Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
‘None of you have ever seen anyone like me,’ I said. ‘I come from a people who live near a small salty lake on the edge of a desert. On my people’s land, fresh water, water humans can drink, is so little that we do not use it to bathe as so many others do. We wash with otjize, a mix of red clay from our land and oils from our local flowers.’
Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti (2015) is easily the most decorated of the Tor novellas, having won the Hugo and the Nebula, and having been nominated for the BSFA, BFA and Locus awards besides. It’s easy to see why. Binti is a wondrously original space opera, a coming of age story about balancing tradition with the future and the power of communication.
The novella is the story of Binti, a sixteen-year-old girl who is the first of the Himba people to be offered a place at Oomza University, the most prestigious university in the galaxy. She travels against the will of her family, amongst people to whom her culture is unknown and not respected. However while she is adjusting to her new life, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, a race of jellyfish-like aliens with a grudge against Oomza Uni, and Binti has to use all of her wits and insights to save her own life and prevent interstellar war.
At its heart Binti is a coming of age story. In order to follow her dream, Binti must defy the expectations of her family. However it is through the connection she retains to her cultural heritage, and the lessons she has learned from her parents, that she is able to save the day. The Himba people are fascinated by technology and innovation, but their belief in the sacredness of the earth means they have had little interest in venturing into space. Binti shares her skill as a harmonizer, able to mediate between spirituality, humanity and electricity, with her father. She inherited her gifts for mathematics and skills for visualising complex equations from her mother. In order to overcome her obstacles and achieve her dream of studying at Oomza Uni, Binti has to learn to become her own person by combining her people’s culture and her parents’ gifts with her own drive, ambition and insight. Only in this way can she achieve self-discovery.
Okorafor masterfully pulls these strands together in a narrative that champions the power of diversity and communication between different peoples. The Meduse, with their frightening appearance and their killer stingers, at first appear to be nothing more than a menacing alien threat. However, Binti’s expertise with technology allows her to activate the edan, an ancient piece of forgotten technology she found in the desert which acts as a translator. This allows her and the Meduse to talk with each other, to begin to recognise the signs of intelligence and awareness in all sentient species in each other despite all their differences.
Her skill as a harmonizer and her empathy allow her to negotiate with the Meduse and to come up with a plan that will get them what they want, save her life and prevent further bloodshed. However it is her heritage which provides her with the first opportunity to build a bridge between these different peoples. Her otjize, the sacred clay worn on the skin of her people, turns out to have the ability to heal injured Meduse. Using it to heal the tentacle of Okwu, a young headstrong Meduse not unlike Binti in character, allows him and Binti to form a bond through which mutual trust and friendship can develop.
Okorafor’s novella serves as a powerful portrayal of belonging to a different culture than your peers. Binti is an intelligent and sociable young woman who instantly finds her place amongst her fellow students with their shared passion for mathematics and insatiable curiosity about the universe. However the students and crew of the ship are Khoush, and initially they find her customs and clothing strange. This is felt even more strongly at the launch port, where the Khoush majority look down on Binti because of her background.
Even after arriving at Oomza Uni, Binti must face the patronising attitudes of the alien academics, who have never met anyone from her people before. Okorafor deftly portrays Binti’s frustration at this. The Himba are wrongly viewed as having no interest in progress, despite their love of technology and their abilities with mathematics, simply because their bond with the land they live on means they have no interest in space travel; they are viewed as dirty because they wash with otjize rather than water, despite this making a lot of practical sense in a desert society. Okorafor highlights the arrogance and ignorance behind preconceptions like these, and the characters in the novella soon learn their error in underestimating Binti’s intelligence and capability.
In addition, Binti does not skimp on more traditional space opera thrills. In its short word count, the novella finds time for wonderfully imaginative aliens, spaceships and technology. The spaceship Binti travels in is a living ship engineered from the genetic base of a shrimp, with hydroponic chambers to recirculate the air and the ability to shed and regrow its skin following the heat trauma of atmospheric entry. Oomza Uni campus contains different bio domes for the vast array of different life forms studying there. Okorafor imagines a galactic community of which humans only play a small part – the human intake for Oomza Uni is 5 %, and all the academics and professors she meets appear to be various different alien species.
At its heart, Binti is about this meeting of various different cultures in the pursuit of knowledge. Okorafor knows that every culture has something special and unique to bring to the table, and that communication can happen across any cultural border as long as the people meet each other with curiosity and empathy.
This review appeared on Fantasy-Faction on February 6, 2017