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Midnight Robber
Nalo Hopkinson
Warner Aspect, 336 pages

Midnight Robber
Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson has a few published short stories in addition to her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring. She has lived in Toronto, Ontario, since 1977 after spending most of her first 16 years in the Caribbean, where she was born.

Nalo Hopkinson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Brown Girl in the Ring
Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
Excerpt: Midnight Robber
Nalo Hopkinson Short Story

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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In the course of only two novels, Nalo Hopkinson has established herself as a unique voice in the SF and Fantasy genre, largely because that voice is grounded in the rhythms, myths, and vernacular of Caribbean and Creole cultures. Indeed, Midnight Robber goes one step further than Brown Girl in the Ring by using that dialect not only for the characters, but at times for the narration itself. This sometimes makes it hard to follow, though if you got through A Clockwork Orange or Riddley Walker and their made-up dictions, you could certainly handle this.

There are actually two narrators in Midnight Robber. One is ethnic, trying to soothe someone in pain by relating tales of Tan-Tan, the Midnight Robber, whose various trials and tribulations speak to the rewards of endurance:

"Oho. Like it starting, oui! Don't be frightened, sweetness; is for the best. I go be with you the whole time. Trust me an let me distract you little bit with one anasi story."
Only at the very end of the novel are the identities of the tale-teller and her audience revealed. It's a credit to Hopkinson's talent that the ending does not come off as gimmicky; indeed, it elevates the story to a higher level you wouldn't have a clue -- or at least I didn't -- it was aiming for.

The parallel narrative told in standard English concerns the coming-of-age of Tan-Tan, who as a young girl pretends to be the Robber Queen and later acts out the role as a means of surviving a harsh exile, thus providing the basis of the Midnight Robber legend the other narrator is relating. While this kind of thing -- telling the "actual" story that mirrors the myth -- has been done before, Hopkinson puts a very nice original spin on it.

At the risk of comparing authors based on ethnic origins, which can admittedly be simplistic, I couldn't help but be reminded of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which is also grounded in black vernacular. Though it won the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award, the novel was subject to several criticisms, one politically correct and the other literary. Walker's depiction of black men as sexual predators was faulted by some as reinforcing white racist stereotypes; a more legitimate complaint, in my view, was that her "feel-good" ending trivialized the black experience. Of course, this complaint is all the more ironical considering that the charge is leveled at a black author.

Hopkinson is open to similar criticisms, although she's less guilty of a "happy-ever-after" ending in Midnight Robber. Actually, I think Midnight Robber is a more sophisticated work than Walker's, but don't hold your breath waiting for the Pulitzer nominations or, for that matter, Oprah Winfrey selecting it for her book club because -- you guessed it -- Hopkinson writes SF. Which is actually a good thing, because it gives Hopkinson the freedom to continue working unfettered in a genre that at its best remains subversive because the mainstream doesn't pay much attention to it. That may not be a good thing in terms of royalty checks, but in the long run it might be the best thing for Hopkinson's art.

As it happens, Hopkinson has garnered her share of awards in her field -- Brown Girl in the Ring earned the Locus Award for Best First Novel and the John W. Campbell Award for best new SF Writer; it was also a Philip K. Dick finalist. The publication of the novel itself was an award, a winning entry out of 1,000 submitted for the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. I don't want to detract in any way from these accolades or the author's abilities, but Hopkinson stands out in large part because of her ethnicity in a field largely dominated by a white middle-class readership and authorship. (Quick, name a black SF writer other than Octavia Butler or Samuel Delaney.) Which is odd, if you think about it. Shouldn't minorities be attracted to a genre that deals in themes of alienation (a reason why fantasy is thought to be particularly intriguing to adolescents, particularly those with homosexual tendencies)? Hopkinson herself, -- born in Jamaica, raised in Guyana and Trinidad before moving to Canada at the age of 16 -- has said that her use of Afro-American themes and idioms in speculative fiction stems from an attempt at:

"...subverting the genre, which speaks so much about the experience of being alienated, but contains so little written by alienated people themselves."
I have to admit that I related to this novel more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, admiring Hopkinson's talent without really "getting into" the story. I guess my ethnocentrism is showing. Sure, I recognize the Midnight Robber as a trickster figure and the tradition that goes with it, and you don't need to be an expert in African lore to understand some of the obvious references (though a few do require explanation); but it's not my culture. Even while recognizing that one reason to read is to discover other cultural viewpoints, I felt removed from the book in way that I wouldn't to the cultural referents in the works of, say, Elizabeth Hand or William Gibson. But, hey, that's the whole point of reading isn't it, to discover new worlds in a larger sense than made-up planets or mythologies.

I'd recommend Midnight Robber as a much more sophisticated work than her debut novel (contradicting usual notions of sophomore jinx) and even if I wouldn't necessarily put either book on an essential reading list, I look forward to following this author's career. It sort of reminds me when I was kid and being told to read authors that I didn't really get at the time, like Phil Dick or Roger Zelazny, but being excited about the sense that there was something really cool going on that I shouldn't miss.

Copyright © 2000 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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