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Title: Midnight Robber
Author: (Nalo Hopkinson; @nalohopkinson)
Genre: Science Fiction
Page Count: 329
Publisher: Aspect Science Fiction




Basic Plotline: Tan Tan lives a pampered life on the planet Toussaint as the daughter of the mayor of the town she lives in. Then her parents' tempestuous marriage explodes and leads her father to commit a heinous crime. And on Toussaint, the reigning AI intelligence - Nanny - exiles unwanted criminals across the dimensional veil to New Half Tree. Tan Tan is taken along with her father there, and she finds it is a strange and wild place that is nothing like the world she's known and survival is an ongoing battle not just with the intelligent bird like inhabitants of the world, the douen, but also a battle with her past, her father, and herself.

The Positives: Nalo Hopkinson just cements her position as one of my all time favorite authors with this book. I literally let out a squeak of joy when I found this in a bookstore and I tore through it hungrily.

If I were to pick the primary theme of this novel, and the one that most resonated with me, it would be the power of a story. Not just the stories that others tell about us, but the ones we tell to them and to ourselves. Tan Tan's survival in metaphorical and literal ways is about her not only coming to understand her own story, but owning it and taking control of it and using that power to save herself, to tell herself the story in which she survives and triumphs. There is deep, rich territory here in Tan Tan's story and what it says in a larger context about all stories, about the dangers of being silenced and the empowerment that comes from being able to tell one's own story in one's own way. Punctuating this is the poem that is the novel's epigraph, David Findlay's "I Stole the Torturer's Tongue". This is novel is just as much about Tan Tan reclaiming her own narrative and becoming her own narrator as it is about her physical survival. Indeed, the entire thing is about tracing how she goes from being the person who is told things to the person doing the telling in her own life. At the beginning we a child who has the world impressed upon her, who is told story after story, even about herself, then a troubled adolescent who begins to invent another Tan Tan but in the process is understanding how to invent another self, and finally to a strong young woman who has the strength to tell her story, on her terms, in her way to save her own life, who creates herself as she wants to be.

As a science fiction novel, it does what many don't. Midnight Robber is set in a world that is both fantastic and believable. I usually get very, very annoyed with SF writers who like to throw out neat, made up terms for future technology but never make it real, never give it a context in the lives of the people that live in that place and time. Hopkinson does. She doesn't just throw around gadgetry and made up science for the sake of making things look shiny and futuristic. Things have uses, contexts, consequences. Technology lives side by side with a movement that takes the act of pulling people along by hand (or foot) in a rickshaw as a rebellion against a large, Big Brother-like AI. It lives in a context where real paper that "Nanny" can't read is such a rarity that it stuns Tan Tan when she comes across it. I'd say that vast majority of future, off-Earth SF that I read fails to understand how to do this. This novel is about a future that has history behind it, a well constructed history about a people who find a kind of freedom, independence, and equality on their own world, who remember their Earthly origins but have molded their history to shape their present as well. I would love to revisit Toussaint some day in another novel of hers.

The explanation of Nannysong (the music-like language used by the Nanny AI that was part of the settlement of Toussaint and controls technology there, including how to send people across the dimensional veils) was fascinating. I bought it. I bought and loved the idea that an AI might, left to its own devices (literally), decide that human language was inefficient for its purposes and turn to a music like language that can hold greater complexity. It seems so many SF writers never have the imagination to envision a world where non-human intelligences and entities don't just copy from humanity's playbook but come up with their own strategies for communication, survival, reproduction, etc.

In addition to the SFnal elements, Hopkison weaves real world Carribean culture culture, history, and backgrounds into the people of Toussaint. The people celebrate Carnival, they remember their heritages. Example:

"The woman had temporarily cell-sculpted her skin to be Afro on one side, Euro on the other. The Euro side was already sunburnt" (Hopkinson, 55)



More than that, she doesn't forget other people. This isn't a world simply of Afro-Carribean and Euro, this a world that reflects the diversity of the Earth from which its people came. This is a world where there are so many mixtures of cultures. Of a place where there's Carnival and Jairam who's parents came on the Shipmate Shiva, and the Parang Queen, of the woman Afro on one side and Euro on the other, where even the douen have had to learn several languages (Anglopatwa, Francopatwa, Hispanopatwa), including Papiamento (which is, if what I've read is correct, a mix of Portuguese and/or Spanish, Arawak, some African languages, and a bit of Dutch and English).

The plot has all the best qualities of an adventure/survival tale and avoids the trap of having someone (or many someones) aid the protagonist in an impossible situation just because the protagonist is that inexplicably important to everyone and must be saved. The douens do aid her (to an extent), but many do so reluctantly, and in the end, when her presence results in disaster for them, they exile her. Her so called "rescue" by the douens is not a miraculous save by a conveniently placed helper, but rather clearly the act of a particular douen acting out of sympathy for a creature it views as needing help not to die, and for reasons that stem from its own experience and sense of morality (as the douens say, "If you take one life, you must give back two"). It's very akin to the way Tan Tan acts when rescuing and caring for the young Ground Puppy who's mother she has killed to save herself. It is not because the baby ground puppy is so utterly important that Tan Tan must help it, but rather Tan Tan has her own motives. The same with the douen helping Tan Tan.

The reader is at all times invested fully in Tan Tan. She is a fascinating character on her own, not just for the trials she goes through, but because she's got an innate boldness and stubbornness (something necessary to make a survival story work - you have to have a tough, gumption-filled protagonist) along with a desire to please, a deep concern for other people that sometimes overruns her concern for herself, even when it shouldn't. The supporting characters, both human and non human are real and compelling. Chichibud, his daughter Abitefa, and the douens were fascinating all on their own, in how they lived, how they kept themselves carefully separate and secreted from humans even when they interacted with them, and how they reacted to human contact and various human cultures. In this relationship between them, Hopkinson shows another version of how contact between humans and aliens might happen that doesn't require either to necessarily be the colonist.

As pace and length go, I'd hold this book as an example that you don't need 500 pages to tell a very thorough, exciting story. While flourished and brilliantly colorful, this book is also economical with its plot and setting. It doesn't dwell where it doesn't need to dwell, it doesn't do things simply to create "atmosphere". What atmosphere is created is part and parcel of what's essential to Tan-Tan, to how the world looks to her, to understanding the Robber Queen and why it has the impact on her that it does. Everything is useful and used well, everything is there for a reason, and while Hopkinson does slow down occasionally or interrupt to show larger views of Tan Tan or alternate angles, it doesn't cut the story off or mess up the flow. Rather it directs it and masterfully so.

I could carry on for many more paragraphs listing all the things that are right and wonderful about this book. The characters, setting, plot, its was of interpreting the SF genre, it's themes and underlying (and overlying) metaphors are all right on target. I recommend this book to just about anyone, but especially if you're looking for good SF that's very much SFnal, or if you read, say, the Salt Roads and were thrown by the non-linear style but wanted to sample something by Hopkinson that's a lot more straightforward as far as story structure goes.


The Negatives: The only negatives I can really list are ones that might trip up a reader rather than missteps by the author.

This book deals with incestuous rape, abortion, pregnancy resulting from incest, abuse, violence, and a lot of other things that are not pleasant topics. Hopkinson as an author, I've noticed, does not shy away from talking about the harsh realities of life. People get hurt. By other people. The depictions are not gratuitous, glorified, or otherwise written in a way that I think is disrespectful of real life survivors and victims. But they are there, and at times they border on graphic. Again, the author does not flinch here. Neither does the book, and I know that some people can be triggered by even the most respectful, well handled depiction of such things.

The novel is written in dialect and that may throw some readers, especially if you're a visual reader who sees the words rather than hears them. Many words here are not spelled in the so-called "standard" manner of English, but written phonetically or to reflect the dialect. Being a reader who hears words and reads with my ears not my eyes, this is something I love to bits because it gives the book a sound I can follow, it creates a narrator that literally talks to me. Thus, I flew easily through this book. I would advise that if you get to words or phrases that trip you up, sounding out the words literally and listening to them.

I would also point out as a negative that while this has a young protagonist, this isn't a book I'd hand to younger readers without supervision. That's not necessarily something wrong with it, but if you do give this to a younger reader, it needs to be with double handfuls of discretion. This is a hard book to read even for an adult.



CoC Score: 10/10. Diverse, rich, well written. Hopkinson includes a great mix and shows the diversity of Carribean culture. While she mainly focuses on Tan Tan's side of it, all the other parts that are mentioned are shown are done quite well, IMHO. And as an added bonus, I don't think there are any white-identified characters in the book. Aside from some mentions of European heritages, it seems to be all CoC's.

Gender Score - 10/10. This is a story about a young woman who finds what amounts to the very definition of her own agency. The book is filled with lots of woman characters of all types, and even the female douen are imbued with agency and their own selves, even though that's one of their big secrets. The female douen, the hinte, are thought to be speechless, less intelligent pack animals who aren't even the same species as the doyen by the humans when really, they can not only speak, but sing and fly in a way the males cannot and much of what the douen take from humans to use as their own and defend themselves is done and driven by the hint. The scene where Benta, Chichibud's wife, demands that Tan Tan talk to her and not through Chichibud once she knows the truth is a rather powerful (if brief) moment.

GLBT Score: 8/10. There are tones of queerness in this novel. Tan-Tan herself is only ever in heterosexual relationships, but the book shows everything from a threesome between two men and one woman, to as Tan Tan sees it, "men's bodies in women's underwear; women wearing men's shirt-jacs and boxers (Hopkinson, 55)" during carnival. Beata (the woman who first shows Antonio how to do things without Nanny knowing with "headblind" paper) talks about her three wives. I don't give it the full ten I'd reserve for a book about a queer and/or trans and/or non-binary protagonist, and it doesn't centralize any of its queer characters, but it scores well.

Ablism Score: 7/10. I give this a seven because I definitely read Tan Tan as dealing with PTSD and her experiences with "the bad Tan Tan" as part of that, and while the bad Tan-Tan eventually goes away, Tan Tan is still dealing with her experiences, she still has issues, so it isn't a miraculous healing of this, rather Tan Tan coping better towards the end. However, I can see how another person might not, and it isn't stated outright, so I can't give it the entire 10. Also, I didn't see a lot of discussion or portrayals of other types of disabilities (or even neurodiversity) in this book. All the characters seem very physically able. I would've liked to have seen more in that area, especially given that New Half Tree is a very difficult place to live. How would someone with a physical disability deal with surviving there. I think there was room in the supporting cast for such a character, but I know that no novel can ever include everything.

Date: 2011-07-24 12:46 am (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
I'm actually a pretty visual rather than auditory reader, and it took me about two pages to get used to the writing style--I loved it, and I loved the book, although it was hard to read in places. Very very much seconding everything you said about the worldbuilding.

Date: 2011-07-24 04:35 pm (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
The subject matter, not the writing style. It's one of those books I'm not sure I could reread, emotionally.

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