Women’s Book March: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

This time I read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor! I’d heard a lot of good things about Okorafor’s writing, and especially the Binti series of space opera novellas, so I was excited to finally read it for the Challenge. However, my experience was a bit of a mixed bag.

The title character, Binti, is a member of a future version of the Himba tribe, a real culture residing in the desert of Namibia. She’s also a mathematical prodigy and the first of her people to be invited to attend Oomza University, a planetwide university dedicated to learning and discovery. However, her route there takes her through regions controlled by the Meduse, sea jelly-like aliens who have been locked in a stalemate with the dominant human culture, the Khoush. When Meduse invade her passenger ship, Binti must use her wits, resourcefulness, and ability to connect with the aliens to survive long enough to get to Oomza Uni.

Binti typifies that sense of pleasurable disorientation that comes from being dropped in medias res into an unfamiliar cultural and historical context. The world of the novella has not only diverged from ours in time, but is also being told from a point of view that I don’t often encounter as a white Western reader. I didn’t know about the Himba tribe until I read this story, and it’s wonderful to see Okorafor’s speculation about how the Himba might embrace and perfect certain technologies — such as the astrolabe, a kind of communicator/ galactic Google maps/personal database — while maintaining other elements of their traditional culture.

However, Okorafor’s very inventiveness gets a little out of hand when it comes to uniting the worldbuilding with the plot. Objects and concepts central to the plot are not explained, and as a result the story’s twists and resolutions feel a little convenient. Take the astrolabe: my description above is my best guess as to what it does, but its function(s) are never clearly established. Likewise, Binti is supposed to be a master harmoniser–a skill crucial to her establishing communication with the Meduse–yet just what a harmoniser does is never explained.

It’s clear that Binti is the tip of a very big iceberg of a fictional world that Okorafor has put a lot of a loving effort into creating. I wish more of that world and its workings had been revealed on the page.

Already read Binti? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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