Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

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4.5 out of 5 Stellar Stars

This gorgeous novella. I don’t know where to start. I guess I’ll start with our title character. Binti is a young girl from the Himba tribe, and I felt like we had a bit of a Sam Gamgi moment. She’s standing on a dark desert road in the dead of night, wrestling with a transporter (something that lifts your luggage so you don’t have to carry it, not the Star Trek transporter), about to walk away from hearth and home and head into the unknown. Every step she takes is the farthest from home she’s ever been. She is a harmonizer, someone with the ability to control mathematical current, someone meant to take her father’s place in the family business (not that she will own it -that will be for her brother) but she will be the one to work on the astrolabes. A lot of the worldbuilding is really vague and ethereal, but honestly, it just adds to the story. All you really need to know is that math is wielded like magic, and technology works in harmony with nature. Interstellar ships are giant mollusks and trains use enormous plants for lubrication.

The thing that is significant is the leaving. The Himba don’t leave their homeland. No one has ever left to go to college, that’s for sure. Binti has scored so high in the testing that Oomza Uni, one of the most highly esteemed universities, has offered her a spot. They are so eager to teach her, she’s been offered a full scholarship, and she is going to take it. No one in her family, none of her friends, know this. For a Himba to leave is to become an outcast.

I’ve often referred to the Alice in Wonderland syndrome. I love it when I fall into a story, like Alice down that tree hole, and I don’t know at what point, or why, or how it is that the author has totally and completely hooked me. I was hooked, probably from the first page of this. I feel her otherness. The Himba are a small group and don’t mix much with others. Binti is striking out on her own, but she’s not leaving behind her traditional garb and jewelry, including coating her skin and hair with otjize, a paste made of clay, oils and ash (if what I read on Wikipedia was right). This is an incredibly important part of her cultural identity. She tells about how she and some cousins went and washed off all their otjize in the lake once, and feared being caught by their parents. It would be as scandalous as being caught naked. I loved this cultural depth in the story, and of course, when she goes among the other people of earth, it earns her a lot of weird looks. She’s glad to be going to a University where, as a human, she will be as rare among the other students as a Himba is among humans. I thought that was sort of the crux of the story. Humans only make up 5% of the population on Oomza Uni (which seems to be the name of the planet as well as the university). So she heads off and meets her fellow students going from Earth to Oomza Uni and even makes some friends.

This is when the shit hits the fan, and I had some problems. Most of it, as action/adventure gets really high marks, but as far as the “dealing with the terrorists” thing goes, I had issues. Basically, the Meduse have long had a problem with the Khoush population of earth. The Meduse are a non-human type of alien (I don’t want to spoil it for you, it’s really cool) but they are a very proud and intolerant race, and they don’t take insults well. They hold a serious grudge against Oomza Uni and they are going to get their revenge.

At times, the terror and fear is so well portrayed. There is a survival element that is great! I was on the proverbial edge of my seat. But then when we’re solving the problems, things are solved too easily. It felt like the first 3/4 of the book was perfectly paced and then we zoomed to a conclusion. Some serious violence by the Meduse is just ignored, it’s not even dealt with in the next book, at least not as far as law and order/government goes – there is emotional turmoil but no real consequence. It may as well not have happened – and that just left a hole in the story for me.

I did love this but I do have some reservations, however, I don’t want to go too detailed. But I gotta give this really high marks for originality, setting, diversity and creative world ideas. I wish it was a little more fleshed out  – but I definitely recommend this if you like sci fi and are sick of strictly human, strictly white, strictly technologically driven stories.

 

 

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