Nnedi Okorafor is a refreshing voice in the genres of SF/F – genres that have been dominated by white men since their very beginnings. Not that I have anything against white men, mind you – some of my favorite books have been written by them. But Okorafor is a black woman, and her stories feature black female protagonists, and contain stories and elements unlike anything else out there. The only two writers that I can possibly compare her to are Neil Gaiman and China Mieville -both of whose books are chock full of creativity and originality, just like Okorafor’s. I would favorably compare her Who Fears Death with Gaiman’s American Gods or Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, two of my all-time favorites.
As a novella, Okorafor’s latest work, Binti, is much smaller in scope but it still manages to bring freshness and originality to what is basically a coming-of-age story. The heroine is Binti, a young Himba woman (a tribal group in a future Africa who specializes in mathematics and its use in technology – and who never leave home) who is accepted into Oomza University, the most advanced and rigorous university in the galaxy. Binti is a gifted ‘harmonizer’ – one who can bring harmony into disparate mathematical systems. She hides her acceptance from her family, and the story begins with her sneaking away to the starship that will take her to Oomza. Obviously, leaving home is a huge step, and the reader is automatically rooting for her, as she faces the first little stings of racism/classism.
Once on the ship, Binti gradually makes friends with the other students headed to Oomza. Her joy at finding others who think like she does, even though they look different, rings quite true to anyone who has gone away to school and found like-minded souls. But before they get to Oomza, they are attacked by the Meduse, jellyfish like creatures who are at war with humanity and with Oomza University in particular. It is this portion of the book where Binti grows into herself and into her gifts. The ending is a bit predictable, but Binti’s journey is still gripping. The story held my interest – I read it straight through, even though I hadn’t intended to!
There are many technological pieces to the story that we only see in passing, because of the short nature of the work. But it is clear that in this version of our future, technology and organisms are fused. The starship is essentially a large crustacean, genetically modified to live in space, and embedded with technology inside to allow for humans to survive. Readers who want to know details of these, and other, technologies in the story will be disappointed. Okorafor focuses on the people, and rightly so. Yet even though the science is never explained, it feels plausible, and the reader is able to simply move on with the story.
My only quibble is with the abrupt ending. The main plot points had been wrapped up, but the ending left one story arc unfinished – it was literally cut off mid-sentence. I can only hope this means that we will see more of Binti in future works by Okorafor. I definitely want to read more about Binti, now that she’s arrived at Oomza. There is still much I want to explore with this character and these events, which means that Okorafor did her job well!