The first few pages of Midnight Robber feel like being dropped into a brand new language – and realistically, you are. If you know the language. you’re fine. It takes a little readjustment, sure, but only the same amount of adjustment that a speaker of Received Pronounciation British English needs to do for the terms in Lord of the Rings. If you don’t… it takes a little longer.
That’s a good thing, though. The language that Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber is written in is a blend of Trinidadian and Jamaican Creole – two Caribbean English dialects, with a few others sprinkled in. For me, somebody who’s never spoken or read Creole, it took a chapter or two to really get the hang of it. I jotted down words I wasn’t sure about, googled them if the context didn’t give it away… And after a while, I didn’t have to anymore. The greatest trick of language, after all, is that it teaches itself to you. And Hopkinson is more than just a writer in this way; she’s a storyteller, and the storytelling uses the language and its rhythm to give you the context of everything without so much as pausing for breath.
Midnight Robber is a science-fiction tale, set on a distant planet called Toussaint (after Haiti’s revolutionary hero) and following – initially – the marital troubles of Antonio and Ione, an upper-class couple in Jonkanoo. After Ione cheats on him, Antonio challenges her lover to a duel and kills him with a poisoned machete blade; after realizing he is going to be sentenced to a life sentence on the prison planet New Half-Way Tree, Antonio escapes to run there on his own, taking his daughter Tan-Tan with him. And ultimately, this is Tan-Tan’s story, not Antonio’s – stolen from her mother and a life of relative privilege, away from a world with AI nannies and eyes everywhere to the “uncivilized” forest of New Half-Way Tree.
Hopkinson’s worldbuilding of Toussaint versus New Half-Way Tree is fascinating. Toussaint is a planet colonized by Afro-Caribbean people instead of White European, and so all of the technology has West African and Caribbean names instead of Greek or English ones; Granny Nanny, and my personal favourite; the AIs that inhabit and run dwellings, as well as living in the minds of its inhabitants, are called eshus. Eshu is the name of a Yoruba trickster deity, and as Nalo Hopkinson says in an interview, he “can be in all places at once… is the ghost in the machine.” By contrast, New Half-Way Tree is Toussaint before it was colonized – a thick jungle, full of creatures beyond Tan-Tan’s ken and all sorts of strange plants. Chichibud is a douen, the indigenous people of New Half-Way Tree and he takes a particular liking to Tan-Tan and a disliking to Antonio, in large part because Tan-Tan is willing to listen to his expertise about his own planet, and Antonio is an arrogant dipshit who doesn’t want to. (Oh gosh, this isn’t commentary at all. Relevantly, I adore Chichibud.) The worldbuilding is so detailed and – this made me laugh – gross at times. At one point, Tan-Tan goes to live with the douens for a while and she can’t digest their food or use their toilet properly! I always get a kick out of worldbuilding that accounts for these things.
Character-wise, I found the first part of the book less enthralling – I was there for the worldbuilding and sheer curiosity. Antonio sucks, and I wish he wasn’t the focus for the first few chapters! But Tan-Tan is a joy – she’s got a strong sense of justice, and her identification with the Midnight Robber mixes that justice with a childlike wonder that she never quite loses. Hopkinson mixes Caribbean folklore with science fiction invention and created fable to make something that sits between cyberpunk and fairytale, with a dark edge.
MINOR SPOILERS AND TRIGGER WARNINGS:
Some of it occurs far enough into the book that it is unfortunately a de facto spoiler, but: This book HEAVILY features:
-Child sexual assault/rape
-Anti-indigeneity (unpacked and very much making a Point)
-Minor body horror