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.
Young Binti is a genius, a daughter of an isolated Namibian tribe that holds itself apart from the world. When she is invited – the first of her people – to take a place at Oomza University, the foremost place of learning in the galaxy, she sneaks out to accept it, knowing her people will disapprove. Although she encounters cultural snobbery (let’s not dress it up: and outright racism) on her travels, she is accepted by her fellow students and thrives until a powerful alien species attacks their transport ship and she must fight for not only her survival, but that of all at the University.
While I never really warmed to the story, Binti’s emotional journey and her physical responses felt authentic, and I had to admire 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 know 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.