Bingo Review (Afrofuturism): Binti the Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Cover art for Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

I admit I’ve been a terrible blogger again ever since I finished reading the SPFBO finalists, but I’m back! And I promise to be more diligent about reviewing the books I’ve read for Reddit Fantasy’s Bingo Challenge.

For the Afrofuturism square, I read the very excellent Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor. I expect this one will be a popular choice for the Bingo challenge — the first Novella won the Nebula and Hugo awards for best Novella in 2015 and 2016, respectively. But I’d heard so many good things about this series, and I was lucky enough to find a signed omnibus at one of the dealer’s tables at comicon, so I was quite excited to dig into the story.

I would probably say it doesn’t count for hard mode (under 1000 Goodreads ratings) because the individual novellas have plenty more ratings than that. However if I were feeling cheaty, I would point out that the edition I read, the omnibus with all the stories, the omnibus with the complete trilogy, has only 783 ratings at this time of writing.

The Binti omnibus contains four stories: the original trilogy of novellas, and a new short story that debuted with the omnibus version. The stories are presented in chronological order, beginning with the original novella, Binti, then the new story, Binti: Sacred Fire, then Binti: Home, and finally Binti: The Night Masquerade.

The beginning of the first novella feels like the familiar beginning of a Western coming-of-age story. Binti, math genius and member of the Namibian Himba culture, is the first from he homeland to be admitted to a prestigious university on another planet. Her family disapproves, and she knows she’ll be an outsider on an alien world where the only other humans are the Arab-like Khoush people who are the dominant spacefarers from Future Earth. At first I thought I could see where this story was going to go. Surely in the vein of every school story from Harry Potter to Legally Blonde, Binti would make friends, contend with bullies, and ultimately prove herself  as an intellectual, while also coming to terms with her own identity and her place in the universe.

I suppose she does do all those things, in a roundabout sort of way. But they are not even close to the whole point of the story. However, early on while she is still on her many-month-long space voyage to the university, something happened that I did not in any way expect.

Expand for spoilers

Binti makes new friends, develops a burgeoning crush, and feels the sting of racism from her peers — only to have aliens attack the ship and slaughter everyone on board, friend, crush, and bully alike. Binti only survives because of a mysterious ancient artifact she carries around for good luck, one that will cause her no end of both trouble and triumph as the series progresses. However, she also carries with her a jar of ojitze, a skin-covering substance important to the Himba people. This substance also proves to be beneficial to the Medusae, the invading aliens, and opens the door to finding a diplomatic resolution.

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The rest of the novella is part space opera, part survival horror, as she attempts to both navigate life after tragedy and also make it to school in one piece. I especially liked the fact that, despite the incidents of horrific violence, Binti chooses not to perpetuate the cycle, and instead seeks out peaceful solutions to her problems.

The second short story, Sacred Fire, delves into Binti’s actual time at school, something I think would have felt disappointingly absent if I’d read the trilogy in order as they came out. In this story, she struggles to balance school work with the aftermath of the events of the first novella. She struggles making friends, owing not just to being the only Himba at the university, but being one of very few humans, and, due to the events of the first story, a highly unusual human at that. However, ultimately she finds connection with several other sentient beings at her school.

Binti: Home, as the title suggests, follows Binti back home to her family in Namibia. What is supposed to be just a simple vacation back to Earth to see her family turns into another crisis as relations between the Medusae and the Khoush break down once more. Then, Binti learns something about herself and her background that complicates things even more. I found this to be the most tightly paced novella of the series, and it ended on a rather gut-clenching cliffhanger that left me eager to keep reading.

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up right where Binti: Home left off. Ever the peace maker, Binti tries hard to negotiate a truce between several disparate cultures. But things are a lot more complicated than they once were.

I thought this series of novellas was deeply imaginative and entertaining. I really liked Binti as a character, and appreciated her desire to always do the right thing, even when she knows it’s going to be inconvenient at best and  lead to a major identity crisis at worst.

Binti is, ultimately, a story about coming to terms with who you are and your place in the universe, just not in the ways I originally expected. And not really in the ways Binti expected, either, I imagine.

There were some worldbuilding things I was confused about, but as a white person with very little knowledge of Himba culture, I’m uncertain how much I have right or qualification to critique. So please take what I say with a grain of salt, and if I end up really shoving my foot in it and saying something terribly offensive, feel free to let me know and I will gladly apologize and take it down.

I did wonder at the fact that, while we meet a vibrant and diverse array of aliens, the only humans we meet are the Himba, their neighboring Desert People, and the dominant Arab-inspired Khoush. Almost everyone in space is Khoush. I suppose this might be a call-back to far too many classic sci-fi stories, where everyone is white except for maybe one or two token black or brown people. And I do understand why Okorafor might choose to exclude white people from the narrrative, to help counterbalance that. But one does wonder where are all the Latinx and Asian people in this spacefaring future.

My other critique is linguistic, and therefore I’m even less qualified to make it. But I did think too many names started with the letter O. I have trouble with this in Western settings too — if you’ll forgive me using Twilight as an example, I had the hardest time telling Charlie and Carlisle apart on the page. But while I can critique Charlie and Carlisle all day long, I really don’t feel like I  have the right to critique another culture’s language and naming schemes.

Ojitze is a real thing and a part of Himba culture, so of course I would not  expect her to change the name. I didn’t really see why the tentacle things and her particular alien friend had to also have such similar names, but there might be a good reason. This really could just be ignorance on my part.

Overall I very much enjoyed this series and highly recommend it to anyone who likes space opera and coming-of-age stories.

r/fantasy 2019 Bingo Squares

  • Afrofuturism
  • #Ownvoices
  • Any of the three novellas for SFF novella
  • Sacred Fire counts towards the five short stories
  • Local author if you’re from Nigeria or Chicago
  • Could count as cyberpunk (debatable)
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