a lot of interesting things to say about race, gender and history, much of which makes for uncomfortable reading, there is also joy in Nalo Hopkinson’s use of language. Which is in itself of academic interest, but more importantly for the sake of the novel, prevents it from being unrelentingly grim (and perhaps less effective?)
It’s not unique to this novel, there are some famous and some less well-known, but equally successful, examples of this device in literature. Obviously, A Clockwork Orange with its future teen-speak, nadsat, is a prominent example, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker takes the modification of English further (and to striking effect). Meanwhile Lavie Tidhar’s recent novella, the excellent Cloud Permutations makes superb use of the Vanuatu Creole, Bislama and Patrick Chamoiseau in Solibo Magnifique also makes effective use of a Creole to tell his story. These are all novels I hold in high regard and I believe that Hopkinson’s has created a work which is easily their equal (though Tidhar’s novella obviously came later than this).
For an unapologetically hard-SF novel, the characterisation is satisfying; though the technology and the dimension hopping are all staples of many science fiction novels, ultimately, it’s a very human story one where the reader cares about Tan-Tan and regrets what she is forced to endure. The clever use of language and Trinidadian myth grounds the story – perhaps on the surface not in ways that would be immediately familiar to all readers, but the themes are universal and the distinct voice helps.
A thoughtful and righteous novel. Excellent.
“Everywhere she go, she could hear the douen chant following she:
It ain’t have no magic in do-fe-do,
If you take one, you mus’ give back two.
Tan-Tan reach into she pocket to fling the old man couple-three coppers. But she find it strange that he own people wasn’t feeding he. So she raise she voice to everyone in the marketplace: ‘How oonuh could let this old man sit here hungry so? Oonuh not shame?’
‘Lawd, missus,’ say the women selling the fowl, ‘you ain’t want mixup with he. That is Dry Bone, and when you pick he up, you pick up trouble!’
‘What stupidness you talking, woman? Hot sun make you bassourdie, or what? How much trouble so one little old man could give you?’
A man frying some hard johnnycake on a rusty piece of galvanized iron look up from he wares.’You should listen when people talk to you, girl pickney. Make I tell you: you even self touch Dry Bone, is like you touch Death. Don’t say nobody ain’t tell you!'”