Infused with feminist, Afro-Caribbean views of the science fiction and fantasy genres, this collection of offbeat and highly original works takes aim at race and racism in literature. In “Report from Planet Midnight,” at the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts, an alien addresses the crowd, evaluating Earth's "strange" customs, including the marginalization of works by nonwhite and female writers. “Message in a Bottle” shows Greg, an American Indian artist, befriending a strange four-year-old who seems wise beyond her years. While preparing an exhibition, he discovers that the young girl is a traveler from the future sent to recover art from the distant past—which apparently includes his own work. Concluding the book with series editor Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Interview, Nalo Hopkinson shares laughs, loves, and top-secret Caribbean spells.
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Report from Planet Midnight
By Nalo Hopkinson, Terry Bisson
PM PressCopyright © 2012 Nalo Hopkinson
All rights reserved.
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
"Whatcha doing, Kamia?" I peer down at the chubby-fingered kid who has dug her brown toes into the sand of the beach. I try to look relaxed, indulgent. She's only a child, about four years old, though that outsize head she's got looks strangely adult. It bobs around on her neck as her muscles fight for control. The adoption centre told Babette and Sunil that their new daughter had checked out perfectly healthy otherwise.
Kamla squints back up at me. She gravely considers my question, then holds her hand out, palm up, and opens it like an origami puzzle box. "I'm finding shells," she says. The shell she proffers has a tiny hermit crab sticking out of it. Its delicate body has been crushed like a ball of paper in her tight fist. The crab is most unequivocally dead.
I've managed to live a good many decades as an adult without having children in my life. I don't hate them, though I know that every childless person is supposed to say that so as not to be pecked to death by the righteous breeders of the flock. But I truly don't hate children. I just don't understand them. They seem like another species. I'll help a lost child find a parent, or give a boost to a little body struggling to get a drink from a water fountain — same as I'd do for a puppy or a kitten — but I've never had the urge to be a father. My home is also my studio, and it's a warren of tangled cables, jury-rigged networked computers, and piles of books about as stable as playing-card houses. Plus bins full of old newspaper clippings, bones of dead animals, rusted metal I picked up on the street, whatever. I don't throw anything away if it looks the least bit interesting. You never know when it might come in handy as part of an installation piece. The chaos has a certain nestlike comfort to it.
Gently, I take the dead hermit crab in its shell from Kamla's hand. She doesn't seem disturbed by my claiming her toy. "It's wrong," she tells me in her lisping child's voice. "Want to find more."
She begins to look around again, searching the sand. This is the other reason children creep me out. They don't yet grok that delicate, all-important boundary between the animate and inanimate. It's all one to them. Takes them a while to figure out that travelling from the land of the living to the land of the dead is a one-way trip. I drop the deceased crab from a shaking hand. "No, Kamla," I say. "It's time to go in for lunch now."
I reach for her little brown fist. She pulls it away from me and curls it tightly towards her chest. She frowns up at me with that enfranchised hauteur that is the province of kings and four-year-olds. She shakes her head. "No, don't want lunch yet. Have to look for shells."
They say that play is the work of children. Kamla starts scurrying across the sand, intent on her task. But I'm responsible to Kamla's mother, not to Kamla. I promised to watch the child for an hour while Babette prepared lunch. Babs and Sunil have looked tired, desperate and drawn for a while now. Since they adopted Kamla.
There's still about twenty minutes left in my tenure as Kamla's sitter. I'm counting every minute. I run after her. She's already a good hundred yards away, stuffing shells down the front of her bright green bathing suit as quickly as she can. When I catch up with her, she won't come. Fifteen minutes left with her. Finally, I have to pick her up. Fish-slippery in my arms, she struggles, her black hair whipping across her face as she shakes her head, "No! No!" I haul her bodily back to the cottage, to Babette. By then, Kamla is loudly shrieking her distress, and the neighbours are watching from their quaint summer cottages. I dump Kamla into her mother's arms. Babette's expression as she takes the child blends frustration with concern. Kamla is prone to painful whiplash injuries.
Lunch consists of store-bought cornmeal muffins served with sausages cut into fingerjoint-sized pieces, and bright orange carrot sticks. The muffins have a sticky-fake sweetness. Rage forgotten, Kamla devours her meal with a contented, tuneless singing. She has slopped grape juice down the front of her bathing suit. She looks at me over the top of her cup. It's a calm, ancient gaze, and it unnerves me utterly.
Babette has slushed her grape juice and mine with vodka and lots of ice. "Remember Purple Cows?" she asks. "How sick we got on them at Frosh Week in first year?"
"What's Frosh Week?" asks Kamla.
"It's the first week of university, love. University is big people's school."
"Yes, I do know what a university is," pipes the child. Sometimes Kamla speaks in oddly complete sentences. "But what's a frosh?"
"It's short for freshman," I tell her. "Those are people going to university for the first time."
"Oh." She returns to trying to stab her sausage chunks with a sharp spear of carrot. Over the top of her head, I smile vaguely at Babette. I sip at the awful drink, gulp down my carrot sticks and sausages. As soon as my plate is empty, I make my excuses. Babette's eyes look sad as she waves me goodbye from the kitchen table. Sunil is only able to come up to their summer cottage on weekends. When he does so, Babs tells me that he sleeps most of the weekend away, too exhausted from his job to talk much to her, or to play with Kamla on the beach.
On my way out the door, I stop to look back. Kamla is sitting in Babette's lap. There's a purple Kamla-sized handprint on Babette's stained yellow T-shirt. Kamla is slurping down more grape juice. She doesn't look up as I leave.
When I reached the age where my friends were starting to spawn like frogs in springtime — or whenever the hell frogs spawn — my unwillingness to do the same became more of a problem. Out on a date once with Sula, a lissom giraffe of a woman with a tongue just as supple, I mentioned that I didn't intend to have kids.
She frowned. Had I ever seen her do that before? "Really?" she said. "Don't you care about passing on your legacy?"
"You mean my surname?"
She laughed uncomfortably. "You know what I mean."
"I really don't. I'm not a king and I'm never going to be rich. I'm not going to leave behind much wealth for someone to inherit. It's not like I'm building an empire."
She made a face as though someone had dropped a mouse in her butter churn. "What are you going to do with your life, then?"
"Well," I chuckled, trying to make a joke of it, "I guess I'm going to go home and put a gun to my head, since I'm clearly no use to myself or anyone else."
Now she looked like she was smelling something rotten. "Oh, don't be morbid," she snapped.
"Huh? It's morbid to not want kids?"
"No, it's morbid to think your life has so little value that you might as well kill yourself."
"Oh, come on, Sula!"
I'd raised my voice above the low-level chatter in the restaurant. The couple at the table closest to us glanced our way. I sighed and continued: "My life has tons of value. I just happen to think it consists of more than my genetic material. Don't you?"
"I guess." But she pulled her hand away from mine. She fidgeted with her napkin in her lap. For the rest of dinner, she seemed distracted. She didn't meet my eye often, though we chatted pleasantly enough. I told her about this bunch of Sioux activists, how they'd been protesting against a university whose archaeology department had dug up one of their ancestral burial sites. I'm Rosebud Sioux on my mum's side. When the director of the department refused to reconsider, these guys had gone one night to the graveyard where his great-grandmother was buried. They'd dug up her remains, laid out all the bones, labelled them with little tags. They did jail time, but the university returned their ancestors' remains to the band council.
All Sula said was, "Don't you think the living are more important?"
That night's sex was great. Sula rode me hard and put me away wet. But she wouldn't stay the night. I curled into the damp spot when she'd left, warming it with my heat. We saw each other two or three times after that, but the zing had gone out of it.
Babette and Sunil began talking about moving away from St. John's, perhaps to Toronto. Kamla was about to move up a grade in school. Her parents hoped she'd make new friends in a new school. Well, any friends, really. Kids tended to tease Kamla, call her names.
Babette found a job before Sunil did. She was offered a post teaching digital design at the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver. Construction was booming there, so Sunil found work pretty easily afterwards. When she heard they were moving, Kamla threw many kinds of fits. She didn't want to leave the ocean. Sunil pointed out that there would be ocean in Vancouver. But Kamla stamped her foot. "I want this ocean right here. Don't you understand?"
Sunil and Babette had made their decision, though, and Kamla was just a kid. The whole family packed up kit and caboodle in a move that Babette later told me was the most tiring thing she'd ever done.
On the phone, Babette tells me, "A week after we got here, we took Kamla down to Wreck Beach. The seals come in real close to shore, you know? We thought she'd love it."
"Did she?" I ask, only half-listening. I'm thinking about my imminent date with Cecilia, who I've been seeing for a few months now. She is lush and brown. I need both of my hands to hold one of her breasts, and when we spoon at night, her belly fits in my palm like a bowl of hot soup on a cold day.
"You know what Kamla did?" Babette asks, bringing me back from my jism-damp haze. I hear the inhale and "tsp" sound of someone smoking a cigarette. Babette has started smoking again during the move. "She poked around in the sand for a few minutes, then she told us we were stupid and bad and she wasn't going to talk to us any more. Sulked the rest of the day, and wouldn't eat her dinner that night. She's still sulking now, months later."
That's another thing about kids; their single-mind-edness. They latch onto an idea like a bulldog at a rabbit hole, and before you know it, you're arranging your whole life around their likes and dislikes. They're supposed to be your insurance for the future; you know, to carry your name on, and shit? My mother's been after me to breed, but I'm making my own legacy, thank you very much. A body of art I can point to and document. I'm finally supporting myself sort of decently through a combination of exhibition fees, teaching and speaking gigs. I want to ask Cecilia to move in with me, but every time I come close to doing so, I hear Sula's words in my head: No children? Well, what are you going to do with yourself, then?
"Greg?" says Babette's voice through the telephone. "You still there?"
"Yeah. Sorry. Mind wandering."
"I'm worried about Kamla."
"Because she's upset about the move? I'm sure she'll come around. She's making friends in school, isn't she?"
"Not really. The class bully has taken to calling her Baby Bobber. For the way her head moves."
I suppress a snort of laughter. It's not really funny. Poor kid.
"But it's not just that. She's making our lives hell with this obsession for Bradley's Cove. But it's not even that. She's not growing, Greg."
"You mean she's, like, emotionally immature?" Or intellectually? I think, but am afraid to ask.
"No, physically. We figure she's about eight, but she's not much bigger than a five-year-old."
"Have you taken her to the doctor?"
"Yeah. They're running some tests."
Cecilia can jerry-rig a computer network together in a matter of minutes. We geekspeak at each other all the time. When we're out in public, people fall silent in linguistic bafflement around us.
"They say Kamla's fine," Babette tells me, "and we should just put more protein in her diet."
Cecilia and I are going to go shopping for a new motherboard for her, then we we're going to take blankets and pillows to the abandoned train out in the old rail yards and hump like bunnies till we both come screaming. Maybe she'll wear those white stockings under her clothes. The sight of the gap of naked brown thigh between the tops of the stockings and her underwear always makes me hard.
"There's this protein drink for kids. Makes her pee bright yellow."
The other thing about becoming a parent? It becomes perfectly normal to discuss your child's excreta with anyone who'll sit still for five minutes. When we were in art school together, Babette used to talk about gigabytes, Cronenberg and posthumanism.
I can hear someone else ringing through on the line. It's probably Cecilia. I quickly reassure Babette and get her off the phone.
Kamla never does get over her obsession with the beach, and with shells. By the time she is nine, she's accumulated a library's worth of reference disks with names like Molluscs of the Eastern Seaboard, and Seashells: Nature's Wonder.
Kamla continues to grow slowly. At ten years old, people mistake her for a six-year-old. Sunil and Babette send her for test after test. None of the reports make sense. "She's got a full set of adult teeth," Babette tells me as we sit in a coffee shop on Churchill Square. "And all the bones in her skull are fused."
"That sounds dangerous," I say.
"No, it happens to all of us once we've stopped growing. Her head's fully grown, even if the rest of her isn't. I guess that's something. You gonna eat those fries?"
Babette's come home to visit relatives. She's quit smoking, and she's six months pregnant. If she'd waited two more months, the airline wouldn't have let her travel until the baby was born. "Those symptoms of Kamla's," Babette tells me, "they're all part of the DGS."
The papers have dubbed it "Delayed Growth Syndrome." Its official name is Diaz Syndrome, after the doctor who identified it. There are thousands of kids with Kamla's condition. Researchers have no clue what's causing it, or if the bodies of the kids with it will ever achieve full adulthood. Their brains, however, are way ahead of their bodies. All the kids who've tested positive for DGS are scarily smart.
"Kamla seems to be healthy," Babette says. "Physically, anyway. It's her emotional state I'm worried about."
"I'm gonna have some dessert," I tell her. "You want anything?"
"Yeah, something crunchy with meringue and caramel. I want it to be so sweet that the roof of my mouth tries to crawl away from it."
Cecilia's doing tech support for somebody's office today. Weekend rates. My mum's keeping an eye on our son Russ, who's two and a half. Yesterday we caught him scooping up ants into his mouth from an anthill he'd found in the backyard. He was giggling at the way they tickled his tongue, chomping down on them as they scurried about. His mouth was full of anthill mud. He didn't even notice that he was being bitten until Cecilia and I asked him. That's when he started crying in pain, and he was inconsolable for half an hour. I call him our creepy little alien child. We kinda had him by accident, me and Cecilia. She didn't want kids any more than I did, but when we found out she was pregnant, we both got ... curious, I guess. Curious to see what this particular life adventure would be; how our small brown child might change a world that desperately needs some change. We sort of dared each other to go through with it, and now here we are. Baby's not about changing anyone's world but ours just yet, though. We've both learned the real meaning of sleep deprivation. That morning when he was so constipated that trying to shit made him scream in pain, I called Babette in panic. Turns out poo and pee are really damned important, especially when you're responsible for the life of a small, helpless being that can barely do anything else. Russ gurgles with helpless laughter when I blow raspberries on his tummy. And there's a spot on his neck, just under his ear, that smells sweet, even when the rest of him is stinky. He's a perfect specimen; all his bits are in proportion. I ask Babette what new thing is bothering her about her kid, if not the delayed growth.
"She gets along fine with me and Sunil, you know? I feel like I can talk to her about anything. But she gets very frustrated with kids her age. She wants to play all these elaborate games, and some of them don't understand. Then she gets angry. She came stomping home from a friend's place the other day and went straight to her room. When I looked in on her, she was sitting looking in her mirror. There were tears running down her cheeks. 'I bloody hate being a kid,' she said to me. The other kids are stupid, and my hand-eye coordination sucks.'"
"She said that her hand-eye coordination sucked? That sounds too ..."
"Yeah, I know. Too grown up for a ten-year-old. She probably had to grow up quickly, being an adoptee."
"You ever find out where she came from before you took her?"
Excerpted from Report from Planet Midnight by Nalo Hopkinson, Terry Bisson. Copyright © 2012 Nalo Hopkinson. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsMessage in a Bottle,
Report from Planet Midnight,
"Correcting the Balance" Outspoken Interview with Nalo Hopkinson,
About the Author,