Nalo Hopkinson's Message in a Bottle
Kamla is an art curator from the future. Sent back into our present—her past—in order to retrieve artworks that otherwise would not survive until her own time, she’s one of a group of curators who had themselves cloned. Their memories were implanted into embryos that were genetically altered, with fully developed brains to contain their already-adult sensibilities, and with “extra-long” telomeres so that they would grow up extremely slowly. In our present they’ve been diagnosed as having “Delayed Growth Syndrome (DGS).” The mission of these “children who weren’t children” is to find the works of art they need, and preserve those works until they “grow [their] way” back to the future from which they started.
This, as we eventually learn, is the premise of Nalo Hopkinson’s science fiction story, “Message in a Bottle,” a parable about art and futurity. The story can be found in Hopkinson’s collection Falling In Love With Hominids (2015).The curators’ ruse for implanting themselves in the past may seem crazily over-elaborate, even for a science fiction story that posits the existence of time travel. But the story explains that it’s all due to budgetary constraints: “they wanted to send us here and back as full adults, but do you have any idea what the freight costs would have been? The insurance. Arts grants are hard to get in my world, too.” Neoliberal austerity still seems to exist in the future, and it leads to some gruesome consequences. It’s creepy to hear Kamla complain that, thanks to her original’s memories, she remembers what sex is like, “even though this body isn’t interested in adult sex,” and won’t attain puberty for another 50 years. Worst of all, Kamla and the other DGS kids face the prospect of being institutionalized on account of their anomaly. Some of them will “get abused… just like real children” all too frequently are.
The story’s narrator, though, is not Kamla, but Greg, an Indigenous Canadian artist. He continually collects all sorts of miscellaneous stuff, which he uses as raw material for his multimedia art installations. These works combine advanced computing technologies with “present-day historical artifacts” from the everyday lives of indigenous people in North America. The point is to get away from white people’s fetishization of “the iconic past” of native peoples, and to show instead how native peoples are as fully enmeshed in the hypermodern present of global capitalism—with its racism and uneven development—as everyone else. In an unstable, accelerating world, he feels, “art helps us know how to do change.”
When Greg learns of Kamla’s mission, he is seduced and excited by the thought that Kamla will take his own art with her into the future. Only this leads to one final distressing twist. It turns out that Kamla has come back in time, not to rescue Greg’s own art, but to get hold of a particular seashell that he randomly placed in one of his installations. In Kamla’s future world, they understand that “human beings aren’t the only ones who make art.” Other living beings do as well, even if “we don’t always know what they’re saying.” Indeed, it was “the nascent identity politics as expressed by artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” like Greg, that led future art historians to this broader understanding. Kamla explains to Greg that the shell in his installation is a work of innovative genius, in which a mollusk “expresses a set of concepts that haven’t been explored before by the other artists of its species.” And so it is the seashell, and not his own work, that gives Greg a “ticket to the future.”
Hopkinson’s story suggests that art allows us to push beyond the boundaries of the self, and to embrace wider social, cultural, and even biological concerns. But art is never a panacea; like everything else in our lives, it is subject to painful compromises and constraints. Hopkinson captures this as much through the tone of her story, as through its content. “Message in a Bottle” seems light and humorous when you first read it; but its implications are deep and troubling.