Book review: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

20 05 2017

Nnedi Okorafor is an American academic and SF / fantasy writer of Nigerian heritage. She teaches creative writing and literature at SUNY Buffalo. Her fiction has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award.

Binti

The titular character in the Hugo- and Nebula- winning novella, Binti, is a young woman of gifted mathematical ability who wins a scholarship to Oomza University, the most prestigious institution of learning in the Galaxy. Her parents and siblings don’t believe she should accept the offer: it would mean leaving home (and leaving Earth, besides) and that’s just not something that the Himba do. Binti’s heritage is deeply important to her, but so is the opportunity to advance in her beloved field of mathematics, so she absconds and catches a shuttle. The subsequent flight from Earth to Oomza (in a living starship which is more-or-less an oversized, flight-capable prawn with bioengineered onboard living chambers) takes around twenty weeks, but is attacked enroute by the Meduse, a race at war with humanity. Almost everyone on board the ship is slain by the Meduse, but Binti survives and must then find a way to prevent carnage when the ship reaches its destination.

The strength of Binti is in the portrayal of the title character, who is smart, rebellious, respectful, fearful, and determined, and whose identity and culture are intimately tied to her braided, beaded hair and her precious clay-and-oil bodypaint, otjize. Her bridge-burning departure from her hometown places her in a position of substantial vulnerability, as a metaphorical ‘fish out of water’ within a literal one (the ‘Third Fish’ living spacecraft, plying the vacuum of space). I wasn’t completely convinced by the Meduse villains, and I’m not entirely satisfied that the pretext given for the longstanding conflict (which may have been between the Meduse and humanity, or between the Meduse and all of the Galaxy’s other sentient, spacefaring races–of which humanity is only one of quite a few) really held up. But the ‘otherness’ of the Meduse is well captured (in this respect, Okorafor’s writing shows some common ground with that of Octavia Butler, Amy Thompson, and Phillip Mann, though Binti is categorisable as ‘science fantasy’, which is not the description I’d apply to those other authors) and the story’s fairly sharp divergence from the customary furniture of space-based SF is, for the most part, refreshing. The story arc is well handled and sets things up beautifully for further work in this fictional universe. The novella might not convince devotees of space opera, but it should satisfy readers whose SF interest is primarily in character-driven fiction.

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