Midnight Robber

Midnight RobberMidnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I like science fiction. I like Caribbean cultures. But I’ve never looked for the intersection of the two. Actually, now I think about it, I have encountered lots of science fictional themes in reggae lyrics. But certainly I never thought to look for a science fiction novel written from a Caribbean perspective.

So that was the first thing I liked about Midnight Robber. It begins on the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint during Carnival. We read this for my book club here in New Orleans just as our own Carnival season was coming to a climax — so I was immediately hooked by the setting and the voice.

The entire novel is written in what I guess might be described as creolized English. It was certainly easy for me to understand once I got the hang of it, so I’m guessing it’s a blend of English and perhaps several true creole languages. (As an aside, I love it when two books I’m reading at the same time illuminate each another in unexpected ways, and that happened here when I got to Jared Diamond‘s section on pidgins and creoles in The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human Animal — which also helped me understand why so many people in New Orleans ask questions like, “What that is?” That’s creole word order.) In any event, the “patwa” definitely gave the book a unique flavor that I enjoyed hugely. In my mind I kept hearing the voice of my favorite Dominican poet, Billy Jno Hope.

But as I read on I discovered a lot more than that initial hook to keep me interested and involved. The father-daughter relationship which is a key element of this story resonated with me, but I did not anticipate the direction it would ultimately take. To say more would be to risk spoiling, so I’ll shut up. The daughter emerges as the protagonist in the story. It’s a coming-of-age tale. I’ve read plenty of those from the male perspective, so it’s refreshing to get one from the female side.

Indeed, the perspective of this book is profoundly and vitally female. I would not hesitate to call it feminist, except that label might scare away people who have certain preconceived notions about the f-word. Forget all that. This is first and foremost a book about being human. But it’s hard to imagine it being written by anyone other than a woman of color. I suppose comparisons to Octavia Butler are inevitable, not just because of the identity of the author but also because of the themes addressed. I was also reminded of Marge Piercy‘s far more strident Woman on the Edge of Time.

I found the whole story deeply involving and stimulating to my imagination. Did I fail to mention this is unapologetic science fiction as well? In addition high technology we also have alien creatures. Blending these elements with Afro-Caribbean folklore is a powerful combination that really worked for me.

I’d knock off half a star for the ending which felt a trifle rushed and a little too “easy” for me. But endings are hard and I can’t begrudge the last few pages when the rest of the book is so accomplished.

Hatin’ on the 8

Next to my web browser, I guess iTunes is the most-used application on my system. Come to think of it, I may actually use iTunes more than my web browser. I use it to play music, at work and at home, all day and all night.

I’m happy with it, but I view each new version with a mix of trepidation and excitement. Maybe they’ll come out with some killer new feature. Yet I fear that, sooner or later, Apple is bound to screw this good thing up.

I’m especially nervous/excited about major releases. You know, the ones with a whole new version number.

I am mightily unimpressed with iTunes 8.

It’s got a new visualizer. OK, that’s some nice eye candy. Grid view? Basically more eye candy. I guess iTunes 8 does something new with HD video, but I don’t use iTunes to watch anything.

The big new feature that caught my interest was Genius. Hell, it’s the only new feature of interest. And it’s a bust.

Genius (unfortunate name!) is supposed to generate playlists from your collection based on any given song you select. It’s also supposed to supply recommendations of music you might like from the iTunes Music Store. It’s similar to what Pandora or last.fm have been doing for years. The problem is that Genius only seems to derive it’s associations from the iTunes Music Store, and that’s somewhat limiting.

For example, right now I’m listening to “Dariya Da Makiya” by Umaru Sanda. Genius can’t do anything with this track. No playlist, no recommendations. By way of comparison, last.fm can at least recommend two similar artists. What’s more, last.fm will usually let me play music similar to a given artist for free — though to be fair, even last.fm seems to choke on Umaru Sanda.

It seems most of the music in my library is Genius-proof. But even when Genius has recommendations, I’m not interested, because I never use the iTunes Music Store. When I buy music I use Amazon or some other vendor that doesn’t encumber their wares with that Digital Rights Management crap. I turned off the iTMS years ago because of the DRM.

Of course Apple is interested in driving people to their store, which is why I’m convinced they’ll screw up this app some day. Lending support to this idea is another new “feature” in iTunes 8. There are little arrows next to every song and album title, every artist name and musical genre. Click the arrow and it takes you to the appropriate page on the iTunes Music Store. Mind you, that’s not new. The little arrows have been around for quite some time. I turned them off long ago. What’s new in iTunes 8 is that Apple has removed the ability to turn the arrows off. It was an option in the preferences, and now it’s gone, and the arrows are on by default. They’re ugly and useless. How annoying is that? At least there’s a command-line workaround:

defaults write com.apple.iTunes show-store-arrow-links -bool FALSE

So, though it’s not a deal-killer, I find iTunes 8 to be a disappointment. And worse than a disappointment: an annoyance. Too bad, because there are plenty of improvements I would have liked to see.

O

Many ages ago, in my pre-Katrina life, I had embarked on an cinematic odyssey via Netflix, to see all the movies I’d always wanted to see but never had — in alphabetical order. Many people have thought this was an odd way to proceed, but it provides a nice mix. I’d get bored if I viewed my list in chronological order or by director or genre.

We were almost finished with the letter “O” when we evacuated. I left three Netflix DVDs downstairs, where they floated around in the floodwaters for a couple weeks. When Michael and I cleaned out the house, I found them and set them aside. Later, I cleaned them off and discovered they still played. Xy and I watched them and then returned them to Netflix and reactivated our account.

And so, at last, we have finished the letter O. I hereby recommence my microcapsule reviews. I’m sure Ebert and that other guy are trembling in their boots.

Top drawer:

Good:

Not bad:

Ugh:

Footnotes: These are the O films I’d wanted to see but never had; I’m not reviewing O Brother Where Art Thou? or The Original Kings of Comedy or The Others or Our Man Flint (ugh) because I’ve already seen ’em. Also, props to Netflix for the way they handled the disaster: They automatically suspended my account, and when I reactivated, they gave me a free month of service.

Traffic

CONTAINS SPOILERS

I saw Traffic on cable last night, and I can’t remember when I’ve hated and loved the same movie so much.

What I liked: This was a serious movie dealing with an important topic, a topic that always fascinates me. It attempts to depict the complexity of the situation and the fruitlessness of America’s War on Drugs. The brutality of organized crime, the corrupting influence of the drug trade, and the impossibility of effective interdiction… It’s all there.

Toward the end, when Michael Douglass as the US drug czar has a crisis of confidence at a press conference, he sums it up very nicely by saying something like: “The War on Drugs is a war on our own family members, and I can’t do that.” Then he just walks away, quitting his job. Very unrealistic, but a point nicely made.

The film also indicates (correctly) that our drug policies are weak on treatment, focusing instead on interdiction. Why do we focus on the supply from outside of our borders instead of on demand from inside our borders.

What I disliked: The scene where Douglass’ (white) daughter gets fucked (literally) and hooked up on smack by her (black) drug-dealer boyfriend really made me wanna puke. I really felt the movie fell down in the depiction of drug use. In a way, it was cool that they primarily showed privileged upper class white kids using drugs, as that really dramatizes the quandry. But all the film’s depictions of illicit drug use are so extremely abusive in nature — I feel this misrepresents things. It’s my understanding that the majority of cocaine use (cocaine being the big focus in this movie) is fairly benign and casual, just like the majority of alcohol use. Addiction is a serious issue, but it’s also something that happens to a minority of users. Thus, again, the absurdity of the drug war. Traffic seems to reinforce the idea that drugs really are destroying this nation’s youth, which I think is an overblown myth.

Other gripes: Douglass asks who has his job in Mexico, and seems shocked when told there is no analagous position — yet. But that shouldn’t be a shock. The “drug czar” position is a very weird and uniquely American appointment, and Douglass would have to know this. The drug czar has little power, anyhow; I believe he’s more of a figurehead, who’s merely supposed to coordinate the efforts of the various gov’t anti-drug forces.

Also, many of the questions posed by the film (like why we focus on interdiction so much) are unanswered, even though the answers are not that hard to find.

Of course, if Traffic gets people to think, to ask questions, then so much the better.