A fellow teacher and avid reader decided to do a reading challenge last year for books that could be nominated and voted on for the Hugo Awards. It got me thinking that I should check out the (at the time) current list to get some ideas about what to read. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, which I made mention of here, immediately caught my eye. It was one of the winners the award for Best Novella in 2016, and with good reason.
Binti is the first in a series that Okorafor is working on centering on a girl of sixteen, named Binti. Set in the future where space-faring is a thing and humans still cling to traditions and prejudices and anger in the face of progress and co-existing with aliens. It’s an interesting juxtaposition – having grown up on Star Trek, the best envisioning of humans shedding money and prejudice for a peaceful society, that attitude is a bit pervasive when I approach new sci-fi books. It’s nice to see books, such as this, where humans still struggle with some of the same things we do currently – but with aliens and technology.
Binti is also the titular character. This is her story. It is, very humanly, a story of her yearning to be more than what social structures demand of her. She runs away from home at 16 to leave her tribe, the Himbi, her village, Africa, and even earth to travel to Oomza Uni to become one of only 5% humans studying at a higher level. She was able to be accepted in part because of her education regarding math and harmonizing, taught to her by her father. It’s a unique way of being able to use math and numbers to help bring harmony to any situation.
The biggest thing about her skills here is that she was the only one of her tribe to go and was surrounded by the Khoush the entire flight – the enemy tribe, the one that considers hers to be inferior and weird and way too insular. The way the characters interacted with each other given their prejudices and being forced together on a long trip gave way to a very natural development of each one of them. She utilized her skills to make the trip easier until catastrophe struck. When the ship came up against the Meduse, an enemy race, again she became utterly alone and had to, again, utilize her harmonizing training. Binti, each Khoush, and each Meduse were confronted with their anger and prejudices and having to adjust to having their worldviews altered.
It isn’t easy on Binti to have to feel utterly alone twice to drive the point home that she was meant to bring harmony and is forever changed by the experiences of leaving home and experiencing trauma. However, it certainly shows the extension of harmonizing between fellow humans, as she was trained to do, furthered to harmonizing with incredibly different, war-like aliens who look and speak and thinking nothing like humans.
That there is a blend of a female lead who is full of uncertainty, natural curiosity, brilliance, desire to do good, desire to bring harmony, and to be more than she was brought up to be, and succeeding is one hundred percent appealing. And, it’s set in the future, and there’s math, and a world where no detail is left unattended, is delightful. As a novella, it is a bit too short given how good it is. The best part is that there are sequels!