Friday, March 9, 2018

Science Fiction: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Welcome to the first of three blogs dedicated to Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series. As the second installment was nominated for a 2017 Goodreads Choice Award, and the third and final installment was published earlier this year, I figured now was as good a time as any to explore it in its entirety. Also, I am excited to potentially discover a new favorite science fiction author.

The Situation: Binti has left her home on Earth to attend the prestigious Oomza University. It is truly the opportunity of a lifetime, but Binti must risk everything to take it. The Himba people do not travel much, if at all, and they certainly never leave Earth and their families, even if it is to attend the best school. So Binti must leave quickly, and in secret, knowing her parents and siblings will think her selfish and reckless. Not only that, if she ever does return, she will have brought shame upon her family and ruined her chances for marriage. But Binti is the first and only Himba to ever be accepted into Oomza University, making her the envy of many Khoush people. So she endures the hard stares of those not used to seeing anyone like her, as well as potential disappointment from her family, and follows her dream.

The Problem: It is apparent that many are not pleased to have Binti on the ship. To them, her skin is too dark, her hair is too coarse and thick, and she is covered in a strange red clay substance that she calls otjize. However, just as Binti gets used to life on the ship, and even manages to make friends, tragedy strikes and everyone on board is killed, except for her. It seems when the Meduse boarded the ship, intent on killing every human they find, specifically every Khoush they find, it is Binti's mysterious abilities that save her, and her dark skin that shows she is different. Now caught in the middle of a war her people have no part of, Binti must use everything she has learned not only to survive, but also to negotiate peace.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novella set in an undetermined time, but it is certainly not the time we live in now, on the Earth we know and love. Binti is Himba, and is originally from Earth where she lives with her family in the desert. As the only Himba to ever be offered a place at Oomza University, Binti soon finds herself surrounded by Khoush people, who, by her description, have skin so pale it is as if they are afraid of the sun. She must suffer the rude stares, whispers, eye rolls, even have someone touch her air without asking, like many minorities throughout history. Feeling both unwelcome and lost, Binti remains resolved to attend the university. The Meduse, a non-human people with tentacles and stingers, are at war with the Khoush people, and therefore in their minds, they are at war with all humans. Binti is certainly an epic space adventure squeezed into 90 pages, but it also looks at race, class, war, tradition, math, science, and identity.

My Verdict: While there are some elements of this story that are above my head, especially as I am not a regular science fiction reader, the adventure is still engaging, and the characters are complex and interesting. I found myself wanting to know more with every page, curious to see what turn the story was going to take next, but hoping Binti would be successful in the end. It is a fantastic twist on the girl going off to college story, as well as the girl leaving her family behind to follow her dream story, potentially altering her destiny. And of course, it is also nice to have a person of color as the hero in a science fiction story, something we are slowly, but surely, seeing more of in literature. I look forward to reading more about Binti's adventures in the next two installments.

Favorite Moment: When the otjize Binti wears on her skin and hair works to heal one of the Meduse.

Favorite Character: Binti is afraid and unsure of what she is doing, but she does it anyway. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. It is not science fiction, but it is about two girls, one Chinese-American and one African-American, setting off together on the Oregon Trail and learning to survive against incredible odds.  

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