In the spirit of the newly announced BSFA shortlist, let’s go topsy-turvy and start the week with a 2015 review. This book happens to appear on the list.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Nnedi Okorafor’s Tor novella Binti first caught my attention with its cover: a solemn young woman smearing an orange paint on her face, situated over a starfield background. I normally dislike covers with people on them, but the look on her face is so disarming. What is she up to and what is that substance, exactly?
The orange clay could be interpreted in many figurative ways, signifying everything from war to beauty to crossing guard, all of which could be said for the young and capable Binti, but Okorafor is literal most of all in this regard: Binti is of the Himba people of the southwestern part of the African continent, famous for slathering their skin and hair in a copper-colored paste called otjize. Binti is of the far future, the first Himba to be admitted to the eminent galactic university, Oomza Uni. It’s an offer she accepts, offending her family, cutting ties, upsetting the galaxy, and blazing trails all the way. The otjize is an important part of her identity, and one she is not willing to scrub off, even when she encounters prejudice on an elevator full of the Earth-dominating Khoush people. When her transport ship is hijacked by the jellyfish-like Meduse, she spends her imprisonment coming to terms with her unique situation and diplomatic potential, and eventually mends a cultural dispute.
It’s a simple plot, ideal for a youthful readers, with the hero encountering and overcoming adversity at several different levels, all by nonviolent means, while maintaining honor and honing her identity in the process. Some of her strength comes from within, some of it comes from without. Some of it is so simply and succinctly written that most of the story rings as clear as a bell. When clarity isn’t present, such as during the scene of the initial Meduse attack, the cloudiness is mainly due to Binti’s teenage POV, which, in this case, is intently focused on the death of her crush. It took me several pages to realize that everyone else had died in the attack, too… and I’m not so quick to discount this as Okorafor’s mistake. This is a coming-of-age tale, after all, and the distorted thinking of a young women in crush and in crisis feels genuine, if not odd, in that confused scene.
Okorafor relies on several familiar sci-fi tropes: sentient space fish as transport, modern gadgetry as far-future forgotten relics, tentacled space aliens, telepathic communication, inter-alien relations, and now-we-all-understand diplomacy. It’s all very Star Trek:TNG, although even the discomfort-lite Star Trek:TNG dabbles in more moral grayness. This doesn’t mean Binti isn’t interesting; that kind of moralizing optimism is appealing, and it makes for great entry-level science fiction (and nostalgia-seeking science fiction). And Okorafor picks the best sci-fi tropes to convey her universe. (I mean, who gets tired of sentient spacefish ships?) Familiar and comfortable can get boring, but the plot of Binti is satisfying on a snack-level, and having Binti’s point-of-view, with her coppered fractal braids stunning bystanders, makes for an original perspective: a cynical attack on the canteen multiculturalism of many a far-future space story.
Plus, there is the suspicion that the experience of reading Binti would be enriched by a familiarity with Himba mythology, which may take some actual book and/or academic journal searching, but, given Okorafor’s gratitude in the Acknowledgements for the help of her daughter and a certain Dubawi jellyfish, and a lack of any sort of literary epigraph, the search for literary support may not yield a much deeper understanding of the tale.
More important, however, I see Binti as a modern update for the requisite college-bound book gift, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! A young woman leaves her family for uni, cuts ties, encounters ignorance, experiences alienation, makes and loses friends, discovers the unreliability of college boyfriends, forges her own identity, and overcomes her own biases to communicate with hostile people very different from herself… is a most appropriate message for anyone experiencing such a transition. Although the novella is too sheer and direct to be a favorite of mine, I suspect many people will love it, and I don’t joke when I say I’ll be reaching for this the next time I’m in search of an original graduation gift. Beyond that, I’ll be very disappointed if Binti does not become the star of her own series, with the hope that Binti eventually gets the challenging, uncomfortable plots she deserves. She’d be perfect for TV.