The Binti Trilogy
by Nnedi Okorafor
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1. Binti | 2. Home | 3. The Night Masquerade
I haven't read any interviews with the author about this, so I'm not sure why they were released as novellas rather than as a complete novel. There will be at least one more in the sequence after Home, not sure when to expect it. Binti won both the Nebula and Hugo for best novella last year. The follow-up will have to wait until 2018 to be up for consideration, but I expect it to be high on many lists, mine included.
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka is a sixteen-year-old Himba girl, living in the village of Osemba on the edge of the Namib Desert. I would guess this is at least a hundred years into the future, perhaps much more than that. Binti is brilliant at math, one of her favorite pastimes being a form of contemplation she calls "treeing." I searched and found that used as a term for a writing technique, but nothing about math. Maybe Binti visualized her mental mathematical calculations as like the branching out of tree limbs. She has apprenticed with her father for several years in the fabrication of astrolabes, and many consider hers to be among the finest ever made. Similar to the ancient Arabic devices for celestial calculations, these futuristic devices are more computer-like, with many uses including information storage and communication. The author has said this element of the story was inspired by a 10th Century Syrian woman, whom she had recently learned of at a book festival in the United Arab Emirates.
The Himba are a proud and independent people, and it is expected that all would remain in their home villages and continue with family businesses. But Binti has come to the attention of the off-world institution of Oomza University, and she has been invited to continue her math studies there. All of her family and friends assumed she would not accept, since so few Himba have ever left their village, much less the planet. But Binti sneaks out early one morning and catches a shuttle to the nearest space port. She knows this will cast her as an outsider to her own people even when she returns, but she also has to deal with being a minority of one among the others on her ship. Space travel is controlled by the Khoush, who are human, but apparently a fictitious group. Maybe they are descendants of a colony world who returned to Earth after alien contact had been made. The Khoush had been at war for many years with the Meduse, and during the voyage the aliens attack the Khoush ship, the Third Fish. I won't give details on that encounter, except to say that Binti is the only survivor, but by the time the ship arrives at Oomza Uni Binti has been able to negotiate a peace, and is welcomed a hero. The how and why of that helps to illuminate Binti's full heritage, which we learn more about in the second part.
Home picks up the story a year later. Binti has enjoyed her time at the alien school, even though she is just as much an outsider there as she was on the Khoush ship. Not only is she the first Himba to attend, she is also at odds with many due to her friendship with a Meduse, Okwu, who is also taking classes there as part of the treaty negotiation. She has had to accept that she underwent a transformation due to something the Meduse did to her on the Third Fish, and while she doesn't blame Okwu personally, she does experience bouts of anger, anxiety and depression, reliving some of her experiences in nightmares and waking dreams. Both she and Okwu have been in therapy, separately, but she decides she needs to return to Earth to undergo the sacred and traditional desert pilgrimage which she had yet to do in her short life. The Himba are a real people of Namibia, and although wikipedia says they have a monotheistic belief system, they also revere their ancestors, so this must be what Binti means when she speaks of communing with the Seven, unless their spiritual beliefs have evolved beyond current ones.
Just as the Meduse incursion altered her trip to Oomza Uni and changed the course of her life, events also conspire against her to prevent her pilgrimage. Instead, she is directed by another to travel in the opposite direction to meet with one of the "Desert People" as the Himba refer to them, although their name for themselves is Enyi Zinariya. Even though she knows that her father's mother came from this tribe, she had followed Himba tradition and considered them uncivilized savages. Her father regretted that he and Binti had the course hair and darker skin of those from the desert, and had tried to ignore that part of his lineage. Binti learns he has nothing to be ashamed of, the Enyi Zinariya were as sophisticated and knowledgeable as any Himba, and in certain ways maybe even more advanced. To explain that, or to explain the mysterious powers Binti manifests, or to describe the metallic object she had found in the desert at age six, would spoil the many wonderous revelations to be discovered as the story unfolds. This needs to be experienced as fresh and unspoiled as possible.
Something we see far too seldom in SF is the perspective of other cultures, other traditions and ways of thinking. Many varied alien cultures have been created, but mostly white, western world characters and societies as protagonists. There have been many African kingdoms that rivaled the heights of Egypt, Persia or Rome. Even many so-called "primitive" tribes have thousands of years of history that have shaped their cultural traditions. If you google the word otjize you will better understand the first story's cover image, a Himba tradition that Binti follows religiously, and I don't think using that term is exaggerating. Another strong African tradition is the continuity of family and culture, and the inter-connectedness of all nature. Binti makes many discoveries throughout her journeys, perhaps none as important as her own heritage and possible destiny. The only thing I didn't like is it ended on a tragic note, or at least the prospect of tragedy, but we won't know for sure until Binti makes it back to Osemba. I am anxiously awaiting the third part of the story.
Nnedi says The Night Masquerade concludes the trilogy, although I hope she hasn't ruled out (and I would certainly welcome) a return to this world sometime in the future. Binti is a remarkable character who goes through many changes, yet retains her essential nature. Okorafor has said the story could be summed up in this way: Binti leaves home, Binti returns home, Binti becomes home. Based on that, it didn't turn out the way I expected, which is not a criticism, just an observation. The way I interpret the conclusion, I'd have to say Binti has become homes, plural. To try to explain that would involve spoilers, and I won't do that.
Binti is staunchly proud to be Himba, even though many in her village now consider her outcast. She acknowledges she is much more than just Himba, but that will always be her primary identity. She has been infused with Meduse DNA, and also has incorporated Zinariya into her nature. That involves much more than just her father's heritage, but again, I won't go into details. She also has elements from at least one other source to complete(?) her, and all of those together, plus where she is at the end, convince me there are many more adventures in her future, many more people (human and alien) she will be able to influence. If we don't get any more stories about her, I can imagine them on my own, and one of those thoughts is that she will eventually be a professor at Oomza Uni.
While I'm inclined to rate the trilogy a near perfect 5 stars, my assessment of the individual parts might be slightly less than that. There are still questions about various elements, with a re-read in order. The third part was weakened by a too-early anti-climax. There was no way Binti's story would end that way, and I was correct, but the timing of it, and the pacing of what followed, was a bit off. Still, a remarkable achievement in character creation, cultural exploration, and mind-expanding speculation on the possiblities of varied life in the universe. No matter how far we venture, no matter what other lifeforms we encounter, we have to hope there are those like Binti who will work toward the benefit of all.
I've been reading SF for at least fifty years, and for the majority of that time I was drawn toward the hard SF of space exploration, and I mainly read white, male authors. They're the ones I heard about, the ones on the bookstore shelves. Lately I've been reading more of what I'd consider soft SF, sociological stories, as well as fantasy, more women writers, and from different ethnicities. Binti combines about every speculative element you can imagine. Alien species, living space ships, complex socio-political entanglements, tech indistinguishable from magic, but most importantly, intense personal and spiritual feelings. Okorafor is the equal of anyone from the Golden Age, and superior to the majority. Perhaps we should now be talking about the Platinum Age of SF.
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