- Dubwise into the Future:Versioning Modernity in Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson is a major figure in contemporary literary Afrofuturism. Critics have focused on Midnight Robber (2000), a novel set in a far future in which Afro-Caribbean peoples have colonized distant planets.1 The Salt Roads (2004), an experimental historical novel that jumps between nineteenth-century Paris, late eighteenth-century Haiti, and fourth-century Egypt, has received less attention.2 The motivation for preferring to discuss the earlier novel seems relatively clear: many critics read Midnight Robber through cyber-theory, a methodology that seems particularly unpromising when approaching The Salt Roads.3 This essay expands the discussion of Hopkinson’s rewriting of the technological tropes of science fiction to show that the technological aesthetics of dub—a subgenre of reggae music—play a crucial role in both novels. Hopkinson adapts the sonic style of dub to create new Afrofuturist literary forms and narrative trajectories.4 She uses dub as a theoretical and aesthetic model for conceptualizing the dialectical experience of lived modernities in the Caribbean by remixing the history of social and aesthetic modernity to create narratives that point toward alternative futures.5
In Hopkinson’s works, the reader learns to follow narratives that move not straightforwardly, but “dubwise,” into the future.6 I employ the reggae neologism “dubwise” in response to Klive Walker’s call to acknowledge “reggae as an important resource for Caribbean writing” (32). A dub mix moves forward in a recording while producing disruptive reverberations and loops that disrupt the flow of the original and create new connections among a song’s compositional elements. This vernacular style is a crucial, if neglected, conceptual resource for Afrofuturism. Dub is especially powerful as a model for dialectical thought and aesthetic practice. Without neglecting the generic and stylistic differences between Midnight Robber and The Salt Roads, I treat them as two sides of a dialectical dub style. Reading Midnight Robber and The Salt Roads against one another shows that neither is wholly futuristic or historical. While the history of the African diaspora haunts the futuristic world of Midnight Robber, the historical narratives that make up The Salt Roads point to alternative futures. Hopkinson’s dialectical dub style cannot be grasped if we focus only on one narrative or the other. My argument has three components. First, I theorize dub as a contribution to and continuation of the tradition of dialectical Afro-Caribbean critiques of modernity discourses. Second, in an analysis of Hopkinson’s representation of the histories of aesthetic and social modernity in The Salt Roads, I demonstrate that the novel’s narrative structure functions like a dub mix, producing links between seemingly discrete compositional elements and historical moments. Finally, I show that both novels use dubwise narrative structures to gesture toward dialectical totality without producing false unities.
I begin my theorization of dub with a passage from Midnight Robber that invokes dub as a model for conceptualizing the contradictory legacy of modernity. In it, [End Page 267] the narrating artificial intelligence, or eshu, explains the relationship between Toussaint, a settler colony planet that has been terraformed to make it safe for the future Afro-Caribbean people who settle it, and the less modified prison planet of New Half-Way Tree, which exists in another dimension. New Half-Way Tree and Toussaint are and are not two separate planets; they are versions of the same planet that have been shaped by their divergent histories:
New Half-Way Tree, it look a little bit like this Toussaint planet where I living… . But where Toussaint civilized, New Half-Way Tree does be rough. You know how a thing and the shadow of that thing could be in almost the same place together? You know the way a shadow is a dark version of the real thing, the dub side? Well, New Half-Way Tree is a dub version of Toussaint, hanging like a ripe maami apple in one fold of a dimension veil. New Half-Way Tree is how Toussaint planet did look before the Marryshow Corporation sink them Earth Engine Number 127 down into it like God entering he woman… .(2)
The “civilized” world of...