I first heard of Nnedi Okorafor back in 2014 when I read about her novel Lagoon. I was hugely excited at the prospect of a book in which aliens landed in Africa and immediately added it to my list. I am ashamed to say I then did absolutely nothing about getting or reading it. When people started talking about the Binti novellas I didn’t even connect Okorafor with Lagoon at first. This dreadful inability to retain stuff frustrates me more than I can say. I want to know and read everything, but as a result I end up knowing and reading far less than I would if I just got on with it, instead of bouncing about all over the place trying to find out all the things. Maybe I’ll learn, but it’s doubtful.
Anyhow, I read the Binti books back to back last week, and as a result finally ordered Lagoon (only four years late, I guess it could be worse). I really enjoyed Binti’s story. One of the things I love most about science fiction is its thought experiment nature: what would happen if X? If Y were true, how would we evolve? What if Z is out there? Okorafor’s novellas present a space-faring future world from the point of view of a young African girl from a very traditional, grounded, inward-looking people, and then gives her admission to the best university in the universe. It’s a lovely big ‘what if?’ and Binti herself is wonderful. She combines both the age-old traditions of her Himba people, a strong desire to become more and an adventurous/rebellious streak. She represents change, she suffers change, and she embraces change over the course of her story, and proves herself able to do so while still holding onto her selfhood.
These would be very different books if Binti weren’t such a great character. She perfectly captures what it is to be torn three different ways by the expectations of family, what she wants for herself, and the roles she finds herself thrust into by circumstance, and in all three books she struggles to reconcile these three things within her person. She is brave and intelligent, capable and practical, joyous and curious. I really did fall a little bit in love with her as she was singled out again and again, as a Himba in the Khoush-dominated launch station; as the only student to survive the bloodbath on Third Fish; as a part-Meduse ambassador-hero estranged from her fellow students at Oomza; as an ‘unclean’ outsider when she returns home; and as a ‘barbarian’ Enyi Zinariya when she embraces her paternal heritage. Her resilience and humour continue throughout her various trials and she overcomes by absorption – she accepts that she can be more than just one thing.
“Change was constant. Change was my destiny. Growth.”
At its most beautiful Binti’s story reads like an exemplum. On the one hand, we are shown Oomza University embracing all species who wish to learn, and Binti herself, able to accept so much change and roll with some real gut-punches; on the other, we are shown the Meduse and Khoush peoples unable to see past an old, old grudge, and humanity still desperately struggling to embrace diversity within its own species. Okorafor doesn’t pass judgement, but her message is clear: growth and change are fundamental to life.
In other places, things feel unresolved. Binti’s arguments with her family over her ‘abandonment’ of them and her very different nature on her return home never reach any conclusions, and the peace that she works so hard to forge between the Meduse and the Khoush doesn’t survive. Binti’s edan remains a partial mystery, and her journey to the rings of Saturn is oddly anticlimactic. But none of this really spoils her story. Instead it feels, to me at least, like the offshoots on a branch. Okorafor is exploring her character both as catalyst and embodiment of change within a fairly tight space. Some offshoots don’t go anywhere because their leaves haven’t unfurled yet. There’s only so much space to grow. It feels like Okorafor is writing the aspects that interest her and not worrying too much about tying everything off. Weirdly, (I’m a completionist by nature), I found I liked this. I heard enough of Binti and her family’s argument to know how everyone felt, but knew too that they all loved each other – there may never be an end to the disagreement, but they will see past it and move around it. The peace between the Meduse and the Khoush did succeed, ever so briefly, which means there’s hope that it will again given time and opportunity. Change happens and happens and happens.
I also lovelovelove Okorafor’s world, and that astrolabes are the very least of it. I love the Miri 12 ships (SHRIMPS IN SPACE!!) Third Fish and New Fish and their plant-filled breathing chambers; I love that 20-foot-tall golden aliens landed in the desert for some R&R; I love the zinariya technology dormant in the blood until activated; I love that the Himba are obsessed with technology and are master astrolabe builders, but have no urge to travel beyond their own lands; I love the glorious variety of life at Oomza University and that humanity is only one of the latest arrivals there. It’s all fabulously alien, and plausible, and wonderful and Okorafor achieves it without any info-dumping (these books are just too small for that). You learn more about astrolabes as the story goes on, but you never really know everything there is to know about them. The same is true about the Miri 12s, the golden aliens, and the zinariya. They are all just parts of this world and you accept them or you don’t.
And I also want to take a moment and ask you to appreciate with me the B.E.A.U-tiful cover art for the three volumes, done by David Palumbo. Not only does it make my heart glad to see an artist’s work rather than a designer’s on a book cover (there are brush strokes!), but the choice of image also pleases me greatly. Not a harsh alien landscape or spaceship in sight, just three very different, very lovely portraits. Mr Palumbo and Tor, I salute you!