Once in a while you encounter a book that makes you fall so in love with it that you check an author’s bibliography and pray that it’s long enough to give you stuff to read for the rest of your life, and Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber is that book for me. Hopkinson is one of those sci fi writers that I’ve been aware of for awhile and have been meaning to read and I am ashamed it took me this long, because she just slam dunks so many aspects of writing that I feel picky about.
The first thing is the language. I feel like Goldilocks when it comes to an author’s writing language: this prose is too purple, this prose is too simple and boring, but Hopkinson’s writing is fucking poetry. She writes in a futuristic patois, so her world-building is happening on a sentence-level, and what a beautiful world this woman has built. Her story begins in Toussaint, a Carib-settled planet in which all labor is done by robots and everyone has an AI-implant that functions as a sort of 6th sense. We then follow the novel’s protagonist, Tan-Tan, when circumstance leads her to accidental exile in an extradimensional prison world called New Halfway Tree, where life gets hard, and how, and fast for our protagonist.
Tan-Tan is a protagonist I have been waiting for all my life, strong and weak in equal measure, kind in her intent but often wildly mistaken in her execution. One thing I really appreciate is that Hopkinson understands the depth of love that an abused child can have for her family, that unquestioningly loyal kernel that never quite goes away even once the child understands the depth of the wrong done to them. The narrative often diverges into folk tales that end up being told about her, which reflect and comment on the actual tale of who she comes to be.
The “aliens” in this book, native to New Halfway Tree, are also incredible. So often aliens are a cartoonish and overgeneralized version of some aspect of human cultures (see Star Trek: Vulcans are stoic and intellectual; Klingons are emotional and warlike; Ferengi are capitalists), or meant to comment on how Westerners construe the various populations we’ve oppressed (the aliens in Avatar are James Cameron’s noble savage view of indigenous Americans; the AI in the ware series are Rudy Rucker’s view of African Americans). The douen of Midnight Robber are a little bit of the latter, in that they are clearly viewed as lesser by the de facto colonists of their world, despite understanding and navigating the world better. However, they also have their own culture as well that is just its own original thing and is nothing like any human or animal culture I’ve heard of, especially when it comes to gender. And dammit, I want to take a bath in a douen house.
Finally, I love the story structure as well. You don’t know who exactly is telling the story until the end, and you don’t know who’s being told the story either, and when you find out, you know how the story is going to conclude. Everything about this book comes together in a way that’s just right.