Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms

hopkinson-new moonNalo Hopkinson gave a speech (“Looking for Clues,” reprinted in The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3) in which she addressed one of science fiction’s quandaries with great wit and eloquence. The thrust of her remarks involved the problem of finding someone she, a Caribbean woman of mixed, mostly non-white ancestry, could identify with in stories written usually from a white, male, mostly middle-class point of view. The New Moon’s Arms, as have her other novels, subverts that paradigm with subtlety and finesse: rather than belabor the obvious, Hopkinson tells her stories from the points of view of people who until recently have been “other” in the world at large and nonexistent in the literature of the fantastic.

Calamity Lambkin is a fiftyish woman who, aside from being overly judgmental, sharp-tongued, deeply suspicious, and sometimes just plain mean, is menopausal, complete with hot flashes. In Calamity’s case, however, the hot flashes come with the retrieval of things long vanished: a toy truck, a monogrammed pin, her late father’s cashew orchard. It may be coincidental that these retrievals start happening at her father’s funeral, although she’s always been a “finder” of sorts. Then, shortly after the funeral, she discovers a child, perhaps three years old, washed up on the shore, almost dead. He is physically abnormal, but only slightly, and speaks a language she has never heard. She thinks he is one of the water-people, not exactly the merfolk of legend, but not land-dwelling humans, either. Of course, that’s not something you can talk about openly in Cayaba, the fictional Caribbean archipelago where Calamity lives, although everyone knows it’s so. She decides to foster the child, which leads to a host of complications in a life already largely in tatters.

Although there is a strong narrative structure, the story seems put together from parts, episodes that weave together to reveal Calamity as a complex character, not always bad, but certainly not always good. These fragments gradually give us a picture of an identity that, while fiercely protected, is perhaps not all that clear in Calamity’s own mind. She hoards a trove of resentments – against her one-time best friend Michael, father of her daughter, for being gay; her daughter Ifeoma, for being born; her mother for deserting her — that all seem only to mask an equally substantial trove of guilt, sometimes for having those resentments to begin with. It’s a deceptively subtle character study. Calamity sneaks up on you: it’s not until fairly late in the story that you begin to realize you probably wouldn’t like her very much.

From a larger perspective, Hopkinson is quite aware of the racial and sexual politics inherent in making literature, and just about every -ism I can think of in modern critical theory can be applied to her work, but that approach somewhat misses the point: the various schools have built-in limitations that prevent them from addressing some key factors, so that post colonial, feminist or queer theories of analysis, while at least partially germane (and since her work deals heavily with “other,” they are more germane than some other theories) somehow come up lacking. My own feeling is that in that context, Hopkinson’s book is an excellent example of what I have come to call “post-genre fiction,” which I take to include slipstream, interfictions, magical realism (as exemplified by Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren or Jane Lindskold’s Child of a Rainless Year): genre tropes become badly blurred, and fantasy, mystery, science fiction, romance and mainstream literature (which is, after all, just another genre) all inhabit the same universe. By the same token, they need a much broader field of discussion than most schools of critical theory can provide.

I might also point out that, apropos of my comments at the beginning of this discussion, her subversion of the paradigm of science fiction and most fantasy extends to milieu – culture, as well as individuals, break the mold of what we have come to expect. Cayaba is certainly not my native Chicago, but when I stop to think about it, most stories of speculative fiction, even if not set in Chicago, New York, London, or Los Angeles, have contexts built solidly on that foundation, just as most heroic fantasies rely heavily on medieval Europe for their cultural context. Not this time.

However, aside from those considerations (which I bring up mostly to point out once again that the literature of the fantastic in its contemporary forms has, aside from entertainment value, solid intellectual underpinnings), this is a seductive, engaging book. I honestly didn’t think I was going to like it very much, but was intrigued not only by Calamity’s unfolding personality, but the glimpses of life in a place that should have seemed strange, but didn’t.

(Warner Books, 2007)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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