Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.
Tom Doherty Associates, Tor, New York, 2015.
Adult sci-fi novella, 96 pages.
NOTE: This is the first book in the Binti trilogy.
Binti is one of the Himba people, noted for their mathematical ability, never leaving their homeland, and for the clay mixture that they use for their skin and hair. She is also the first Himba ever accepted into the home of galactic intellectualism, Oozma University, and she’s decided to attend.
This relatively short book covers only the journey, although she speaks about her home life and decision to apply, so we get a small taste of what her world was before this momentous journey.
If you have even the mildest interest in diverse speculative fiction, I’m sure you’ve already heard of Nnedi Okorafor. The Binti trilogy is especially well-known as it’s won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. The paperback copy I picked up was the 17th printing of a book less than 4 years old. So between the critical acclaim and popular interest, you can probably guess this is a well liked book.
The Himba are a real-life group in Namibia who are indeed known for their unique culture. The Khoush at first confused me. I initially thought that they were another African ethnic group, like the Desert People who are also briefly mentioned. However, by the end of the book I was under the impression that Khoush was simply the Himba word for non-Himba. A quick search for this review, however, led me to this tweet thread by Okorafor. She states “The Khoush are written as clearly Arab as the Himba are clearly black African.”
Initially I pictured most of the Khoush as South Asian, I suspect because I once taught at a school with a large Sikh minority so those families are the faces I picture with turbans. We know far more Muslims, but not all of the women wear hijab and most of the men don’t wear turbans – even when I think of the Arabic Muslims we know, most don’t match with the image in my head while reading. However, with this new information in mind, I will definitely be rereading more closely to see how the Arab depiction fits.
Returning to our heroine – it’s difficult to say much without spoilers, which abound elsewhere on the internet. Suffice it to say that her journey is very eventful both in the mental and emotional struggle of leaving home, and practical, traumatic events that occur. She learns a lot, academically, socially, and about intergalactic relations.
Binti has some of the best alien/space tech descriptions that I’ve ever read, and I suspect they are a large part of why this is so popular. From the giant shrimp-like creature that transports them, to the plastic-y bit of ancient technology she found in the dessert, everything is evocatively but succinctly rendered.
The astrolabe is a special item that gave this almost a steampunk feel, since the description reminded me a bit of an old pocket watch or compass, although it’s probably closer to a modern cell phone. Inside of a special case, the astrolabe is a little bit of everything – telling about a person’s ancestors, life, and future prospects. It gives information, sets alarms, and allows communication through the galaxy. Definitely a step up from LeGuin’s ansible. Making these all-important personalized devices would have been Binti’s life’s work, had she remained among her people.
I frequently forgot that the protagonist was only 16 years old. She’s academically advanced and mature for her age. But there are moments, like her shy glances at a boy she likes, or her stubborn refusal to call her mother, that reminded me.
Although this is short, it’s not a kids book. There’s considerable violence and suffering, which combined with the narrative complexity would lead me to suggest this for teens on up. In particular I’d suggest this for reluctant (but not struggling) teen readers who have an interest in science fiction, or adults who want to try a bit of speculative fiction. At less than a hundred pages, Binti is certainly a quick read but also a gripping one. Highly recommended.