Book: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Age/Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Preferred Reading Environment: Somewhere you feel grounded. This would be great to read in a hammock or otherwise outdoors.
Reading Accoutrements: Comfort foods that remind you of home.
Content Notes: murder, racism, war, PTSD
Since I read Who Fears Death, I knew I wanted to read Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novela trilogy. Recently, I learned about the release of an omnibus version of the trilogy, which also includes a new short story. I decided to take the plunge, and am extremely glad I did.
The Binti series follows Binti, a teenage Himba girl who runs away from her isolated tribal desert home in order to attend an acclaimed university on the planet Oomza Uni. On her way there, her ship is attacked by the Meduse, an alien species with a long history of war with the Khoush, the dominant human culture, leaving Binti as the only survivor. Her culture and talents as a mathematical harmonizer help her negotiate tentative peace but Binti’s involvement means that she continues to get caught up in the conflict between the Meduse and the Khoush. Binti: Sacred Fire, Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade all go more into depth about the emotional trauma Binti deals with because of her experiences. The sequels also dig deeply into Binti’s complex Himba culture, and how she is shaped both by her ancestry and her experiences.
I love the world that Okorafor has created in Binti. This is an Earth that is similar to our own, in a universe where space travel exists and other worlds and species are well-known. And though the story is somewhat earth-centric, the universe is not. Binti is one of very few humans at her school, and the only one of her race. Public signs have symbols of all sorts of creatures on them, with humanoids being only one. Classes are taught with technology that translates professors to all languages. This diversity added a lot of depth to the universe and made my imagination wonder about the backgrounds and stories of other characters at the university. I feel like Oomza Uni could be a collection of stories in itself, each focusing on different characters, showing more perspectives in this universe.
The sci-fi elements of this series are really engaging. I mentioned earlier that Binti is a mathematical harmonizer. She is able to perform meditative math in her head that allows her to manipulate electrical currents. These can be used to create technology, including astrolabes, which are mobile technological interfaces that store people’s personal information. They are used as identification at security checkpoints, and can be used for basic functions like setting alarms. Binti also uses hers to alert her when she’s showing physical signs of a panic attack, telling her what to do to calm down and prevent the panic attack from getting worse.
Another cool sci-fi aspect of the Binti series is the biotechnology. This is most prominent in the ships. The space ships they use are living beings that have been genetically altered to withstand space travel. There are rooms with electronic security doors within these living beings, showing a relationship between biology and technology. Ships even give birth to new ships, which is shown in Binti: The NIght Masquerade.
One thing that bugged me as I read was that professors at Oomza Uni never really explained anything to Binti. For being such a high class institution, I sure didn’t see a lot of teaching. In one session with a professor, Binti doesn’t even know what she’s trying to do. The professor just observes her without giving her any context about what her goal is. That doesn’t seem like the optimal teaching strategy. The beginning and the end frame the university as an enlightened institution, accessible to all, truly in search of higher knowledge and advancement. If Binti’s experiences with the professors matched that, the reader would have had a chance to learn along with the main character.
That leads me to my main complaint, which is basically that I wanted more.There were tons of opportunities to expand on the universe. We could have seen more classes, more of the scenes from the past, more of Binti’s family history. I loved everything we did get, but I would have loved if these were full length novels instead of novelas. I kept imagining a TV show in my mind. The descriptions are wonderful, allowing the reader to visualize completely alien characters and settings. There were a few images that immediately caught my eye and made me want to recreate them as paintings.
I also loved how mystical this world was. As a child, Binti discovered what she calls an edan. Edan literally means obsolete technical device that no one knows the purpose of. People value objects like this as art, but also because they have great potential to do unknown things. Nothing in the universe ever surprises the characters for very long – they are used to unexplained phenomena and quickly adapt.
Binti is a coming of age story with a lot of structural similarities to YA fantasy, but a lot of the plot points are very mature. Binti undergoes very real trauma. She witnesses gruesome deaths of people she knows. This trauma is portrayed pretty realistically – the events haunt Binti, she experiences flashbacks and panic attacks, and she sees a therapist to help her cope. There are complex ideas about war, particularly illustrated by Binti’s relationship with the Meduse, who she has very valid grievances against, but also a deep connection. Okorafor has publicly stated that Binti is not meant as YA fiction. Though I’m sure a lot of teens would love the story, I would only recommend it for mature readers who are familiar with complex ideas and no easy answers to painful plot points.
Though there are certain plot points that I desperately wish were expanded upon, I loved reading Binti and will definitely return to it in the future. I recommend reading the Omnibus version, as the complete collection is much more satisfying than I imagine the individual stories would be. Binti does stand alone as a complete story, but it doesn’t have time to deal with the aftermath in the meaningful way the rest of the series does. Binti: Sacred Fire is also a great standalone, but is better with the context of the rest of the books. The events of Binti: Home lead right into the events of Binti: The Night Masquerade, and I’d be pretty upset if I had to wait between reading them. The entire collection of novelas is just under 400 pages. Despite my wish for more, I did enjoy being able to power through this series really quickly. It makes for a great weekend read, but this is one of those weekend reads that left me craving more, more, more.
Like I said above, I would love to see Binti TV shows, more novelas, full novels, and short story collections, and pretty much any expansion on this universe. What is a book or series that you want to see more of?