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Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson, Warner Aspect, 2000, 329 pp.
Note: This review has a few spoilers.
Midnight Robber is one of the best science fiction novels I've read in years. Hopkinson seems to have approached this novel with many ambitions, and, marvellously, all of them are achieved. Midnight Robber is an intricately detailed hard science fiction novel, with plausible speculation set in a consistent and interesting far future society. Hopkinson gracefully evades the recurring flaw of hard science fiction, the lack of real characters, and the book is as much a vividly realized character piece as canny speculation about the future. Certainly this mix of the human and the technological does happen in some of the best science fiction, notably books like Zettel's Fool's War, but Hopkinson goes one further than even such rare achievements. Midnight Robber is written with the linguistic and mythological underpinnings of the Caribbean, which provides a welcome and exhilarating texture to the prose and, not coincidentally, dovetails neatly with the protagonist's story. All in all, quite the achievement, as I've said.
The story begins on the planet Toussaint, which is as near utopia as human nature would allow. The society is a vigorous hybrid of social customs passed along from the Caribbean and of nanotechnology, although the tech underlying the achievements of Toussaint is integrated to the point of complete submersion and it's quite some time before the nature of the technology in this future becomes clear. The main character, Tan-Tan, is a young girl at the beginning of Midnight Robber. Her mother, Ione, is having an affair with a man named Quashee, and the story begins with Tan-Tan's father, Mayor Antonio, on his way home to confront Ione about her lover. Criminals on Toussaint are sent through the dimensional veils to New Halfway Tree, a trip with no return, and events lead Antonio to hastily decide to go through, dragging along Tan-Tan. So much for the utopian era in Tan-Tan's life.
After being rudely deposited in the wilderness somewhere on New Halfway Tree, Antonio and Tan-Tan are met by a strange creature, a douen. Antonio treats the creature with complete disdain, but Tan-Tan shares her name and immediately makes friends with Chichibud. Chichibud and his packbird lead them to the nearest human town, Junjuh, even though it is not his favourite place: Chichibud and his kind are generally treated poorly by the humans, despite being the indigenous life forms on this planet. This too will become a large part of Tan-Tan's life, as exile follows exile. It is only much later in the story that Tan-Tan becomes the midnight robber, but Hopkinson has been laying the groundwork all along. From the beginning, we read about her exploits as the midnight robber, and when we finally understand the context of her desperate use of the stories of the robber, it is quite heart-wrenching. Hopkinson wraps everything up with a return to the framing story and an identity for the voice of the narrator (and the nature of the audience for that narrator) that creates a pleasing circularity for the book.
Each of the stages of Tan-Tan's journey from utopia to solitude is a well-written vignette, and poignant too, as she becomes more and more disenfranchised. New Halfway Tree is one step below Toussaint, while the company of the douen is disdained by the humans of New Halfway Tree. And then Tan-Tan loses even the advantages of life among the douen. On her own, all that she has left is the power of the story that accompanies the midnight robber character, and she puts it to good use as she insists on the truth of her own person.
I appreciated the way that Hopkinson told such a human story in the context of nanotechnology, dimensional veils, and strange aliens. It's hard to convey just how firmly rooted the novel is in hard science fiction, in addition to all the characterization. Midnight Robber somehow feels much different than other hard science fiction novels, and I suspect this is mostly due to the linguistic innovations of the book. Many science fiction novels (but certainly not enough) spend time addressing the issue of language change in the same way that the progress of technology is addressed. Sometimes linguistic innovations are used to make a point about human nature, such as in Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, and other times to simply show off a writer's clever turn of mind, such as in Banks' Feersum Endjinn. In the case of Hopkinson's work here, the prose serves to supply a Caribbean mythology to the story at the same time as it subverts technophilic hard science fiction tendencies. This subversion happens in the process of naming, masking, or placing familiar items in unfamiliar contexts. Interestingly, the utopia of Toussaint seems a far friendlier and warmer place to live than the typical future in other science fiction novels.
Midnight Robber is only Hopkinson's second novel, and it is the achievement of a writer with talent to burn. I hope that she stays with science fiction and continues to grace the genre with her work.
Last modified: March 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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