BIPOC Book #12: "Midnight Robber"
By Anya Shukla
Going forward, I’ve decided to stop rating the books I review. This is not a ploy to get out of doing more work, dear reader; I’ve put some thought into this decision.
1. My ratings are super subjective. I have no set rubric, meaning that I maintain no consistency between ratings: one book may get 1 point taken off for poor character development, while another may only lose .5 points. Plus, my idea of a “good book” has changed over the course of this challenge, meaning that my earlier ratings may not be accurately scaled.
2. My ratings reflect my personal preferences. I prefer my literature dark and gritty, with a sprinkling of genre-pushing prose. That means I may read a well-written, sunshine-y book and not give it the numerical score it deserves.
Basically, it feels wrong to play God. Who am I to dictate the absolute worth of a novel?
Review: Set sometime in the future, Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber” is set on Toussaint Planet, home to the novel’s central character, Tan-Tan, and a society under the surveillance of a benevolent AI system, Granny Nanny. After her father, Antonio, commits a crime, Tan-Tan follows him on a one-way trip to New Half-Way Tree. This new planet, a jungle full of strange creatures like mako jumbies and douen, houses criminals and exiles from Toussaint. After several tragic events, Tan-Tan transforms herself into the mythical Midnight Robber, a persona akin to Robin Hood, and attempts to come to terms with her past. Caribbean English and history add texture to "Midnight Robber," helping the book move beyond sci-fi conventions.
What I Loved/Food For Thought: The dialogue! The characters speak in Caribbean English, which I have not seen in… any book, let alone a sci-fi novel. I will admit that it took a few chapters for me to understand the dialogue, since I speak Mainstream American English. Once I got into it, however, I enjoyed the flow and rhythm of the sentences.
Debra Providence’s paper, “Reimagining the Storyteller in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber,” also notes that Hopkinson draws on other Caribbean storytelling elements when crafting her novel. For example, audience interaction is a signature feature of “Midnight Robber.” Throughout the book, an omniscient narrator speaks directly to the “audience” (both the reader and an unnamed character), providing additional details and utilizing the call-and-response technique ubiquitous in Caribbean oral storytelling tradition.
Similarly, Hopkinson’s use of famous Caribbean historical figures, such as Granny Nanny, injects a cultural element into the sci-fi landscape. As Providence states, Granny Nanny is “a Jamaican national hero,” “known for her wise and strong leadership of the Windward Maroons in their campaign against the British.” In “Midnight Robber,” Hopkinson reimagines Granny Nanny as an all-seeing AI system, an entity that safeguards Toussaint and its citizens from evil. When Tan-Tan is taken to New Half-Way Tree, Granny Nanny works tirelessly to bring her back.
“Midnight Robber” is science-fiction about a non-white group, told through a non-white gaze. In contrast to super-futuristic/fantasy-esque books like “The Fifth Season,” I can see the real-world inspiration for Hopkinson’s characters of color; as opposed to “Dune,” the BIPOC individuals in “Midnight Robber” do not fanatically follow a white savior from another planet (yes, yes, I know “Dune” is a more multifaceted and deeply-researched book than my one-sentence oversimplification… but I don’t have the word count to go into that right now).
Personally, I have a mental image of science-fiction—and mainstream science, for that matter—as sterile, devoid of culture… especially the culture of colonized peoples. Maybe this is because we tend to see Western norms and experiences as “scientific,” while other (primarily BIPOC) perspectives are diminished. Hopkinson’s inclusion of Caribbean elements into a science-fiction book shows us what the genre looks like through a non-colonizer lens. By juxtaposing heritage with innovation and technology, she shows us that we do not need to prioritize one over the other.
What I Didn’t Love: There wasn’t anything glaringly wrong with “Midnight Robber.” I just struggled to categorize it as a YA or adult book. The novel’s contents—including fairly graphic sexual and emotional abuse—feel more mature, but since the narrator speaks as though they are conversing with a child, the tone seems younger. I found it slightly unbalanced.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “I move my shuttle in and out, and smooth, smooth, I weaving you my story, oui? And when I done, I shake it out and turn it over swips! and maybe you see it has a next side to the tale” (pg. 15).
Up next: “Take a Hint, Dani Brown” by Talia Hibbert.
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