Binti: The Complete Trilogy
Binti, from a desert-dwelling Namibian clan, has been accepted to Oomza Uni – a prestigious inter-alien university, but far from home. On the way, disaster falls – she’s right in the middle of a long-standing feud between the human Koush and the alien Meduse.
I’m both an idealist and a cynic. I’m an idealist in that I think things can get better, and that both individual and concerted effort can make that happen. I’m a cynic in that I don’t believe most people will make that effort, and that group decisions are not often focused on net benefit.
But you came here for a book review, not a philosophy discussion. Well, here’s where the cynicism comes in. In my experience, ‘popular’ doesn’t have much overlap with good. So, when I hear the SFF community enthusing about the next great writer, I don’t rush out to buy their book. More often than not, it’s not that great.
I’ve been hearing Nnedi Okorafor’s name for quite some time. Because I’m cynical about popular wisdom, I didn’t pay much attention. Still, sometimes I’m wrong, so when NetGalley offered this book, I took up my chance to read it. I’m glad I did.
This isn’t the best book I’ve ever read. In fact, it has many flaws. The punctuation is often odd, the structure is clunky (even allowing for it being an agglomeration of several stories), the world is a bit vague, and the characters aren’t perfect. What it is, though, is innovative. Binti is a great example of SFF diversity at its best. Its ill-defined world is centered on astrolabes that somehow function as both smartphones and contain a person’s future, where an understanding of math allows one to generate and control electric currents. It’s odd and fuzzy, but interesting. And, of course, Binti’s own culture is of a type we rarely see in SFF, which is refreshing.
And here’s the other side of the philosophy – Binti herself is a relentless idealist. Every now and then, Okorafor seems to forget and allow Binti to throw a tantrum, but they’re so out of character that I tended to write them off as editing failures. The other characters have similar out-of-character moments, but by and large they’re clearly defined. The world itself is similarly off-kilter – Binti’s people are all about nature and harmony, but also eating other creatures alive and wearing silk; their morals (and Binti’s own) are all over the place. There are limited consequences for even terrible acts against groups, but actions with mild effects on individuals are treated as serious. Prejudice against Binti’s group is bad, but her own group’s prejudices – well, that’s the way people are (though I give Okorafor some credit for at least acknowledging them). Binti forms a bond with another person late in the book, but it’s somehow never in question that her own desires will win out. The science is thin, there are altogether too many handy coincidences, and some bits slip over into magic. Some things – like ‘deep’ everything – are barely explained. In short, some of the worldbuilding is sloppy and simplistic – but it is novel, and that carries a lot of weight.
I’m not sure why these pieces were published separately, since they’re clearly part of a single narrative that forms only a moderate-length novel. In fact, had they been published as a single novel, they might have worked better. Despite the book’s flaws, I was expecting to give it 4 stars for innovation and character; until nearly the end – the end of the last story pretty much falls apart, with one long sequence that is largely pointless. While Okorafor takes a casual stab at wrapping up, the close fairly shouts out “I expect to write more about Binti! This is just a convenient stopping point.” It doesn’t really work for the story or the collection, and left me disappointed. The first three stories in the collection (and there are four, so ‘trilogy’ is a misnomer) are innovative. The fourth is more of a holding zone. All in all, though, Binti offers the kind of fresh outlook we could use more of.
06 May 2019 Science fiction | Nnedi Okorafor |