Book Review

Nnedi Okorafor

three genre books

Let’s change the pace a little.

Things were getting intense.

Needing to read something a little less connected to the horrors of real life, I dived into a pile of three books by American-Nigerian science fiction writer, Nnedi Okorafor.

Lagoon (2014)

This novel is set in Lagos and is about a benevolent alien invasion.

The main character is a marine biologist in an increasingly abusive marriage with a successful accountant who has been sucked into a cult-like church.

She is wandering a beach, unhappily – after the months of psychological abuse from her husband have finally (and irrevocably) expanded into physical abuse – when a large wave sucks her and two other people into the ocean, where they meet and befriend a shape-shifting alien who they promise to protect and deliver to the (secretly dying) Nigerian president, so he can formally welcome the aliens and their powerful technology, which the aliens offer full access to in exchange for nothing but the guarantee that all Nigerian oil extraction immediately ends.

It’s a good deal (the aliens are not at all evil) but chaos further erupts as the ancient deities and monsters of traditional Igbo mythologies try to use the “there are aliens here!” chaos as an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the humans who have been polluting and damaging the world.

There are lots of other characters, too, including a idealistic soldier ostracised for preventing his superior officer from committing sexual assault on an out of hand night out; a superstar Ghanaian rapper; the sleazy, cash-obsessed hypocrite in charge of the fundamentalist church (this character is a bit of a stereotype, perhaps, but then again stereotypes are often stereotypes for a reason); several aliens; some of the ancient deities; a few animals (a bat, a swordfish) made sentient by exposure to the aliens; a gender non-conforming petty criminal who is murdered by one of his gang when they discover how he dresses when alone; a secretary slash sex worker who shoots a child in the head because she mistakenly thinks a) the boy is an alien and b) the alien is a threat; as well as (for one chapter only) an American-Nigerian student visiting their grandparents for the Summer who has a lucrative side hustle going as an online fraudster until witnessing an ancient god appear and dive into the internet.

So, yes, there are a lot of characters. Most are conveyed in the third person, but a few chapters – only ever those with peripheral characters – are in first person, which can feel a little jarring when the switch first occurs, but as a book about a massive, busy, city erupting into chaotic violence and confusion it kinda makes sense.

Good enough, sure!

Binti (2015)

Binti is a novella about a young Namibian woman many centuries in the future, who is the first person of her reclusive – but highly technologically skilled – tribe to be offered a place at the universe’s top university.

Binti’s family want her to turn down the offer and take over the family business, which is the production of the future human world’s most prized gadget.

I imagined them as some kind of cross between an iPhone, a His Dark Materials esque daemon and a Fabergé egg, but I don’t know for sure because the astrolabes, as they’re called, are a bit of a MacGuffin.

Binti, the eponymous hero, sneaks out of her home one night (she is awarded a full scholarship including interplanetary travel expenses, so there are no administrative hurdles) and takes a bus to the nearest spaceport, where she is subjected to lots of micro-aggressions based around her culture’s fame as prized artisans who never travel.

Once she boards the spaceship (a giant animal, tho very different in biology from the living spaceships in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy) it’s a Hogwarts Express type journey to school until the ship is overrun by intergalactic space jellyfish who violently murder literally everyone on board except for Binti and the pilot (who never becomes a character we meet).

Binti has to convince the space jellyfish not to kill her and also not to carry out the near-suicidal plan that was their eventual goal in hijacking the ship and massacring its crew.

It’s very different to Lagoon in that it is a closed space, there are very few characters, and we are always within a tight first person perspective inside Binti’s head: her new experiences are the reader’s new experiences.

It’s super short (it’s a novella) but it’s richly evocative and characterful while feeling far from clichéd: it makes sense that it was so acclaimed when it was released.

A great read!

Binti: Home (2017)

I don’t know if Binti needed a sequel.

That feels like a dickheaded thing to say, but having read the sequel to Binti, I feel qualified to offer that opinion. Binti: Home is twice the length of Binti, but seems to have half of the narrative.

Binti has spent a year at her intergalactic university and is enjoying her studies (and seems to be good friends with the once-evil space jellyfish who also joined the school with her), but she decides she wants to try and rebuild her relationship with her family (who disapproved of her leaving Earth) so her and the space jellyfish friend decide to travel together.

Every single person in her family is a dick. Like, all of them. Binti’s parents, her aunts and uncles, her brothers and sisters and her friends from her hometown. They’re all dicks. Every last one 

This is something I’ve jarred with in fiction before and likely will do again, but I just can’t extend sympathy to protagonists who are not dicks but who base their sense of selfhood and self-worth on the opinions of nasty small-minded pieces of shit, just because they happen to have similar DNA.

Like, Okorafor presents nothing redeeming about these characters, nothing at all.

They are not deserving of the protagonist’s care or emotional response. They are fundamentally bad people, cruel people, and Binti – who in the previous book was able to befriend members of an alien species who massacred hundreds of people in front of her but never forgot about this – seems unable to acknowledge the psychological abuse that her siblings and parents are aggressively perpetrating in every single interaction she has with them.

These people are unrepentant, unappealing and unreasonable – the massacring space jellyfish are better able to acknowledge Binti’s personhood than the people she is related to, yet Okorafor writes of Binti’s denial of her family’s cruelty with far less judgement than her acceptance of the space jellyfish’s violence.

Maybe there’s an authorial tone I’m missing or misreading and the novella is actively trying to equate or compare the depersonalised violence of war with the highly personalised cruelty of familial psychiatric abuse.

The book ends with a cliffhanger, after Binti reconnects with her long-ostracised paternal grandmother (ostricised, basically, because she’s not fucking intolerable) and combines more alien DNA with her own, then discovers her family are in mortal danger following her space jellyfish friend getting into a massive fight with some humans, buy I can’t think of a clear cliffhanger I’ve ever encountered that was less – for me – successful.

Binti’s family are pieces of shit. She’ll be better off without them. Let them die, Binti, go back to school and lead a more fulfilling, more explorative, more nuanced life far away from home.

Just because somewhere birthed you, doesn’t mean it is home, if all its other inhabitants just told you everything you felt and everything you were was invalid.

I enjoyed Binti very much. Binti: Home left me dissatisfied.

There we go. Done. Back to work.

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