Young Binti is a genius, a daughter of a Namibian tribe that is isolated by choice. When she is invited – first of her people – to take a place at Oomza Uni, the foremost place of learning in the galaxy, she sneaks away to accept it. But she’s about to learn there’s more to be feared in the galaxy than her people’s disapproval…
Devoted to her people and their traditions, Binti knows she’s going to be given a hard time by her fellow students. She’s not wrong – from the start, she encounters cultural snobbery (let’s not dress it up: and outright racism), but her academic gifts help her to win acceptance by her peers. She’s beginning to thrive when a powerful alien species attacks the University transport ship and Binti finds herself fighting for not only her survival, but that of all at Oomza Uni…
I tend to like lush, rich prose that envelops me as a reader and sucks me in emotionally. There’s none of that here, Okorafor writing sparsely – almost clinically in places – with a detachment that echoes the themes of social isolation and (literal) alienation.
While I never really warmed to the story, Binti’s emotional journey and her physical responses felt authentic, and I admired her perseverance. Her realisation that [spoiler – mouse over to read] she has excluded herself from even her own people – both by her decision to go to Oomza and by the consequences of her association with the Meduse – was an emotional beat I wasn’t expecting, and is a heart-breaking conclusion for a story that revolves around being an outsider (although the story ends on an upward beat).
SPOILERS (mouse over to read)
Her adoption by Okwu also balances this out, although (inevitably) I was a little dismayed by a plot point that essentially makes physical penetration and physical/chemical change without (informed) consent an acceptable action. I don’t think Okorafor was trying to draw analogies to rape or medical ethics here, and it’s worth noting that the action is in no way sexual – but both parallels are there, not least as Okwu is male and in a position of power (which did at least have me read up on whether jellyfish have separate genders: yes, they do). So, err, awkward. But hey, it all works out okay, right? …except for that bit where we’re genuinely unclear at the end of the story whether her family will ever talk to her again now she has alien hair. On the other hand, cool alien hair and saving the world (which is clearly not helping social integration – talk about mixed blessings).
This is a story about doing the right thing regardless of the personal costs, which doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that it’s a personal choice – and that not everyone may share your perspective. Binti knows her decision to leave home will be considered selfish by her family; all the consequences that come from that only increase the gulf she will need to overcome to repair those relationships (if indeed she can). Put this firmly in the context of elites / majorities finding themselves beholden to someone they would rather look down on and this is a very long way indeed from your typical teen / YA story about using your innate awesomeness to become a big gorram hero.
It’s good stuff (in spite of my minor reservation), but it doesn’t leave me rushing to pick up Lagoon, which I’ve had my eye on for some time.