So much to read, and so little time – I finally got to Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000), and I wish I’d read it earlier…
- Part of the reason that I wish I had read this earlier is because I’m now wondering what some of the mainstream fantasy writers – Martin in particular – are/were reading, and if they’ve read this. Martin’s efforts to locate ASOIAF outside of Europe (and England) might be spurred by someone like Hopkinson.
- As for the text itself, MR blends Caribbean folk tales with sci-fi in ways that even as I think back on the reading felt both dislocating (in the best possible way) and intensely familiar. She moves the diaspora to the stars, and in doing so somehow manages in one novel to discuss race, colonialism, labor, our relationship with the natural world, and the impetus behind technological development. Yep, sci-fi ftw!
- She is also not afraid to tackle big subjects. The protagonist, Tan-Tan (who becomes the Midnight Robber, a thief in the tradition of Robin Hood and I’m sure a Caribbean antecedent that I’m too dumb to know about) is raped repeatedly by her father, at the ages of fifteen and sixteen. Hopkinson allows us see Tan-Tan’s thoughts as she struggles with her feelings for her father and her feelings for the baby who is the result of these rapes. Part of what drives her is a desire for justice for other people, and the Midnight Robber becomes far more than someone who steals from the rich and gives to the poor – she rights social wrongs at a micro-level, and those wrongs including bullying and an unequal distribution of resources within individual communities.
- The implications of technology invoked here are Feenbergian. This novel is sci-fi – it happens on other planets, and includes a nanny state AI that essentially keeps order (infants are given an implant that grows connections in the brain that make it part of the adult’s anatomy) and gravity wells to other planets. But like sci-fi that matters (fuck you Star Wars!) it looks intensely at what our relationship with technology means to our daily lives *and* our larger relationships, looking for places where we can reconfigure that relationship.
- It doesn’t do so however in a global, interplanetary war sort of way. Tan-Tan wants to save the world, but as the Midnight Robber she doesn’t involve herself in ideological conflicts – she does what she thinks is right, and even though she makes some mistakes along the way she constantly looks for places where she can make daily life more humane and less degrading, including ways to keep human in the face of our technology.
- The idea that technology degrades us is sorta hipppiesh, but my guess is that Hopkinson has enough trippiness in her that she wouldn’t turn away from that…
- Finally, I wish Hopkinson had delved more into the labor issues that she raises. There is a sub-culture on Tan-Tan’s home world that rejects the AI and chooses to do labor (that labor takes the main form of operating pedicabs, which are taken by the rich as a signifier of status). The sub-culture fits into the plot of the novel (barely), but its possibilities in a tech-rich world are pretty interesting.
- The need for physical labor as an essential quality of what it means to be human is invoked in the world that Tan-Tan and her father flee to, but its presence in that world is strictly by necessity. Perhaps her other novels (which are now on my must-read list) will take on these issues…