Jul 27 2019

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti told the classic science fiction story of a talented young person from the hinterlands — and an outsider from an outsider people in those hinterlands — who gains admission to wider worlds by dint of talent and hard work. Unlike many of those stories, though, Binti’s is interrupted by violence and tragedy even before she has properly settled in among her newfound peers. It’s impossible to talk about Binti: Home without revealing those events and the first of their consequences.

Binti: Home

As Binti: Home opens, she has been at Oomza University for the better part of a year, mostly studying mathematics. She’s exceptional. Much later, readers learn that Binti had been the only student, among many different sentient species, in her intake group who could perform a version of mathematical vision and meditation that the story calls “treeing.” It’s basically visualizing complex mathematical phenomena and multiple levels of their ramifications. She finds it calming, soothing; other students find it nearly impossible to do at all. (The protagonist of The Calculating Stars has a similar relationship with numbers and equations.)

In the novella’s first scene, treeing during a session with her math professor leads Binti into a deeper trance in which her edan, a mysterious artifact that she found in the desert when she was about nine, opens its triangular plates to reveal a golden ball within and Binti herself has a conversation with a voice that “spoke in the dialect of my family and … came from everywhere.” It asks her name and insists that there is more than she says, implying that it knows more about her than she does herself. Binti falls out of the trance, shaken, and unaccountably angry. Her professor says that she has only heard of someone doing that with an edan, never seen it done. Even among the interstellar collection of bright students at Oomza Uni, Binti continues to stand out.

The academic year is winding down, though, and Binti has decided to return to Earth during the break. She is a bit more changed than the average first-year university student, though. Surviving the attack that killed everyone else on her incoming transport meant that Binti incorporated part of the attackers, the Meduse, into herself. Her hair has been replaced by okuoko tentacles that the Meduse also have as part of their jellyfish-like bodies. She is also in mental contact with the Meduse, particularly a fellow student, Okwu, who has become one of her few friends at the university. She has incorporated her attackers into her body, and the story implies that she is becoming like them in other ways as well.

Binti is also feeling more lost than the average first-year student. Her people on Earth, the Himba, do not travel. Where others journey outward, the Himba go inward, or at least so everyone tells her. She could not have stayed and been true to herself, but the break with tradition weighs on her. “I’m unclean because I left home, I thought. If I go home and complete my pilgrimage, I will be cleansed. The Seven will forgive me and I’ll be free of this toxic anger.”

When Okwu says he will come too, Binti is skeptical. The landing area is in the lands of the Khoush, deadly enemies of the Meduse, though a peace treaty currently governs relations. Okwu says he will come in peace as an ambassador of his people, and Binti begins to see opportunities. “A harmonizer harmonized. Bringing Okwu in peace in the land of the people its people had fought would be one of the ten good deeds [Binti’s professor] had insisted I perform within the academic cycle as part of being a good Math Student. It would also count as the Great Deed I was to do in preparation for my pilgrimage.”

The first third of Binti: Home is the story of the journey back, so very different from her journey to Oomza, though it takes place on the very same ship. (Ships in Binti’s universe are alive, and the one she traveled in was due to give birth to a new ship not long after their arrival on Earth.) The rest is about what happens shortly after she returns home. Their reception is marred by someone taking a shot at Okwu, which nearly leads to an immediate battle, only stopped by Binti’s heartfelt intervention. Those efforts reveal her okuoko, leading some of the Himba to wonder just what has become of her. “Maybe she’s its wife,” someone says. Another person present takes the opportunity to sneer at the Himba, saying Binti shows why they shouldn’t be allowed to leave Earth.

Though she is relieved to be home and among her family, there harmony she craves is not to be found. She has behaved selfishly by leaving, some relatives say. No man will want to marry her now. Her father cannot pass the store on to her as he had planned. In his age, he has to work harder because she has left to go study. Her best friend from childhood thinks she has done the wrong thing by leaving. To make matters worse, the disparaged Desert People arrive and her grandmother, who is one of them, insists on taking her into the hinterlands with them. More of the Himba whisper about Binti bringing the outside inside. In the desert, she experiences still more ways that things are not always what they seem.

Binti: Home is very much a middle book, and I am glad that I did not have to wait for the publication of Binti: The Night Masquerade. Presumably Binti has been learning at Oomza Uni, but Binti: Home drives home the truth behind the cliche of admissions brochures, that the most important learning takes place outside the classroom. Binti learns more about herself and about the people near and dear to her. She learns quite a bit more about her heritage, about the truth of the people the Himba look down on, just as the Khoush look down on the Himba. None of that will make her eventual reintegration with the Himba any easier, but it does make Binti truer to herself. Any resolution is deferred until Binti: The Night Masquerade.

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