Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.
If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself – but first she has to make it there, alive.
Binti is of the Himba people, a tribe in Namibia whose women use “sweet smelling otjize,” a mixture of ochre and butterfat that is applied over their skin and hair, giving them a reddish hue. The Himba, as Binti points out, do not travel.
We stay put… Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otjize is red land.
The Himba do not like to leave Earth, they “prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward,” with Binti herself “treeing” into a sort of trance like clarity.
But the Himba are also developers and proponents of superior, sophisticated technology. Binti’s father passed three hundred years of oral knowledge about circuits, currents, and mathematics to her, helping Binti become a “master harmonizer” at the age of 12, giving her the ability to communicate with the “spirit flow” and the ability to convince them to become one current.
At the age of sixteen, Binti is torn between staying put or traveling to a university to study her passion. Binti chooses to leave home and boards a spaceship, a “magnificent piece of living technology,” alongside several strangers, some of whom become her friends. Binti even meets a boy for whom she begins nursing a crush. And that is when everything goes horribly wrong.
Warning… some spoilers ahead.
Structurally, Binti is an interesting read. The driving plot event happens far off-screen and quickly comes crashing in and shatters the narrative of Binti’s pursuit of higher education. Everyone on the ship dies – the authority figures, the friends, the boy – and suddenly Binti is a sixteen-year-old alone on a ship hijacked by hostile aliens. That is how we meet the Meduse.
The Meduse look like human-sized floating jellyfish with a stinger, “their domes’ flesh thin as fine silk, their long tentacles spilling down to the floor like a series of gigantic ghostly noodles.” The Meduse have a long history of war with the Khoush, the dominant human ethnocultural group in this world. The Khoush are so dominant in Binti’s world, in fact, that the Meduse are unaware that there are other kinds of human until they meet Binti.
Binti is protected from the Meduse thanks to an “edan” she found years ago exploring the desert of her homeland. Through the edan, Binti is eventually able to communicate with the Meduse.
Through the clearest silence I’d ever experience, so clear, that the slightest sound would tear its fabric, I heard a solid oily low voice say, “Girl.”
For such a short novella, Binti is incredibly complex, replete with ideas that could be fleshed out in greater detail: the technology of the astrolabe communication device; the idea of “treeing” and reaching a zen state via mathematics; the spaceship that is actually a large living creature; the concept of persistent racism and judgment of different cultures within one intergalactic species that spans across an entire universe. The existence of these complex ideas without detailed development creates an interesting view of Okorafor’s world in Binti.
What I appreciated most about Binti was Okorafor’s inclusion of diverse races and cultures. Mainstream science fiction usually does not make much of an effort to make the future just as diverse as it is in the present. Not only does Okorafor place Africans from all over the continent into her futuristic world, she makes certain that their various and unique cultures travel forward with them, informing these futures.
Okorafor also makes a point of always reminding us of Binti’s ethnoculture in this world, how it causes her to be viewed as an outsider and a stranger, and how it creates an internal conflict for her as she explores the universe. To the Himba, Binti is an outsider because she chooses to leave. To the Meduse, she is an outsider because she is the first Himba and the first non-Khoush human that they meet. To the students and instructors of the Oomza University, she is an outsider because she is the first Himba to attend their school. By the end of the novella, Binti is a stranger to herself because she becomes a hybrid mix of Himba and Meduse.
Binti’s position as an outsider and a stranger is isolating, but Okorafor concludes with a sense of hope. Binti uses her astrolabe to call home, hopeful that her mother will answer her call and hopeful that she will still be welcome in her own family. I cannot wait to read Binti: Home, the sequel to this first novella and see where Binti’s journey takes her!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Title: Binti (Binti #1)
Genre: Novella, Science Fiction, Fantasy
Read… on a Saturday afternoon on the couch while… the boyfriend watched March Madness.
Purchase your copy here.
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor is an international award-winning novelist of African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults.
Born in the United States to two Nigerian immigrant parents, Nnedi is known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nnedi’s work titled, “Weapons of Mass Creation”, The New York Times called Nnedi’s imagination “stunning”.
Nnedi Okorafor’s books include Lagoon (a British Science Fiction Association Award finalist for Best Novel), Who Fears Death (a World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel), Kabu Kabu (A Publisher’s Weekly Best Book for Fall 2013), Akata Witch (an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (a CBS Parallax Award winner). Her latest works include her novel The Book of Phoenix and her novella Binti (a finalist for a Nebula and British Science Fiction Award).
Nnedi is an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, New York (SUNY).