Cyberpunk Lives! Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber

Wednesday, 12 October 2011 15:19

As a way to follow up my earlier post, “On the Margins, Cyberpunk Lives!” I want to write a series of posts that highlight the recent/current novels that I read as recuperating cyberpunk (and feminist) tropes. For the first in this series, I will turn to one of the texts that I studied for my doctoral thesis: Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000). For this particular post, I have borrowed some bits from my thesis, while adding new critical comments and examples. I have been careful to avoid spoilers – and this is not a book review per se – so if what I write about the novel intrigues you, I highly recommend reading it for yourself. So, without further preamble, let’s proceed:

Nalo Hopkinson’s literary oeuvre to date crosses the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror. Hopkinson has written the multiple award-winning Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), Skin Folk (2001), The Salt Roads (2003), and The New Moon's Arms (2007). She is also an editor of the excellent literary collections, Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (2000), Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003) and So Long Been Dreaming (2004). Of all her works, Midnight Robber is the novel that most fully embodies the feminist post-cyberpunk sensibility that I believe is alive and well today. At first glance, the casual reader may question the categorization of Midnight Robber as an inheritor of cyberpunk SF, as a good half of the novel (or more) is set in the landscape of New Half-Way Tree, a wild place more reminiscent of Tolkien than Sterling. However, when I first read Midnight Robber, William Gibson’s iconic Neuromancer (1984) was still fresh in my mind. Hopkinson’s depiction of an all black-world (in fact, an all black consortium of worlds, established and protected by the Marryshow Corporation) echoed, to me, a new and improved version of the cliché filled Rastafarian Babylon of Gibson’s universe. While the Jamaican Rastafarians in Neuromancer are characterized as poor, marginalized hacker outlaws, the black society in Midnight Robber is fully technological, organized, moneyed, and in control.

Midnight Robber’s internal narrative of the alien world New Half-Way Tree, which appears to recall earlier feminist utopias and fantasy motifs, amplifies the surrounding section of the story that takes place on the fully-wired Toussaint. Through the voice of an AI (Granny Nanny) and the world of Toussaint, Hopkinson provides a pronounced cyberpunk exploration of technology, artificial intelligence, and human ingenuity. Through nanomites in their blood streams, people in Midnight Robber literally embody the technology that both protects and restrains them. Everyone on Toussaint (and in the other worlds controlled by the Marryshow Corporation) is connected to Granny Nanny and continuously monitored for their health and safety (as such, privacy becomes the most sought after commodity). I read the disjuncture between Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree as Hopkinson’s reimagining of the way in which conventional cyberpunk fragments space. Similar to traditional cyberpunk, where the unaltered body is forced to exist in “meatspace,” Hopkinson uses New Half-Way Tree as a site where the altered posthuman returns to the human (people are forced to survive using only their physical bodies as they are no longer connected to Granny Nanny). Throughout the text, Hopkinson is ultimately concerned with the impact of technology – in particular those that transform human labour practices such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and nano-technology – in daily life.

The key element, in my assessment, that distinguishes Midnight Robber as a feminist post-cyberpunk text is Hopkinson’s attention to issues of race and colonization in terms of the reproduction of bodies and subjectivities in technologically (dis)located spaces (whether in cyberspace or across a transdimensional veil). In addition to addressing the relationship between technology and the body, Hopkinson goes further in wondering what those future bodies may look like and how they will be treated. Through the character of Tan-Tan, Hopkinson exposes the reader to the best and worst of Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree. Straddling the worlds of technology (Toussaint) and unadulterated nature (New Half-Way Tree), Tan-Tan becomes a contested site of the posthuman. In a genre traditionally inhabited by mostly white bodies, Midnight Robber rejects normative images of racialized others and proposes new diasporic communities of belonging. Hopkinson plays with the image of the cyberspace cowboy, exchanging the lone white male hacker of Gibson’s cyberpunk for a black female child displaced in the wilds of an alien planet. Like the cyberspace cowboy, however, this young girl becomes a physical node between technology and humanity. People of colour are not on the side-lines of the narrative, nor are they fetishized (like the Voudon figures throughout Gibson’s Sprawl series), in Hopkinson’s narrative. Instead, Hopkinson creates three-dimensional characters that both contradict and support one another – there are no easy stereotypes to fall back on Midnight Robber.

Like the cyberpunk (and feminist) writers that came before, Hopkinson boldly explores the depths of societal attachment to technology and the ways in which technology continues to redefine human society and its interaction with the natural world. As a feminist post-cyberpunk novel, Midnight Robber exemplifies the search for a balance between the technological and the natural, the corporation and the private citizen, the automated and the human. Cyberpunk is not dead here; it just lives in different bodies.

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