Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson (2000)
Review by Shaun Duke
Much like Hopkinson’s other novels, science fiction or otherwise, Midnight Robber is an experiment in Caribbean folklore and consciousness. Set on the colonized world of Toussaint, the novel initially follows Antonio, the less-than-ethical mayor of Cockpit City. When his career turns south after accidentally killing a man (who has been sleeping with his wife), he snatches up his young daughter, Tan Tan, and flees via a dimensional transport to the shadow world of New Half-way Tree. There, Tan Tan must grow up in a hostile world in which the criminal class exiled to New Half-Way Tree have developed their own civilization and where Caribbean folklore is real.
Tan Tan’s journey could be accurately described as a coming-of-age story. Once on New Half-Way Tree, she both has to come to terms with the new world in which she has to live and with the social and physical consequences of teenage life (puberty, sex, pregnancy, and so on). The fact that Hopkinson detours into a story about rape, incest, and exile only amplifies Tan Tan’s journey towards independence and “womanhood” – relayed through her desire to become a folklore character. But it’s the exploration of Tan Tan’s teenage life that offers us a gateway into reading the folklore-heavy novel as outsiders. Perhaps Hopkinson had all this in mind when she re-centered her narrative onto Tan Tan; regardless, Tan Tan’s growth as a young woman and its link to Caribbean folklore is interesting, if not clever. This is, of course, one of Hopkinson’s many strengths.
The use of Caribbean folklore in Midnight Robber does something unique for the narrative: it turns it into a liberative journey. Tan Tan’s exile within New Half-Way Tree (for killing her rapist father) opens her engagement with the indigenous people of the planet and allows her to become a kind of “living legend” in the form of the Midnight Robber (a carnival character who resembles a flamboyant Robin Hood). This journey is one of the more compelling aspects of the novel, not least of all because it provides us, as readers, with a unique view of the power of myths and the kinds of activities that keep them alive. In the case of Tan Tan, mythology can be literally embodied, used as a mask to hide the non-mythical (her pregnancy) and to change the societal dynamic which otherwise would make life impossible (in Tan Tan’s case, this very likely means execution). Hopkinson handles these aspects with dexterity, exploring the mind of Tan Tan with the care appropriate for the character’s age and developing future-Caribbean cultures with remarkable detail
In many respects, Midnight Robber is also linked to the societal project Ursula K Le Guin developed in The Dispossessed. Much as Le Guin explored the formation of civilization in radically different environments, so too does Hopkinson in Midnight Robber. Toussaint and New Half-way Tree are polar opposites: the first a colonized planet governed by a relatively inflexible computer system (Granny Nanny does allow certain human eccentricities, such as the Pedicabs), and the second resembles Toussaint as it once was, with its “dangerous” indigenous species – many of which appear to be creatures from Caribbean folklore – and jungle-like environment. Such explorations are not the most compelling aspect of Hopkinson’s book, but they do provide a visual contrast which at once exposes the colonial traces inherent in any system of empire (Toussaint) and then rejects them through renewed and exiled spaces (New Half-Way Tree). Midnight Robber, effectively, is an amusing exploration of the ways in which colonialism embeds itself even within the very spaces defined as “home” by those who are colonized.
But it would also be fair to say that Midnight Robber is a difficult text. Hopkinson’s narrative is so embedded in Caribbean traditions that it can sometimes be hard to grasp the cultural elements. The first time I read the novel, it threw me for a loop, but only because I had no knowledge of the traditions, folklore, and so on that Hopkinson so frequently uses. Yet I would not consider the inclusion of so much detail in negative terms; as much as the novel focuses on features typically ignored by Western writers, the totalizing nature of the culture of the novel is undeniably fascinating. Reading Midnight Robber as an outsider to Caribbean culture is an exciting and alienating experience, but it is also an experience which both amuses with didacticism and approaches the edges of the sense-of-wonder much loved by SF readers. It’s perhaps because of the above that I chose to write about Midnight Robber in my MA thesis (alongside Tobias S Buckell’s Xenowealth Series). Hopkinson’s narrative is one of the few SF projects which both explores the boundaries of genre and incorporates completely the very myths, legends, and traditions that make the Caribbean an unusual and, perhaps inaccurately, exotic place. Midnight Robber, both through its explorations of planets/empire and character/culture, is, to put it simply, a compelling and charming read.