★ ★ ★
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.