Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Nnedi Okorafor is great. A leading voice in Afrofuturism (a movement of science fiction and fantasy writers who center on African settings and themes), Okorafor consistently centers the minority POV in fiction typically supersaturated with white Westerners. This she performs in her own inimitable way. My last excursion into her offbeat universe was the alien invasion novel Lagoon, which was exceedingly charming—a response to District 9 in which aliens find their way to Lagos, Nigeria, a city so chaotic that the frenzy of reaction to alien invaders is only marginally different than the usual day-to-day lives of the city dwellers. The novel taught me about Nigeria, about the tenants of afrofuturism, about the intensely spiritual, non-exoticised side of Africa rarely told in mainstream literature. It was a mess of perspectives, a grand cacophony of experience all coming together in one novel.
Now I have given her novella Binti a go. My Goodreads review jokingly refers to it as the “Southwest African coming-of-age version of System Shock 2.” And I’m not wrong, actually. Binti is the story of, well, Binti, the first Himba (an African tribe who live in northern Namibia) girl to be accepted into the prestigious intergalactic Oomza University, an enormous learning center that encompasses an entire planet. On her way, along with the whole first year class, the ship is attacked by a nightmarish race known as the Meduse. One tragedy follows another, and soon Binti is the only one left to prevent the Meduse from invading Oomza University and triggering full-out war.
Obviously, that’s a lot to explore in the novella’s short length. And while Okorafor does rely on convenient plot devices for some conflict resolution—the abstract concept of “harmonizing” in particular, which is mostly just under-explained—she does not rely on genre cliches. Far from it, in fact.
I can’t think of anything quite like Binti. It shares much in common with other narratives centered on being alone in outer space, trapped and taunted by an alien presence. System Shock 2 and Alien come to mind Yet one of the remarkable things about Binti is that it does not rely on the militarism expected in response to an attack of this nature. In both System Shock 2 and Alien, the main character’s immediate reaction is to fight back. In Binti, the reaction is to create harmony with the alien species.
It made me reconsider how the narrative is typically laid out. Think for a second: Does Ripley ever try to understand the Xenomorph? Of course not. The screenwriters tried their best to make the Xenomorph as inhuman and uncanny and evil as possible. Because if we make the alien sympathetic, the high-stakes conflict gets diluted by silly things like, uh, mercy and understanding. Binti offers an alternate solution. One that should be more present in media but doesn’t really have the morality-suppressing captivation that unsophisticated terror and violence can achieve.
While the pacifist edge is what struck me most, there is more to Binti—a teen’s coming-of-age, as she deals with the psychological trauma of being the only one of her people, of being in an unfamiliar place on her own, of being strange and different and encountering even stranger and more different things. Simultaneously it is the story of the strength of her community tradition, of accepting her background and embracing it, of knowing that being different than her community need not necessarily mean ostracizing herself from it.
The novella contemplates far more than it is sufficiently able to resolve in its short length, but I can admire Okorafor’s ambition.