One of the things that keeps me reading Science Fiction is its ability not just to help me imagine possible futures but to look differently at the present. "Binti", which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella, is an excellent example of a new wave of Future-Africa science fiction that is generating vivid and original new futures while giving me access to an African-centric mindset.
For me, though, having a smart idea is not enough to generate outstanding Science Fiction. I also want to see strong, engaging characters that are more than just a mechanism for moving the plot along and I want writing that adds to my enjoyment in its own right.
In "Binti" Nnedi Okorafor delivered all of these things. She gives us a first-person account from a sixteen-year-old math genius who is the first of her people to leave her village and take up a place in the galaxy's leading university. On the way there, bad things happen that place her at the centre of a deadly conflict of cultures that she must find a way of resolving if she is to survive.
The world-building is original and fascinating and done with such skill that, even in something of novella length, it is unobtrusive because our focus is on Binti herself: her pride in her heritage, her love for her family, her need to do math at the highest level, her struggle to leave home, her grief for what is taken from her, her fear of her own imminent death and her courage in choosing a way forward. It is wonderful, compelling stuff.
Along the way, I came to understand that I had never thought of what it is like to be labelled "tribal", to be proud of that tribe, to know clearly that your tribe is part of you and to take comfort in that but to know also that your mind is hungry for more and different. It helped me understand how Euro-centric my thinking is. Not surprising perhaps, they are my tribe after all.
The only criticism I have of the book is the resolution, which felt a little too rational to me, especially considering how many academics were involved in arriving at it.
Still, Nnedi Okorafor is an academic, so perhaps she is better informed than I am or just fundamentally more optimistic.
My enjoyment of the novella was significantly enhanced by Robin Miles' narration.
She gives an outstanding performance as Binti and brought this work to life
Listen to the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of her work
[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/222069018" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]
Watch the video below to hear Nnedi Okorafor's TEDtalk on Future Africa Science Fiction, including a reading from the beginning of "Binti".