As a fan of Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix, I knew I would read Binti at some point. The more so when the novella won first the Nebula Award and then the Hugo Award a few weeks back. Too bad I never peruse reviews of works I plan on reading, for I would have known that it was a YA science fiction story. I still would have read it, mind you. But I would have gone into it with a different set of expectations.
Weighing in at 96 pages, Binti is a relatively fast read. It's a good little scifi tale, yet it suffers from quite a few shortcomings. Which was disappointing given how talented and original Okorafor can be. Moreover, it makes me wonder how this novella could have garnered such prestigious accolades, as it is the author's weakest work by far that I've read. I mean, Who Fears Death deserved to win the World Fantasy Award. No question. But Binti winning both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards? I'm well aware that the competition is not as fierce in the "best novella" category and I can't vouch for the quality of the other nominees. And yet, in my humble opinion, there were too many plot holes and questionable execution to make Binti an award-winning work of fiction.
Here's the blurb:
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 or 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.
The short fiction format habitually precludes much in terms of worldbuilding, but Okorafor nevertheless managed to write a novella that resounds with depth and shows a lot of potential for a number of sequels. I would have liked to learn more about Binti's ancestry and how her Himba tribe remains an insular minority among the Khoush majority. I would also have liked to learn more about how the Himba became such experts in mathematics, how Harmonizing works, and why they build the best astrolabes. Hopefully future sequels will delve a bit more into these family secrets, for I found the whole concept quite fascinating.
Binti is an engaging protagonist and the author did a wonderful job making readers feel her pain/loss at leaving her family and tribe behind to go study at the distinguished Oomza University. Up until the arrival of the Meduse, I was totally enthralled by this novella. Even though this was a YA offering, it felt as though Okorafor had managed to distill everything that made Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix such memorable reads and inject it into a smaller package, thus making Binti a decidedly powerful read. And then the Meduse show up and everything goes downhill. What at first appeared to be something that would be an emotional and thought-provoking read sadly becomes a simplistic and more or less lackluster work the more the story progresses.
The set-up was about as perfect as can be, which is why seeing things go down toward an ending that felt too easy was such a disappointment. The principal themes explored would have to be self-discovery, self-acceptance, and the respect and acceptance of others. Challenging to say the least, especially given the short fiction format. Then again, if someone could pull it off, it had to be Nnedi Okorafor. The inherent message seems to be to embrace and be proud of who you are, and by the same token respect others and their different perspectives. A beautiful message, to be sure. But the overly simplistic execution lacked substance and unfortunately became YA in both style and tone.
I didn't like how Binti's edan, that strange alien device, became a deus ex machina that first protected her from the Meduse and then allowed her to communicate with them. In addition, I doubt that it's possible for someone to become best friends with the terrorist who murdered not only the guy you liked but everyone else on the spaceship taking you to the university. I mean, anything is possible. But this would require an exploration of the psychological and emotional complexity of such a difficult situation, something that was ignored in this instance. The same thing goes for the people in charge of Oomza University. How they immediately acceded to the Meduse demands without even taking into account that hundreds of their colleagues and students were horribly killed in an atrocious terrorist attack might work well in a Care Bears episode, but it made absolutely no sense in this novella. No grief, no loss, no anger, nothing to show for the mass murder of hundreds of innocent victims. Even worse, they invite one of the terrorists to come study at the university, as if the catastrophe that just took place was nothing to write home about. Finally, it was way too convenient to have Binti's otjize, her clay-based skin and hair treatment, prove to be sort of a cure-all for the Meduse. That the original version could be this potent was okay. But that the new version, the one made from ingredients found on her new home planet, could be as powerful was quite a stretch.
Hence, following a captivating start, Binti failed to live up to what appeared to be its immense potential. As a character, Binti is compelling enough for me to want to read the sequel, Binti: Home. But if Okorafor decides to opt for simplicity instead of complexity, I will realize that this series is simply not for me. And there's nothing wrong with that. Yet there's no denying that Binti could have been so much more. . .