Binti by Nnedi Okorafor is, at its core, a fantastic blend of a coming-of-age story by way of scary interstellar journeys and new friendships that overcome prior prejudice. The fact that it is a short story means that there’s a lot going on in a short amount of time – which Okorafor does a really great job with, but at the same time, the reader can be left with wanting more. There are certain aspects of the story that beg questions left unanswered. For those who love reading full-length novels with plenty of world-building, this could be rather annoying. On the flip side, this kind of teasing adds little details that enrich the story and provide a means for the reader to let our imaginations run wild.
Given the shortness of the story, character development clearly has to be quick. Binti, the main character, shows us a society rife with oppressive, prejudicial attitudes, mostly directed at her because of her tribal affiliation and, more broadly, towards humans.She is able to be the sole ambassador for both her tribe and for humanity to overturn these attitudes and this is the means through which she develops as a character. She is able to feel comfortable in her skin because of this role and because of the pride instilled in her by her family. Her confidence in her mathematical and musical skills ends up helping her gain a more thorough confidence in herself.
As lovely as it is to see her transformative experience and character development, there are only snippets of other characters’ development. This can make it more powerful to see, but also gives us such a narrow glimpse into their development. Again, this can be a positive given that it’s a short story, but a negative for those who prefer delving deep. Character development outside of Binti’s self-growth is shown only in snapshots. Most of this is seen through her eyes, including the character development of groups of people: the human oppressors of Binti’s ethnic group and the scary, nearly mythical aliens, the Meduse. Each interaction Binti has with other people, whether on a one-on-one or group level, exposes what the world is like much more than it shines a light on the character development of anyone other than Binti. If society can be treated as a character, the development of it as such is highlighted this way and is done very effectively. Okwe, one of the Meduse, is the only other character who nears the level of individual character development that Binti does, in that we see motivation and change in him for better or for worse.
The Himba, Binti’s ethnic group, are ostracized by nearly every human group, but especially the Khoush. Binti is traveling from Earth to a university a 20-day journey in space away. The Meduse are the boogeymen of the galaxy and no one intends to see one – only tell scary stories of them. The parallels of her forging friendship with first the Khoush and then the Meduse bring the personal to the global and even to the galactic levels of peacemaking over war.
The storyline moves quite seamlessly and is engaging enough that it is difficult to put down. The story is easily read in a couple hours at most, which is rather nice. In the age of highly-detailed fantasy sagas, it is a breath of fresh air to read such an engaging, quick story. Even so, there are two or three spots that could have used a little more fleshing out, whether it’s world-building or background knowledge, for a clearer picture of the plot. It isn’t that there are any glaring holes, because there aren’t, only that there are places that could benefit from a bit of additional detail.
Overall, this is a must-read for any fan of Science Fiction. It is also great for those looking for diversity as it is a woman of color writing a story featuring a black female protagonist. The message of compassion and communication to change people’s minds, to avert bloodshed and to use one’s difference and knowledge and otherness to build bridges to cross-cultural understanding is one worth reading in this space journey.