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The ChaOs
by Nalo Hopkinson

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 12, 2021

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The ChaOs was Nalo Hopkinson's fifth novel, but there had been a five year gap since the previous one. In the acknowledgements section she revealed several hardships over that period of time, including major medical issues for her partner, loss of employment, and homelessness. Some of that trauma may have translated into problems the protagonist of the novel has to deal with, or some of it may relate to Nalo's own teen years. Sojourner Smith is a bi-racial teenager, her father being a White Jamaican immigrant to Toronto, her mother a Black from Chicago, whose ancestors had previously left the deep South. At times Sojourner wishes she had darker skin like her mother and older brother Richard. She had transferred to a new school because she had been tormented and abused by other girls at her previous school. There were several times I wondered why she kept talking about things feeling like getting chewing gum stuck in her hair, only to find out that was one of the ways the other girls had tormented her. Her mother had to cut off practically all of her hair to get the gum out. She had made friends at the new school, including several on the dance team, of which she felt she was the most talented. She also had a boyfriend for a little while, but she preemptively broke up with him because she was afraid he would leave her if he found out her latest problems.

Those problems are at least twofold, or maybe three considering a later reveal. She experienced breakouts of dark spots and bumps on her head and skin, minor at first and easily hidden by hair or clothing, but they continue to grow. Doctors are baffled as to their cause. No drug or ointment has any effect, and she resorts to herbal concoctions but doesn't tell her parents about that, since they don't work either. The other problem may be worse; she has begun hallucinating entities that no one else can see. They are not much more than a floating head, shaped somewhat like a horse's head, which she calls the Horseless Head Men. She may not be the only person experiencing hallucinations though, since at least three other students have exhibited symptoms of delusions and psychotic behaviour. It is possible all of that was just a prelude to the even weirder events that would follow. What would later be referred to as the Chaos by several people is more like a fever dream, or a bad acid trip. At those times within the text the uppercase O is not used like it is on the book's cover or the way I've titled this review. I considered using a zero instead, since that looks more like an egg, although I will not reveal why I thought that might be appropriate.

Sojourner and Richard are at a downtown club where he performs his spoken word poetry on open mic night, except he is very nervous and flubs several lines, and barely speaks loud enough to be heard. Shortly after he leaves the stage, a mysterious bubble appears below the stage, and when Richard touches it all hell breaks loose. Sojourner experienced what felt like a dream, and when she comes back to consciousness Richard is missing, there's a crater where the stage had been, the wall behind the stage is open to the street, and the sky is full of dark clouds. They are not rain clouds though, it turns out to be ash and smoke from the volcano that has risen out of Lake Ontario. I can't recall who was the first to call the volcano Animikika, and the only reference I've found for that name is the song "Animikika - Thunderstorm," from the album One Nation by Flying Down Thunder, featuring Rise Ashen (YouTube). Considering everything that happens after that I would not have been surprised if the ending would be Sojourner waking up in the hospital, or in bed at home, to find out it was all a dream. Inanimate objects become animate, people transform into different shapes or aspects, extra arms or legs, or wings. Previously "imaginary" friends manifest themselves, such as Sojourner's Aunt Maryssa's dog Spot, which in the past Sojourner had pretended she could see. Sojourner also has several encounters with a person that is a manifestation of Baba Yaga, complete with house that moves on chicken legs. Richard is able to call Sojourner's phone, although he's not sure where he is, or even if he's still alive. He thinks he's now part of the network, and can even control security cameras to find her.

At one point Sojourner is reunited with her ex-boyfriend, although it doesn't take her too long to figure out he's not real, just another manifestation of the Chaos. She also discovers the Chaos is not limited to Toronto; news reports from around the world talk about similar events. Is it hell being unleashed on Earth, an alien invasion, or mass hypnosis? Unfortunately, we don't get a definitive answer, other than that everything people experienced did happen, it wasn't just illusions. Animikika collapses back into the lake, Richard is found, Sojourner and her friends go back to school, only the upcoming dance competition she had been looking forward to has been cancelled. Too many people had been lost to death or serious accidents. The world will go on, but in what form? Will more Chaos events happen in the future? The fact that few of the questions are answered brings my rating for this book down quite a bit. It's not that it's not entertaining while the events unfold, but as with many dreams, it doesn't leave a lasting impression.


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Nalo Hopkinson

April 17, 2012

Winner of:
Copper Cylinder (Sunburst)

Finalist for:

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