Saturday, March 19, 2016

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

It's interesting trying to figure out Nnedi Okorafor's use of technology in her books.  In Who Fears Death technology is not particularly present--mostly older things that don't work anymore, if I recall correctly.  Binti is somewhat different--it is set up as an interstellar story.  Binti is an Earth native, of the Himba tribe.  Himba don't generally leave home, but she is identified as a math genius and offered a full scholarship at Oomza University, the best in all the galaxy.  She winds up involved in a war (though we really only see enough for a feud) between the Medusae and Oomza Uni.

Technology for Okorafor is equal parts engineering and magic.  Binti is a master "harmonizer", one who can sense and create harmony in technologies, and as it turns out, sentient beings.  She is a builder of astrolabes, which seem to be what phones are to us now.  I sort of understand the word choice but it rings odd--why substitute an old Western word for a modern one?  The starship in which they travel is a genetically modified shrimp.  And in an echo back to Who Fears Death, a piece of broken technology (the generic name for such is edan) is part of what gets her through.

The magical core of this story is otjize, the clay mixed with oils that the Himba use for cleanliness and protection.  This substance is Binti's connection to her culture.  And in this story it also has magical healing powers.  This connection brings Okorafor's African roots forward.

The story is OK, but it really needed to be a full length novel, not a novella.  There's a lot going on here and most of it is told too quickly so it comes off pat.  The Medusae invade Binti's ship bound for Oomza Uni and gorily kill everyone aboard except her and the pilot.  And yet, she becomes their ambassador and all works out with little fanfare or uncertainty.  It's not fully baked.

As an explanation of culture it's pretty good.  As a story, not much.  I will give it a weak 3 stars.  Not my favorite so far.

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