by Nnedi Okorafor
Series: Binti 1
Reviewed date: 2020 Jul 8
Rating: 2
96 pages
cover art

Science fiction with magic
Nnedi Okorafor's writing in Binti reminds me of James Schmitz in The Witches of Karres. It's definitely science fiction, in space with spaceships and aliens and the whole works, but also with magic. Both Okorafor and Schmitz would probably argue that it's not magic, there's a scientific explanation, but to me it feels like magic. Okorafor writes a bit more straightforwardly; with Schmitz it always feels like he's leaving out information deliberately to confuse me. And I appreciate the novella length. There are so few novellas these days; everybody wants to write an epic series with 600-page books. No thanks, I like my fiction on the shorter side.

Binti the Himba girl
Binti, a young Himba girl from Namibia, runs away from home and hops on a spaceship bound for Oomza Uni. She's going off to college! On the way, alien Meduse murder everyone on board except for Binti. Why not Binti? Binti has a magic rock, an edan. It protects her. The Meduse can't hurt her.

Binti the magic Himba girl
Binti also has magic dirt. Well, it's her otjize, a traditional Himba mixture of oils and red clay from their homeland. Like all Himba girls and women, Binti uses it to cover her skin and her long braided hair. Conveniently the otjize is a healing salve for the Meduse--a dab on an injury to one of their many tentacles heals it.

Binti's got a magic rock and magic dirt. Go Binti.

Binti the emissary
The Meduse can't harm Binti, and she convinces them to let her be an emissary on their behalf. The Meduse agree to alter their original plan of murdering everybody at Oomza Uni, and try diplomacy instead. (They can also go back to murder later if diplomacy fails.)

The Meduse replace Binti's hair with their tentacles, turning her into an actual Medusa. OK, cool. Then she negotiates for them to retrieve an artifact from the university's collection: a Medusen stinger (a body part) that is being studied by researchers at Oomza Uni. So I guess the war between Meduse and civilization was all due to a misunderstanding--university researchers stole the stinger, so the Meduse waged a war of annihilation on everybody everywhere. Seems legit. Nobody cares that the Meduse slaughtered a ship full of university students--water under the bridge. But fair enough, I guess the bigger picture is ending the war.

The faculty at Oomza Uni agree to return the stinger, apologize profusely for how it got into their collection, and promise to fire the staff members who procured it. Only ethical items for their collection, thank you.

And thus ends the long and gruesome war between the Meduse and civilization. I say civilization because Oomza Uni is an entire university planet with many species. Humans aren't even a major player on the galactic stage, I don't think. I'm not clear.

Passive protagonist
One complaint I have is that Binti is a rather passive protagonist. She runs away from home, yes. But beyond that, her basic qualities are 1) possessing a magic rock (the edan), and 2) possessing the magic mud (the otjize). Everything else the Meduse do to her or force her to do. It's not really about her. I mean it is, but she's not the active agent. It's about what's done to her.

The magic was in her all along
When her supply of otjize runs out, Binti makes more from the oils and clay she finds at Oomza Uni. These alien ingredients are totally different, but they also magically heal the Meduse. So it's not the otjize. The magic is in her, man. It's in her!

Weird. Maybe I'm reading too much into that.

Not entirely satisfactory
It's clear I'm not entirely satisfied with the story. It's a novella, but it reads more like a long novelette to me. I think it's roughly 20,000 words, so it's novella-length, but style and plot feel more like a novelette. I'm not a fan of magic in my science fiction, and I prefer characters who are a bit more active, instead of being rescued by a bit of magic whenever she gets into a tight spot.

Binti's people
Her people are discriminated against by, well, by everyone, but mostly the Khoush. Binti's people make a lot of technology, and her family in particular make astrolabes. Okorafor never explains what astrolabes are, but everyone has one. Binti is (was) a harmonizer, someone who makes astrolabes, and a good one. It has to do with math.

Living spacecraft
The spaceship is named Third Ship, and it's a Miri 12. A Miri 12 is a huge shrimp-like living creature with a hard shell that can travel through space, and people genetically enhanced/engineered them for use as spaceships. This is a neat idea, I hope Okorafor explores it further in the sequels.

Furious intensity?
Some reviewers seem to think the book is told with a furious intensity or a palpable sense of horror. I did not find either to be true.

Not for me.
It won a Hugo, so clearly it resonated with a lot of people. I can see that. It's not for me, though. I really do prefer less magic.

Archive | Search