Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor (book review).

The Science Fiction field and especially fandom is a place where diversity is celebrated. We have long got over the pulp SF trope of all sentient aliens being automatically hostile and, in some novels, the aliens have behaved better and with more honour than humans. There is never going to be total harmony and, as long as languages are different, there is always going to be the probability of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Some authors use aliens as a counterbalance to situations they see around them, arguing that if we can come to an understanding with extra-terrestrial aliens it should be possible to do the same with humans who are different from ourselves. SF can be a vehicle for exploring difference in a positive way.

The first thing that is noticeable about this book is the skill and knowledge that Nnedi Okorafor imbues her writing with. Although hailed as the ‘complete’ trilogy, this reads as a novel. The trilogy comprises three novellas, the first of which ‘Binti’ won both Hugo and Nebula awards and a new story that neatly links the first and second. The setting is the far future when Earth is just one of the planets known to harbour sentient life. Binti is a sixteen year-old Himba girl from the Namib. Her tribe continue customs that have shaped their lives for thousands of years; women coat their skin and hair with otjize, a paste made from oil and red clay. It cleans the skin in an area where water is precious and acts as sun protection.

Binti feels naked if she is not wearing it. For her it is a practical substance as well as being part of her identity. Most people in this future world carry astrolabes, a device which is capable of storing data and memories. Binti’s father is a skilled astrolabe constructor and she has inherited his mathematical mind. She sees mathematical formulae and can manipulate them. Her most treasured possession is an edan, a mysterious object she found in the desert and has no idea what it does.

As the story begins, Binti is leaving home, something she has been advised not to, but she has been offered a place at Oomza University to study mathematics. She is determined to go and sneaks away to join the shuttle that will take her there. The spaceship is a sentient, space-faring creature called Third Fish and, despite being the only Himba girl on the passenger list, the rest belong to the Khoush, a different more war-like and more adventurous tribe. She makes friends, mathematics is a passion that binds them, only to see them slaughtered when Third Fish is attacked by another sentient species, the jellyfish-like Meduse. Binti survives because she is not Khoush and because she has mediation skills that she was unaware of.

At the end of this section, Binti has changed, not just mentally but physically. The Meduse have changed her DNA so that instead of plaited hair, she now has tentacles similar to those of the Meduse species. Any contact between species or races leaves a mark, a culture will never be untouched and Binti is a reminder that cultural contamination goes both ways. She has also shown that sometimes the route to better understanding is the return of items that are of importance, for whatever reason, to the original owner.

The second new section, ‘Binti: Sacred Fire’, sees Binti settling to life on Oomza Uni, coping with the trauma of her journey there and making friends. One of these is Okwu, a Meduse from the attack on the ship. She also encounters prejudice from some of the other students who resent her, not only because she is different but because she is a very skilled mathematician. On a trip into the desert, she encounters an insect which is destructive in a closed space but flies outside. It symbolises freedom. By leaving her tribe to study off-world she is learning the meaning of freedom, choice and friendship.

Binti does go home with the intention of following the rites of her tribe. Okwu goes with her as an ambassador from the Meduse to the Khoush, even though there is still distrust between their peoples. In ‘Binti: Home’ she meets a boy from the Desert People. Throughout her childhood, she has been taught that these nomads are inferior. Mwinyi takes her to meet the grandmother she was unaware of and her father having kept his heritage low key. She discovers that the ‘facts’ she has been taught are wrong, that there is much more to her heritage than she suspects. Prejudice works both ways. While the Himba have wrongly despised the Desert People, so the Khoush have wrongly despised the Himba. ‘Binti: The Night Masquerade’ follows closely, bringing more revelations about her skills, the powers of friendship and betrayal. Men come off very badly in this book.

Throughout the novel, the edan is a focus, a goal to the understanding Binti strives to achieve. At the same time, she never loses the sense of who she is, even though that concept changes. She is Himba, but in the end she is much more.

This is the kind of book that should be on everyone’s reading list and not just because it is beautifully written. It looks at so many issues that inflict modern society and exposes them to us through the eyes of a young girl who has to endure all kinds of indignities and trauma. She shows us that without knowledge it is easy to misjudge others, that it is possible to learn, to change and to put aside misconceptions. Binti’s journey is not one that all of us can make but with the help of the wisdom her story imparts, we should be able to take the first steps. Most of all, we should take away the idea that there is value in everything, however humble it may seem.

Pauline Morgan

May 2019

(pub: DAW, New York, 2019. 356 page hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), $35.00 (CAN), £20.44 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7564-1518-1)

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