Binti: A Bildungsroman Out of This World

I’m always excited to get my hands on a novel that falls into the New Adult category. “New Adult” is the little known label for books that chronicle the experiences of those who are post high school/secondary education age, and trying to figure out their next step in the world.

bI’d certainly put Binti in this category. Binti is just like any other young girl heading off to university. She is nervous about leaving her family, anxious about breaking with tradition, but also excited to explore her new opportunities. The only difference is that, for Binti, new opportunities means a new planet. Binti is one of the few people to have been accepted at Oomza University, at the other side of the galaxy, and she is certainly one of the first of the Himba people to leave their tribe. It is just not done, and these monumentalĀ  firsts play with Binti’s emotions. Of course, when the ship that she is on is suddenly commandeered by an alien, and apparently hostile race, the Meduse, Binti’s situation take a turn for the worse.

Binti is a novella. It is a glimpse of a bigger world, but it is a glimpse so rich and bright that you become wholly immersed in it when reading. I always say this about Okorafor’s writing, but it bears repeating. She has the talent of achieving her world-building while developing her plot. The tendency sci-fi and fantasy novels have to “pause” the plot, while they get their world-building underway is what made me reluctant to read them in the past. With Okorafor this is not the case, and it makes the story all the more realistic.

Binti is a compelling heroine. The general trepidation that young adults feel upon leaving their old world and entering a new one are drawn against a grander background here, but still feel very real and immediate. Binti’s journey of finding herself, of identifying her strengths and weaknesses involve navigating the politics between the people of her planet and the Meduse.

Binti’s anxieties about belonging are also realistically explored. She leaves for Oomza University with the knowledge that in doing so, she is essentially severing her connection to her family and her community. As she is of the Himba people, she has a significant connection to the soil she was born on. It is the practice of the Himba people to cover themselves in otjize paste, a mixture that includes soil from their land. In leaving her place of birth Binti loses this literal connection to her land. This was quite heartbreaking to read, but it’s also interesting to see how Binti tries to accommodate this drastic change in her life.

Binti is intelligent and resourceful, but her confidence and maturity really develop throughout the arc of the story.

I would certainly recommend this novel to everyone. Okorafor’s writing is masterful – it is skilled, but is never bogged down in overwrought descriptions. She is a great storyteller, and I can guarantee she will be able to draw you in. Both sci-fi lovers, and sci-fi noobs (like myself) will enjoy this novel.

Links:

For those, who have already read this novel, here are a couple of interviews with Okorafor from 2016:

Rage as Absolution in “The Book of Phoenix”

*Note: this post contains major spoilers.

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The Book of Phoenix follows the story of Phoenix – an accelerated “specimen”, created from the experiments of the secretive Tower Seven. Though she has the body of a forty year old woman she has only been alive for three years. She has never questioned the reasons for her existence, nor the intentions of her carers in Tower Seven.

When her friend and lover disappears under mysterious circumstances Phoenix begins to question her surroundings and doubt the only world that she has ever known. For the first time in her life she feels the sting of betrayal. For the first time she feels anger. Her anger burns within her, quite literally. Her skin starts to overheat, and as her emotions become too much for Phoenix to handle, she catches fire, like the mythical bird she is named after.

Much of the book’s progression involves Phoenix running from her creators, all the while learning more about how and why she was created. She comes into contact with various people who help her on her journey. The book touches on many issues – exploitation, racism, scientific ethics, but through it all injustice is the main player. Phoenix constantly mulls over the terrible going on in her world. She sees the suffering of those closest to her, and she feels the pain of it deeply. Perhaps because her introduction to the cruel aspect of life is so sudden, she is acutely sensitive to the pain inflicted on her and her loved ones. She is a deeply emotional being.

Being named and created for the bird that burns itself for new life seems to seal her fate. At the apex of each significant struggle, Phoenix burns. She rages, overheats, and wipes out anything and anyone that happen to be close to her. As a reader, I couldn’t help being attuned to Phoenix’s pain and anger at the many injustices she experiences. In fact, being inside her head reminded me of when I was younger. I also raged at the world’s injustices. I wondered how there could be so much suffering, and that a lot of it went unnoticed, uncared for. There are times, even now, when I do feel like theĀ  world needs to be wiped out in order to rid it of the bad within it. But I know, of course, that this means erasing the good that is in the world, too.

You can see where I’m going with this. In the end, Phoenix’s burning is absolute. It is complete in its destruction. She bathes the world in her flames, a fiery baptism that allows it to be born anew, apparently rid of the evils that Phoenix had witnessed. I could understand her rage, I could understand her pain. But I couldn’t understand her decision in the end. It felt hollow. As if she was giving up, as if she was refusing to see that, despite the horrible things happening to her, there had been good moments, too. There had been kindness, and love, and there could have been hope.

I know this novel is meant to be a prequel to Who Fears Death, so it may very well be the case that Phoenix’s story had to end this way. For me, however, the ending left something to be desired. Phoenix’s story was beautiful, yes, and tragic, also yes. But I didn’t expect that it would be hollow.

(P.S. Also, what was up with that commentary on women being overly emotional? I know it’s framed within the perspective of the character who reads Phoenix’s book but considering everything that had come before, it seemed considerably out of place. It seemed to render the entirety of Phoenix’s journey redundant, and invalidate her final decision.)