Why hello there, bloggity! I have a little review for you! Today, I’m reviewing Nnedi Okorafor’s novella, Binti, which I read and enjoyed. There will necessarily be spoilers, because I don’t think I can talk about this without them.
Binti is SF, set in a future where Earth is one of many planets that have interstellar travel. Our protagonist, Binti, is from a Namibian group of people called Himba, who live in a desert area and are known to use a mixture of clay and flower oils on their skin and hair called otjize. (Water is scarce, the climate is hot, and it’s a way to take care of their skin. This part is not fiction, the Himba people do this.) Binti’s family are talented mathematicians who do something called harmonizing. They make harmony through math, is the best I can tell. I’m not sure I entirely understand how it works, but I was willing to go with it. Binti’s family, and the people as a whole, do not leave home, or their land. But Binti has been accepted into an interstellar university, and she decides to leave home against everyone’s wish.
She feels lonely and alone and mocked at first, but she starts to make friends, human and otherwise, on the (living, which is neat) space ship that is taking her to the university.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
The ship is attacked by a group of sentient creatures called Meduse. Binti is able to survive using an artifact she found near her home, that she doesn’t understand, but everyone else around her is slaughtered. She makes her way to her room and locks herself in, terrified and grieving. After a few days, she uses math and the artifact to communicate with the Meduse. She learns they think humans are barely sentient, and that they have come to use the ship to get into the university to attack it and regain something that was taken from them. One of the Meduse who is injured touches Binti’s skin with the otjize on it, and is healed. They want the otjize, but she’s only made so much for her journey, and a Himba without otjize is naked and not Himba anymore, so she doesn’t want to lose it. Binti calls on her Himba and harmonizer heritage to try to negotiate with the Meduse to save both them and herself, and the people of the university. She is irrevocably changed in the process.
This story is fascinating and compelling in many ways, although I found a lot that would kick me out of it. I didn’t understand about the math so much, and I’m not certain how much of that is that it’s math, and how much is that it is only explained so far. (Although, if it were explained, would it be relevant to the story? So there’s that.) I just kept shunting it to the “math = magic” part of my brain, and let most of it go. I found some of the writing style to be not as engaging for me personally as I usually like, but that’s a style preference, not a writing issue, and I liked the concepts, and the characters. Binti as a character is very compelling, but I found I didn’t understand about a lot of the world building around her. I’m used to some of that in any fantasy/science fiction story, because worlds are often half-explained and the reader has to extrapolate. But the living space ship and the math as harmony and the number of alien technologies were coming fast and furious and I didn’t quite feel like I had a good grasp on all of it. It felt like it needed more story to get all of those disparate parts in. But I still really enjoyed the story, so I think it’s partly my own preferences for a novel-length work that makes me feel that way. I just wanted more information, and felt like there wasn’t time to get it.
So, basic tl:dr for those who wanted to skip all of the spoilers – Binti is a very intense storyline in a compact package, with a lot of high concept world building that is mostly off screen, so you have to be willing to go with the flow. The character of Binti is wonderful, and I wish I’d had a bit longer with her. I want to know more about the universe that Okorafor built, and more about how Binti is going to fit into it. But it’s not an easy read, although it is a quick one.
Post title is from Dar William’s “Mark Rothko’s Song”