Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

Science fiction readers have pretty much always been a contentious crew - it's amazing that any of us agree on anything, even given that we're talking about a genre we all love. But despite that, there was something I thought most SF readers would share, and was more than a little weirded out when it turned out not to be the case.

It is this - SF is, at its heart, the literature of possibilities. We can imagine a thousand new futures, introduce new technologies, and ask questions about what that might do to individuals, to societies, to experience. I come to the genre wanting to be challenged, wanting new viewpoints and ideas, to have the ground under my feet pulled away with regularity. That's, for me, a great deal of the fun. We take away the shared tyranny of the present day and do not let it limit our stories.

So when the Hugo kerfluffle came along, I am sure it shows how naive I am, but I was taken aback. It seemed that some people wanted their possibilities to extend only so far - to new technologies, but not to worlds that weren't white, male, cis, and hetero. Which, seriously, what the fuck? And honestly, if that's what you want, have fun, but don't demand others share the same viewpoint, particularly not when to do so you need to game a gameable system, instead of creating a genuine grassroots movement that is complex and contradictory.

Which is a long way to go to come to Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber. It's the second of her books I've read, and feels like a later book, in that while I enjoyed Brown Girl in the Ring, this feels stronger, more defined. It keeps what I liked and develops her style further. And specifically, it gives me a very rare SF glimpse into the worlds that could be imagined when you don't have a white person in sight - and why wouldn't I want to see what Hopkinson would do with that? I like being a little out of my comfort zone when I read. If all I want is comfort, well, I have comfort rereads for that.

This is the story of two worlds colonized by primarily or entirely Black settlers of, I think, Caribbean descent. They're not gotten to after long space voyages, but rather through colonizing alternate Earths. (I think, although it's possible I missed something and they space travelled to another planet, but can access an alternate reality version of it.) One (Toussaint) is well settled, with most labour done by nanotech, with virtually everyone on the planet connected through Granny Nanny in their ear, constant monitoring and support.

Many aspects of everyday life are folded into the culture they brought with them, in a world that is quite high tech without being densely populated. And what they have no tolerance for is crime - and the punishment is permanent exile to another version of Toussaint, no chance of reprieve. It seems fairly regarded as more or less a death sentence. Certainly, there is no coming back.

Tan-Tan, the main character, accidentally ends up going with her father when he is exiled from his position of power for killing a man in a duel. There, she learns to live in the jungles of New Half-Way Tree, helped by her connection to the douen, a small race of sentients with unusual feet. Tan-Tan can see them as equals, while others think of them as servants or slaves. The world that has developed on New Half-Way Tree varies from brutal power grabs to relatively settled towns that have developed their own social contract and way of enforcing the law.

We follow Tan-Tan as she grows up, and this is often difficult to read, as she becomes a victim of incest. Difficult, but not handled gratuitously. She eventually goes to live with the douen, discovering secrets of their gender binary previously unsuspected.

It's a story of finding strength, particularly when what is hurting you is deep-seated and undeserved self-loathing. Tan-Tan embraces the folklore she grew up with, casting herself as the Robber Queen as she explores the parameters of her world.

As with Brown Girl in the Ring, Hopkinson's writing is richly tactile, but with an additional sense of confidence in weaving a complicated, difficult, and satisfying story. Please let more authors push me this way. This is what I come to science fiction for.

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