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I previously mentioned that as part of Women in SciFi Month and in response to the twitter hashtag #FiveSFFWritersWhoArentBlokes, I collected the names of some female authors I’ve never read to essentially broaden my horizons.
Today, I just finished Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Complete Trilogy. As it’s a collected trilogy (plus one additional short story), it’s publication history is from 2015 through 2019.
To understand my review and the work in general, I’ll present a few bits of info. First, the author’s bio as presented on Amazon:
Nnedi Okorafor was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents. She holds a PhD in English and was a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University. She has been the winner of many awards for her short stories and young adult books, and won a World Fantasy Award. Nnedi’s books are inspired by her Nigerian heritage and her many trips to Africa.
That’s the short version. Now the professional reviews of this trilogy posted on Amazon:
“Okorafor’s writing is even more beautiful than I remember it being in Binti, evocative and sharply elegant in its economy….What Binti: Home says, ultimately, is that traveling the galaxy is relatively easy compared to understanding ourselves and each other–and that this is crucial, necessary work.” —NPR
“[Binti: Home] opens up Binti’s tale in astonishing ways, while provocatively exploring questions of identity and kinship.” —Chicago Tribune
“Binti is a compact gem of adventure, bravery and other worlds. Nnedi Okorafor efficiently and effectively uses the short format to create a visual, suspenseful ride. And the heroine, Binti, invites us along to participate in her secret mission. From the start she is special and destined for greater things, but without knowing the tests that will challenge her resilience. As a result, her heroism and vulnerabilities grab our attention, holding tight until the end.” —USA Today
“Nnedi Okorafor writes glorious futures and fabulous fantasies. Her worlds open your mind to new things, always rooted in the red clay of reality. Prepare to fall in love with Binti.” —Neil Gaiman, New York Times bestselling author of American Gods
“Binti is a supreme read about a smart, edgy Afropolitan in space! It’s a wondrous combination of extra-terrestrial adventure and age-old African diplomacy. Unforgettable!” —Wanuri Kahiu, award-winning Kenyan film director of Punzi and From a Whisper
“Binti is like Ripley, having to deal with death and drama but in a really clever way that drinks from the pool of who she is. It’s a beautiful, heady, a bit scary, and ultimately fulfilling piece of fiction that made me cry in its last paragraph because of its hopeful, uplifting ending.” —Kirkus Reviews
That’s not all of them, but I think you’ll get the idea. These stories are supposed to be a big deal, but then, I’ve encountered that before.
The Amazon customer reviews of the trilogy are 91% 4 and 5 star, so the readers seem to generally agree with the paid reviewers.
Did I mention that these stories also are Hugo and Nebula award winners?
My immediate takeaways. There are four:
1. Binti, a 17-year-old girl of the Himba, an African tribe who never leave their homes but who are adept mathematicians and “astrolabe” makers, does the unthinkable. She leaves Earth and travels to an interstellar university to learn. Throughout her adventures, she discovers that, through her father, she is also part of the Enyi Zinariya tribe, who are considered primitive desert dwellers, but who, thanks to an encounter with an alien race, have command of a fantastic “technology” (more on technology in a bit). Through a terrifying encounter with the jellyfish-like Meduse, her genetic code was altered so that her long braided hair becomes more like tentacles and she shares a bond with that people group, especially her friend Okwu. After her death (I’ll get to that), she is resurrected from the microbes of a space-dwelling newborn of the Miri 12 and is also genetically linked to the one named New Fish. She’s an amalgamation of most of the races who show up in the story, but not the Khoush, the sworn enemies of the Meduse and generally, a highly prejudiced and bigoted people. As a “harmonizer” for her people, she seeks peace among conflict and her body is the literal expression of that effort. In spite of that, even resurrection doesn’t leave her very much different than she was at the beginning of the story.
2. Building on the above, this is a story about differences, conflict, attempts at inclusion, and harmony. Binti, again, is the living embodiment of those differences, but each of her personas is a marginalized and suppressed people group. That’s why she’s not also Khoush.
3. All of the marginalized people groups tend to marginalize each other, especially in how poorly the Himba consider the “primitive desert people” or Enyi Zinariya. No one’s hands are clean.
4. Binti is not just a master harmonizer, but being resurrected, a Messianic figure. However, unlike the Christian Jesus, before and after the resurrection, she only becomes marginally wiser. After all, she’s only a teenager.
In spite of the fact that Amazon lists the sellers ranks of the trilogy (as of this writing) as #19 in Science Fiction Short Stories, #31 in Science Fiction Anthologies (Kindle Store), and #41 in Science Fiction Anthologies (Books), this is not science fiction. Although we have some high technology devices, tons and tons of aliens, interstellar travel, and genetic manipulation, there’s not even pseudoscience to explain any of it. Binti’s story reads more like a fantasy, call it “science fantasy” if you will, but with just a few minor tweaks, this could easily be about the hero’s journey of a young sorceress.
Her astrolabe (a super smartphone she built herself), edan (a mysterious alien artifact she found in the desert as a child), her ability to “chain” equations and generate an electrical field around her body are just magical powers and mystic artifacts. They have no more basis in science, even the “handwavium” type, than anything out of Harry Potter.
Although the Himba and Enyi Zinariya are African tribes, and the Khoush are also an Earth people, we have no idea where they all live and how they emerged from the Earth we now live upon. This could have been set on a different planet and been the same story, or for that matter, be located in an alternate dimension (think of Dr. Strange alternate dimensional travel). The technology of this book is magic.
I almost stopped reading the book on several occasions. For one, the language is slightly “off.” I can’t really articulate what that means. The English usage is fine and it is very readable, but there’s something not quite on key about the narrative. I thought maybe that the author learned English as a second language, but I don’t think that’s it. As a result, I had a really tough time connecting with the story.
SIDENOTE: I know that especially in television and movies lately, stories designed to be inclusive and focused on marginalized groups tend to send two contradictory messages:
- This story isn’t for the majority group so don’t bother consuming it and then rendering an opinion. You’ll be wrong.
- If you don’t consume this story as a member of the majority group, you are some sort of “ist” or have a “phobia,” so consume the story, but you can only like it and have no other opinion.
I found myself wondering if this book, the entire perspective infused in these tales, were simply meant for an audience that is not me. On some level, having finally finished it, I still wonder.
Actually, it’s probably the overarching “Afrofuturism” theme that may be the issue, harkening back to what I just said about me not being the target audience.
According to Wikipedia (I know, I know): “Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African diaspora culture with science and technology. It was coined by Mark Dery in 1993 and explored in the late 1990s through conversations led by Alondra Nelson.”
My understanding of Afrofuturism is that it’s a response to so many books, TV shows and movies (authored by white writers) where the black character(s) get killed in the story, usually to provide the white characters a way to be more heroic. It’s why in 1966, Star Trek’s Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) was absolutely huge. She was arguably the first black woman depicted in the future who wasn’t a maid or a slave and who had an important job to do. The difference, my being twelve when the show first came on the air, is that she was just there, like Sulu, Chekov, and the rest of the crew. No one made a big “inclusion” deal about it, and mid-1960 audiences, even in America’s conservative “Bible Belt” didn’t bat an eye.
Here’s more on Afrofuturism.
NEW SIDENOTE: See below for why I apparently erred in using the term “Afrofuturism” as passed to me by the author.
Back to my review though. There were times I had no idea why characters did what they did in this story, especially Binti. I supposed PTSD could explain a lot of it, but not everything.
For instance, Meduse and Khoush had several bloody, violent, and lethal battles. And yet, afterwards, most of the characters didn’t act like it was such a big deal. At one point in the book, Binti and Okwu having fled the Himba community, the Khoush took revenge by burning Binti’s family home to the ground, all of her family still inside. It turns out the living tree their house is built upon saved them, but Binti thought they had all been burned to death. She still sued for peace between the Khoush and Meduse.
Also, after her resurrection aboard New Fish in orbit around Saturn (long story), when informed that her entire family was still alive and unharmed, she did a dance of joy but made no effort to contact them. In fact, instead of going back to Earth to see them, she chose to continue on to the interstellar university and as of the end of the book, never saw her family again.
It wasn’t that she really transcended to a higher consciousness after resurrection (although she learned to fly through space by herself). She still suffered from PTSD and had the same adolescent attitudes toward her university friends.
Another thing was the comings and goings of new and strange peoples and creatures as the story needed them. They came out of nowhere and, when no longer needed, vanished again. There was no explanation, for instance, as to why the Zinariya visited Earth, left artifacts for special people to find, gave a small, nomadic people group a special and unique form of communication, and then left again, except the story needed that element at that moment. Really, they could have been magical spirits worshiped by these people or a black monolith teaching ape-like creatures how to use weapons (except in this case, they were non-violent).
I know it sounds like I hated the book. I didn’t. There’s a lot I like about it (I gave it four stars on Amazon). Mostly, I kept on reading in the hopes that everything would make sense in the end (it didn’t). Binti’s stated purpose of bringing peace between the Meduse and Khoush, even after both groups committed terrible acts right in front of her, seemed to work, but then broke down almost immediately. She was killed in the battle, that went from Earth into space, and by the end of the story, as far as we know, they’re still battling. No change, no hope.
Even though the trilogy weighs in at a scant 356 pages, it felt like it took me ages to read (less than two weeks actually). There were times I dreaded opening its pages. It’s a good story in a way, but it was a terrific effort to slog my way through.
Since I also review for “social justice” elements, I must say apart from the overt references to racism and bigotry, there wasn’t a lot to note. There was one mention of some of the teen girls in her village having sex with one another, but that was about a sentence. One of the Enyi Zinariya characters (and Binti’s very brief love interest…yes, she likes guys) told someone at the university (marveling at the extreme diversity of interstellar species present) that his tribe only had men and women, those who were both, and those who were neither. Again, that’s it. No details and it wasn’t a major feature of the story. Just a throwaway line that could have been left out but was included, I suspect, to give a nod to trans and gender fluid people.
I did appreciate that family was depicted in a very positive light. No, the family members weren’t perfect. Siblings still bickered, Dads could be too stern, and Moms could be too intrusive. The cultural practices of the Himba were pretty restrictive. There were definite male and female roles among their people. For instance, women could not appear in public without being covered head to foot in a red clay called otjize. This was a point of contention many times in the story. Whenever, for various reasons, her otjize partially wore or was washed off, Binti felt naked, even though by some external accounts, her deep black skin was considered beautiful. Although transformed by the end of the story, we see Binti applying a fresh layer of otjize all over herself.
SIDENOTE: This is as opposed to N.K. Jemisin’s (who blocked me on twitter when I wrote a review criticizing her inclusion of a character whose being trans had no effect on the overall plot) The Fifth Season who seems to hate families and especially children. All of the children in that book died horribly, and all but one of the parental figures were terrible at parenting.
I have mixed feelings about the book. I’m glad I read it, but it was a major stretch. It’s not one of those books that makes me want to run out and read other stories by the author. I’m not even sure if I’ll challenge myself again in that way by reading another of Okorafor’s books. In the end, I don’t think she’s writing for the kind of science fiction reader I am.
Oh, in the Acknowledgements section of the book, she said:
I had courses to teach and another novel to edit. I went to South Africa and gazed at the Lion’s Head, went to the Arizona desert and followed a Pepsis wasp, I saw the White House while it was still worth seeing…
Given when she was writing part of this story, I suspect that was the transition period between the Obama and Trump administrations. It struck me as particularly revealing.
Now the book goes back to the library. Maybe someone else besides me will write a review more in line with the rest of the universe.
Addendum – April 1, 2022 (no, this isn’t a joke): I was recently chided by the author of this trilogy on mischaracterizing it as “Afrofuturism”. You can’t tell tone of voice on twitter so I wasn’t sure how to take what she said here.
However, this twitter thread makes it clear that she takes offense if her work is NOT called Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism.
A more detailed set of definitions can be found on her blog post.
While illuminating, I find it to be unreasonable for the casual reader who is trying, in my case, to broaden his science fiction reading horizons to include more female authors and authors of color, to do a boat load of additional research. I didn’t even know those terms existed (how could I?) until she pinged me on twitter (and I swear I did not contact her or refer to her twitter handle in any posting of my review…she found me).
On the referenced blog especially, I found interesting and telling comments:
Thank you for the clarifications. I am planing (sic) to write my Phd dissertations on your works.
Thank you! I have definitely referred to you as an Afrofuturist, and I appreciate the education. I have been selling your books to students, and I am glad I can speak about them more accurately now. Bless.
Thank you so much for this. My MS dissertation revolves around Binti and another Indian work. This definition is exactly what I was looking for.
It’s not that some science fiction books can’t be studied as literature or within a particular cultural context (I’m probably going to take heck for that as well), but for me, writing and reading science fiction is primarily about fun, about exploring worlds we can only dream of, about adventure, about hope for everyone. Why do you think the original Star Wars movies are over the top classics?
I didn’t know I was signing up for a class when I checked her trilogy out of the public library.
Dr. Okorafor has the right to define her works. Having her doctorate in English, she certainly has the platform to teach the underlying concepts of her fiction writing as educational points rather than sheer entertainment. Apparently that was an underlying expectation when I set off on my wee quest. Who knew?
At one point in the twitter conversation, she posted a gif stating “I have spoken.” In another tweet, she stated (apparently in response to someone who had since deleted their tweet) “you know, it’s often good to just stay quiet and LISTEN.”
I can accept that, but I won’t “undo” my review just because she doesn’t write “Afrofuturism”. I will stay quiet about Dr. Okorafor and her works from now on. As far as the “command” to listen, if that means read more of your books doctor, I don’t think so.