Nalo Hopkinson – “Message in a Bottle”

Nalo Hopkinson’s short story “Message in a Bottle” was originally published in 2004; it can currently be found in her recent collection of short stories Falling in Love With Hominids, as well as in her short volume Report From Planet Midnight

[MY DISCUSSION CONTAINS SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY. So you really shouldn’t read this until after you have read the story itself. My method with writing about science fiction always involves going over the plot in tedious detail. This is unavoidable, or at least necessary to what I am trying to do: which is neither to evaluate the story — it should be a given that I think it is great, because otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place — nor to interpret it in anything like a hermeneutical or New Critical or deconstructionist close reading — since I pretty much confine myself to overt surface meanings — but rather to elicit, and develop in my own way, and (I’m afraid) according to my own preoccupations, the mindblowing (I hope) feelings and ideas that it already contains.] 

The story is set in Canada, in a near future that is not much different from our actual present. The characters are nonwhite. Greg, the narrator, describes himself as “Indian” — though I am unsure if this means that he is South Asian (like other characters in the story) or First Peoples (he does say that he is “Rosebud Sioux on my mum’s side”). Greg also remarks on the brown skin of his lovers and friends. The story is mostly about Greg’s encounters with Kamala, the adopted daughter of his friends Babette and Sunil. It’s a fraught relationship, because Greg is ambivalent, at best, about children: he admits that they “creep me out,” and says overall that  “I truly don’t hate children. I just don’t understand them. They seem like another species.”

Greg and his girlfriend Cecilia — who he describes as “lush and brown” — don’t want kids of their own; but when she gets pregnant despite their precautions, 

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.

So Greg and Cecilia are stuck with what he, at least, calls their “creepy little alien child.” All this is just background to the main action of the story, but it sets the atmosphere. I am the last person to be judgmental about whether other people choose to have kids or not; and Hopkinson clearly isn’t judgmental about this either. But Greg’s highly self-conscious ambivalence gives the story its uneasy tone. It’s not that he’s an unreliable narrator; but his emotional responses to the story he recounts just seem a bit… I’m not sure, askew.

Dealing with another species — as Greg at least metaphorically feels children to be — is quite often, in science fiction, a figure for dealing with another culture, or another gender or sexual orientation, than one’s own (or than the normative white male heterosexual Euro-American perspective that narrative fictions all too often presuppose by default). Hopkinson, a West Indian/Black Canadian fantasy and science fiction author, has long been concerned with white supremacy, and the continuing marginalization of people of color, as well as misogyny and homophobia, both in the writing of SF and related genres, and in the fan culture surrounding the writing. “Message in a Bottle” responds to this history by giving us a narrator who is male and heterosexual, but nonwhite. He’s very aware of racial hierarchies, but maybe not so much of other sorts. His perspective is in between; partly but not entirely normative. At least he is very aware of the particularity of his subject position, rather than taking it for granted as universal. His uneasiness about the otherness of children is not really phobia or panic, though it is certainly marked as a kind of uneasiness, or as an inability to negotiate difference as fluidly and openly as one might hope. I find myself a bit distrustful of Greg, but at the same time I “identify” with the way that he seems to enact and embody tendencies that I recognize in myself, and that I strongly dislike — but that, from my position of unavoidably taken-for-granted privilege — I somehow feel powerless to escape or change.

Greg — as I should already have noted — is an installation artist. He’s a hoarder, and a *bricoleur*, of miscellaneous odds and ends and pieces of junk:

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.

In his art practice, at least, Greg is open to otherness and change. The exhibition that he describes in the story is a mock archeological site. It consists in “half a ton of dirt” covering the floor of the art gallery. In this dirt he has buried “the kinds of present-day historical artifacts” that actual archaeologists “[toss] aside in their zeal to get at the iconic past of the native peoples” they are studying (in this case, people in Chiapas, Mexico). Visitors to the installation become archaeologists of the present, instead of the past. When they enter the gallery, they “get basic excavation tools. When they pull something free of the soil, it triggers a story about the artifact on the monitors above.”

In this way, Greg’s installation undermines notions of aboriginal authenticity, such as well-meaning white Westerners are all too likely to have. Instead, he acquaints his viewers with the actual, present-day material culture of native peoples: a culture that is multiple and heterogeneous, and that bears the traces both of colonialist oppression, and of these peoples’ struggles against it and affirmation of their own lives and values. The installation also relates material culture to narrative; stories matter, because without them objects are deprived of the contexts that give them meaning and importance.

Greg evidently has trouble fitting children into the artifactual stories that he likes to tell. He complains that he 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.

With their magical beliefs, children strike Greg as being oddly self-contained — in a way that belies their eventual transformation into adults just like ourselves. Greg admits to feeling freaked out that, in just a decade, his toddler son will be “entering puberty. He’ll start getting erections, having sexual thoughts.” Greg is perturbed by the difference of children, as expressed in all the things that they do not understand; as well as by their irksome dependency upon us. But he is equally perturbed by the knowledge that they will not be like this forever, that soon enough they will become fully grown, and therefore entirely independent of us. And all this is even more confusing against the background of our massive social and technological change:

Human beings, we’re becoming increasingly posthuman… Things change so quickly. Total technological upheaval of society every five to eight years. Difficult to keep up, to connect amongst the generations. By the time your Russ is a teenager, you probably won’t understand his world at all.

In these manifold ways, children are indeed like science-fictional aliens (or vice versa). But all these confusions are further intensified, until they finally come to a head, in Greg’s interactions with Kamala. The girl is unusual, to say the least. Even at a very young age, when she is first adopted, Kamala has an “outsized head” that looks “strangely adult.” She also “speaks in oddly complete sentences” for a young child. At the same time, her body seems to develop very slowly: she looks far younger than what her parents believe is her chronological age. Eventually, Kamala is diagnosed with Delayed Growth Syndrome (DGS), a condition shared by other children who came up for adoption at the same time she did:

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.

 Kamala perturbs her parents, and perturbs Greg even more, because of how she disrupts their historical, developmental, and archaeological schemas — in much the same way that posthuman technological developments also do. Kamala stands at a nodal point that compresses together all of Greg’s — and indeed, all of our society’s  — confusions and anxieties about difference, otherness, and change.

“Message in a Bottle” finally offers us — as science fiction generally does — a narrative resolution of all these dilemmas. I say “narrative resolution” here advisedly — rather than speaking of a “solution” in any more expansive sense. This point requires a more detailed explanation, which would be too much of a digression here, but which I hope at some point to develop elsewhere. In brief, I think that science fiction, in its practice of *extrapolation*, and in its presentation of social, technological, and even ontological difficulties in a narrative with individual characters, does something similar to what Claude Levi-Strauss defines as the purpose of *myth*, which is “to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real).” But where myths for Levi-Strauss are synchronic structures (like language according to Saussure), narratives are in their very nature diachronic or temporal; and science fictional extrapolative narratives most of all. It’s not that I want to trade structural anthropology for narrative theory — indeed, I find both of these disciplines insufferable. But SF deals in futurity, rather than being set in the eternal present either of myth or of mimetic fiction (and neoliberal actuality). And in this way, it is counter-actual: it offers us a provisional resolution — one in potentiality — of dilemmas and difficulties that are all too actual.

In any case, at the end of “Message in a Bottle” Kamala offers Greg a futuristic explanation of all that has been going on: this is a resolution, at least, for us as readers, though Greg himself remains reluctant to accept it. It involves a conceptualization of time travel radically different from any that I have encountered in any other science fiction text. Kamala explains to Greg that she is in fact an art curator from the future, who has been sent back in time to our present day, in order to collect cultural artifacts that have otherwise been lost in her own time. Because of the energetic and financial costs of time travel, the future art gallery Kamala works for cannot afford to send adults back in time, nor to bring back the collectors once they have found what they are looking for. “Arts grants are hard to get in my world, too” — apparently, at least some aspects of neoliberal governmentality are still in place several hundred years in the future.

So instead of sending arts curators themselves back in time, the future art galleries genetically engineer “small people… children who [are]n’t children,” to go back in their place. All the DGS kids are in fact far older than they appear; Kamala, who looks like she is 6, and whose adoptive parents think she is about 10, is in fact 23 years old. She is a genetic clone of the curator whose interests she represents, and the curator’s actual memories have been “implanted” within her as well. But her chromosomes have been altered, given extra telomeres in order to “slow down aging.” As a result, Kamala says, “my body won’t start producing adult sex hormones for another fifty years. I won’t attain my full growth till I’m in my early hundreds.” She will physically bring her artifacts back to the future by living through the entire span from our time until then.

“Message in a Bottle” doesn’t spare us any of the grotesque and horrific consequences of this deeply compromised technological strategy. Kamala and her cohort find themselves having to spend all their time and energy in strenuous forms of pretense: “Do you know what it’s like turning in schoolwork that’s at a grade-five level, when we all have PhD’s in our heads?” Their double consciousness on a sexual level is even worse: “the weird thing is, even though this body isn’t interested in adult sex, I remember what it was like, remember enjoying it. It’s those implanted memories from my original.” Some of the seeming-children from the future have an even harder time than Kamala, because they get abused, just as actual children sometimes do; or they find themselves “living in extremely conservative places”; or they fail to get adopted, and have to “make [their] own way as street kids.” In any case, these people from the future have no legal rights, because in appearance they are “never old enough to be granted adult freedoms.” Some of them have already died, Kamala says, and she and the rest will probably be institutionalized at best. All for the sake of an art retrospective: “this fucking project better have been worth it,” Kamala says.

All this is too much for Greg — and probably for us as readers as well. One of the great things about the story is how it has a sort of light tone, even as it drops these atrocious details on us. Because we know that we are reading a science fiction story, we have a much easier time accepting Kamala’s account than Greg does within the frame of the story. The first time I read “Message in a Bottle,” it all seemed kind of cute — the horror only kicked in retrospectively.

But there’s even more. The one thing in Kamala’s story that initially gets to Greg is Kamala’s interest in his art: she has been sent back from the future to get ahold of something from Greg’s installation. “This little girl has dug her way into my psyche,” Greg thinks, “and found the thing which will make me respond to her.” But alas, this too turns out to be a misconception. Kamala isn’t interested in Greg’s installation concept, nor even in the remnants of present-day Indigenous life that he included within it. Rather, she treasures a seashell that plays no real role in Greg’s exhibition; for “some of the artifacts” buried in the dirt “are ‘blanks’ that trigger no stories.” But in the future, this seashell is regarded as a greater work of art than anything Greg or his contemporaries ever created.

Kamala explains to Greg how “the nascent identity politics as expressed by artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” such as Greg himself, eventually gave birth to a broader understanding that “human beings aren’t the only ones who make art.” In fact, the particular shell that Kamala retrieves from Greg’s installation is a masterpiece: 

Every shell is a life journal… made out of the very substance of its creator, and left as a record of what it thought, even if we can’t understand exactly what it thought… Of its kind, the mollusc that made this shell is a genius. The unique conformation of the whorls of its shell expresses a set of concepts that haven’t been explored before by the other artists of its species. After this one, all the others will draw on and riff off its expression of its world. They’re the derivatives, but this is the original.

The poignancy of this claim — if we are willing to entertain it — has to do with a new understanding of limits. We need to respect the aesthetic creations of other entities, Kamala says, even though

we don’t always know what they’re saying, we can’t always know the reality on which they’re commenting. Who knows what a sea cucumber thinks of the conditions of its particular stretch of ocean floor?… Sometimes interpretation is a trap. Sometimes we need to simply observe.

Greg isn’t entirely ready to accept Kamala’s claim; indeed, it puts him in mind of a Monty Python routine:

“Every shell is different,” she says. My perverse brain instantly puts it to the tune of “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

But in the end, Greg feels forced to admit that “a part of me still hopes that it’s all true.” He understands the heuristic value, at least, of Kamala’s story. For the reader, the same thing plays out on a metalevel. “Message in a Bottle” takes up the traditional science fiction figuration of extraterrestrial aliens; it shows us how this figuration works in hegemonic groups’ fears of other human beings as aliens; in the way the narrator cannot help seeing children as aliens; and finally in the unassimilability of other (alien) species to our own.