Book Reviews

Book Review: Binti (Binti #1), by Nnedi Okorafor

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Binti (Binti #1)

By: Nnedi Okorafor

Published: September 22, 2015

The Rundown: “Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy.  But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways and respect her customs.  Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy.  The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares.  Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.  If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself—but first she has to make it there, alive.”

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: Front and center on the cover is an African woman smearing orange clay on her face.  In the novel, the clay plays a central role, as it spiritually links the protagonist, Binti, to her ancestral home in the Namib Desert.  Binti’s expressionless face suggests that she is attempting to be stoic in the face of something deeply unpleasant, perhaps even dangerous.  Binti’s face is superimposed on a starry sky, informing the reader that the novella is a space opera.

What a Wonderful World: Binti is Himba, an ethnic group which lives in the Namib Desert.  The Himba have strong ties to the land, and leaving the community is tacitly forbidden.  By choosing to go to Oomza University, Binti is severing her ties not only with her friends, but her family.  The other passengers on the starship to Oomza are Khoush, and regard Binti as both exotic and inferior.  The Khoush have long been at war with a warlike alien species called the Meduse; by travelling with the Khoush, Binti has inadvertently set herself in the Meduse’s crosshairs.

The Good Guy: Binti is a math prodigy who longs for knowledge.  She is willing to sever ties with everyone close to her and abandon her homeland in order to obtain this knowledge.  Despite her intelligence, Binti still acts like a teenage girl.  When she is taken captive by the Meduse, she reacts with a mixture of pragmatism and sheer terror, holing herself up in her quarters.  She clings to her only weapon, a piece of ancient technology which she does not know how to use.  Instead of acting with bravery and cunning, she acts the same way a normal person would if she were in the same situation.

The Bad Guys: The Meduse are jellyfish-like aliens who kill their enemies with their deadly stingers.  It is established that they have a warlike, honor-centric culture.  Revenge is considered to be a noble undertaking.  However, the Meduse are not unreasonable.  If there is a way to solve a problem without resorting to violence, they will take it; however, they tend not to think up such solutions by themselves.

The Love Interest: Binti is attracted to a Khoush boy named Heru, who is travelling on the ship to Oomza University with her.  However, their blooming romance is cut short by the attack of the Meduse.

A+: The aspects of Binti which I most enjoyed were the discussions of Himba culture.  While Okorafor is Igbo, not Himba, it is clear that she has done extensive research about their culture.  It was a pleasure to read about their quasi-religious connection with the land, a connection so important that the women cover their bodies and hair with orange clay.  I also like the way she connected Binti’s hair with the Meduse’s tentacles.

F-: The conflict between the Meduse and Oomza University was resolved far too easily.  Look, as a sci-fi aficionado, I value the acceptance of foreign cultures and finding nonviolent solutions to problems.  However, when one culture massacres a ship full of innocent college students, the families of those students, as well as the people at the college, are not going to happily embrace the aggressors.  There will be hostility.  There may be violence.  There won’t be a bunch of people holding hands and singing Kumbaya.

Does it Represent…

Women: The central character is a teenage woman who is skilled enough at mathematics that a prestigious university has provided her with a full scholarship.  Binti makes some female friends among the Khoush as her ship travels to Oomza University, but those relationships are cut short.  Most of Binti’s interactions are with the Meduse, who are agender aliens.

People of Color: Binti is Himba, an ethnic group from Africa.  She has to deal with the curiosity and condescension of the majority ethnic group; they call her unclean, and keep trying to touch her hair.  The Khoush, the other mentioned human group, are not a real ethnic group.  Based on their style of dress, however, they might be meant to be Middle Eastern.

LGBT People: No.

The Disabled: Nope.

Memorable Quote: “Suffering is against the Way.  Let us end you.”

Recommended For: People who like fables.  The style of writing and simple moral lesson reminded me a lot of the fables I read as a kid.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Image result for himba

An image of actual Himba women.

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