I thought that Lagoon would be the first book I read by Nnedi Okorafor. Or maybe The Book of Phoenix, which a friend had strongly recommended. Turns out the first was Binti, one of a new line of novellas published electronically and on paper by Tor.com. I have it on paper, courtesy of a surprisingly well stocked airport bookstore at Chicago’s O’Hare.
“Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.”
There is a Himba people in northern Namibia, as Okorafor notes in her acknowledgments, and the customs that Binti describes as belonging to her people closely parallel the present-day Himba, translated to a different time and setting — one with interstellar travel and a galactic university.
Binti tells her own story; at the outset she is sixteen, and about to run away. “… I had scored so high on the planetary exams in mathematics that Oomza University had not only admitted me, but promised to pay for whatever I needed to attend. No matter what choice, I was never going to have a normal life, really.” In the first scene, she is fiddling with a transporter, a small lifting device (Micro-antigravity? It’s never explained, only shown) to carry her personal belongings so that she may leave her home undetected, in the middle of the night. From the desert setting, the run-down device, the fervent desire to leave home, it could be Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie. Except, of course, for every personal detail about the two characters.
That is one of the things that Okorafor is doing with this short, but by no means slight, tale. She is taking the universal story of leaving home to discover the wide world, the science fictional story of escaping a backwater province of a backwater world to head to the big time of interstellar institutions, and telling it through the eyes of someone who is a young woman, who is black, whose ancestry is not the best among her own people (she alludes to a grandparent from the “Desert People,” about whom some stigma is attached), and whose people are looked down on by essentially all of their neighbors. Some of the neighbors, the Khoush, also depend on and covet technological objects that Binti’s family makes; this relationship of dependence and disdain is surely not a coincidence.
In her brief journey to the spaceport, she encounters whispers and pointing, people who want to touch her hair to see if it is real, disapproval. But people being people, not everyone is mean.
When [the officer, an old Khoush man] finished, he looked up at me with his bright green piercing eyes that seemed to see deeper into me than his scan of my astrolabe. There were people behind me and I was aware of their whispers, soft laughter and a young child murmuring. It was cool in the terminal, but I felt the heat of social pressure. My temples ached and my feet tingled.
“Congratulations,” he said to me in his parched voice, holding out my astrolabe.
I frowned at him, confused. “What for?”
“You are the pride of your people, child,” he said, looking me in the eye. … He’d just seen my whole life. He knew of my admission into Oomza Uni. (pp. 14–15)
The next stage is also straight from classic science fiction.
The ship was packed with outward-looking people who loved mathematics, experimenting, learning, reading, inventing, studying, obsessing, revealing. The people on the ship weren’t Himba, but I soon understood that they were still my people. I stood out as a Himba, but the commonalities shined brighter. I made friends quickly. And by the second week in space, they were good friends. (pp. 21–22)
Danger erupts suddenly into this idyll, before Binti has properly had a chance to find herself among those people who are her people. The rest of the book’s 90 pages are about how she tries to survive the danger, and works to salvage something from the carnage. It’s fast-paced and gripping, but also a reminder of how horrible many adventures portrayed in science fiction and fantasy would be to most people.
There’s a depth, too, a point in showing what Binti has to do to survive, where power lies and what she, a young Himba woman, has to do and become when she encounters hostile power in its rawest form. When I first read through the book, my one complaint would have been that she seemed to make the changes too readily, to adapt too easily. But maybe “seemed” is doing an awful lot of work in that sentence, maybe even doing a lot of awful work. Something to keep thinking about.