Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Or, Watch for Jellies.

Binti

Read December 2015
Recommended for fans space tribes, jellyfish
 ★    ★   ★

Binti is a curious little novella by Okorafor, an author who has been my radar for bringing winds of Africa into science fiction and fantasy, and it does not disappoint. A sixteen-year old woman of the Himba tribe has been accepted into the prestigious Oomza University on a mathematics scholarship. The trouble is, “we Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it… Here, in the launch port… I was an outsider; I was outside.

An auspicious, classic beginning, one that captures the uncertainty of an unusually talented woman stretching beyond her tightly knit culture to experience something larger. “No matter what choice I made, I was never going to have a normal life, really.” Okorafor deftly creates Binti’s character, bringing to mind the old days when I was seventeen and heading off across the country to college. Binti also faces all the prejudices that come from those unfamiliar with her culture. However, once she gets to the transport ship, she meets other young people also heading to the University and begins to find a kind of equilibrium and friendship. Until the Meduse come, five days before they are supposed to arrive at Uni.

Once the alien Meduse attack, it evolves into first a survival story and then an alien outreach, with the plotting and writing less deft as the themes shift. Another incomprehensible alien artifact that becomes a deux ex machina until rapport can be developed. Actually, I suppose that is very normal for the fantastical young adult-discovery tales; some magical object that gives them an unusual edge or specialness. In this case, I rather felt like it diminished the focus on Binti, who earlier was in the process of trying to recognize and honor her personal uniqueness.

The ending didn’t quite work for me; I felt like it dismissed early losses for the ‘greater good,’ the satisfactory resolution of the idealistic ethical issue, and I’m not sure that was the message meant. More significantly, like Lagoon, I wondered if there was a bit too much attempted in such a limited format. There’s a galaxy of other beings, unknown alien artifacts, a future-Earth that has technologies unusual to our own, living ships, and then the very fascinating concept of mathematical harmonics. I would have thought either expanding more, so more organic integration of information could occur (ie, no info-dumping), or limiting the scope would service the complexity of the story better.

The overall verdict is that one should read it, if you are interested in diving into fresh voices in science fiction, and in stories where cultural and ethnic issues are woven into genre traditions. Okorafor is worth trying.

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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8 Responses to Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Or, Watch for Jellies.

  1. neotiamat says:

    I confess to never having read Okorafor. Largely because a lot of the reviews I see of her are long on what she represents as an author (and I certainly approve of bringing new perspectives into SF), but are a bit more ambivalent as to whether or not her books are enjoyable to read. Maybe someday.

    Also, you seem to be having a string of lackluster reads, you haven’t rated a book above three stars since City of Blades. My condolences!

    • thebookgator says:

      You nailed it with Okorafor reviews. There’s a ton of interesting there but I can’t figure out yet if it’s her “style” or a “flaw” that is a barrier for me. I want to like her.

      Thank you for noticing my pain! Actually, I do like Guns Germs and Steel, but it’s going slowly, and I’m enjoying the Daniel Faust book, but I’m saving it for the gym. Back to work this week, so significantly less reading time. Oh, and Kameron Hurley is kicking my butt with Rapture. 4 stars coming soon!

      • neotiamat says:

        Oh god, Jared Diamond. That brings back memories.

        As part of my earlier PhD work, I had to study quite a bit of the literature on the Great Divergence (why Western Europe & the US came to dominate the world as it did). I didn’t actually read GG&S, though I read one of Diamond’s other books, Collapse, but I’m familiar with the thesis — Ian Morris lays out a broadly similar one in his Why the West Rules for Now, which was a fun book to read. That said, I incline ever so slightly to Ken Pomeranz view of Coal and Colonies (which, to be fair, is more a variation on the geographic perspective of Diamond and Morris).

        Also, word to the wise, avoid any history books written by David Landes or Niall Ferguson, *especially* Ferguson.

      • thebookgator says:

        I had forgotten about you and history! So you have me wondering–good memories or bad memories? Sounds like what he has written is a fairly solid conceptualization? I don’t really have the tools to judge validity, except by attempting to deconstruct this suppositions through logic. I can tell he makes some logic leaps, but since it isn’t a text book, I’m generally okay with that. In general, I’m not a history reader, but this ran into an intersection of ethnic identity, and I wanted to be able to more concretely deconstruct the idea that a certain ethnic group has ‘deserved’ superiority. Plus, I’m a little bit of a geek for epidemiology.

  2. Interesting about bringing Africa into the genre. I find this relevant for reasons you probably already know 😉 Not a huge science fiction fan, but if she writes fantasy too, it might be worth checking out.

  3. neotiamat says:

    Well, mostly good memories of Diamond. He’s a competent writer and he tackles big ideas, which is good. He has a tendency, common in popular history works and among non-historians (I believe he started off somewhere in biology), to push his ideas further than a historian would be comfortable with, but it’s not *too* bad.

    • thebookgator says:

      Laughing–the tendency is so true to most popularized science books (Thinking Fast and Slow, etc)… I had wondered about that. He does say he started in biology, and I think was in New Guinea for bird research. But I love cross-discipline thinking.

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