The list of books I’d recommend to someone who wants to start reading sci-fi has now ben updated, with this tale from a master storyteller telling a different kind of sci-fi story.
Eighty-two pages. That’s the total length of one of the most lauded and recommended sci-fi novellas of our times, the Hugo and Nebula-winning, Binti by Naijamerican author, Nnedi Okorafor who’s been hailed as one of the freshest, most original voices in contemporary SF.
So who is Binti, and what makes her tale so special?
A young African girl living in the very far future, Binti is the first person of the Himba people to be offered an opportunity to be a student at the most prestigious – and picky – educational institute in the galaxy, Oomza University. No mean feat considering that none amongst her people has stepped out of their village, let alone the planet. But going to Oomza Uni means having to leave her world behind, and by that I mean her family, her people, her home, at a time when she has been chosen to be her father’s successor – for her prodigious mathematical prowess, and skill as a ‘harmoniser’.
Torn, she decides to leave, carrying her land proudly on her skin in the form of otjize, taking along her astrolabe (a multi-functional device that also stores all information about a person, including possible futures), her edan (a mysterious and ancient artefact of alien technology) – and most importantly, her culture and her home. Not just is the outside world unfamiliar to her, she is just as unfamiliar to the world outside – an oddity, both on earth and off-planet. As she boards the living starship – shrimp-class, which gets pregnant later – little does she know what awaits her. Because her interstellar travel is interrupted, most traumatically, by the Meduse, a violent jellyfish-like alien race that is at war with humanity, and most specifically with the Khoush, the same community that has long oppressed her people. Binti must now draw upon the strength of her people and culture, her own wisdom and skill, to bring harmony, if she has any hope of ever studying at the Uni.
Binti is all about synthesis and harmony. Understanding that each has their own place in the world, and of making peaceful connections. Not just between peoples, but between science and spirituality, the ancient and modern, nature and technology. And at the core of it all is its questioning of what truly constitutes ‘home’, of belonging, of being, and of culture. What makes this story special is that this is a different kind of sci-fi, evolved from a different line of ancestors, and seeped in the culture that birthed it. A culture that is not western, American or European. People who come from a land with centuries of culture and various traditions will surely appreciate Binti. For a while now, the list of books I’d recommend to someone who wants to get into reading sci-fi hadn’t been updated. It has been now, with the addition of this book. It helps a lot of course, that it has been written by a master storyteller.
During my Q&A with Bruce Sterling, he’d said speaking about SF in/from India, words that are applicable here as well, that “We want to be seen like this” is propaganda which belongs in the embassy or the ad agency. ‘This is us’ – that’s a contribution to world culture”. And this description fits Binti like a glove, for it is a contribution to world culture, in its portrayal and depiction of African heritage that it wears proudly on its sleeve.
Binti’s story continues with the sequel set a year later, Binti: Home that sees her return to Earth as hero, wondering if she still has a home, as more shattering revelations about her people, and her own self, confront her until she finds herself in the middle of conflict again, and concludes with the grand finale, Binti: The Night Masquerade.
To say any more would be to give out spoilers, but here’s a great summary of the trilogy from the author herself:
Book 1: African girl leaves home.
Book 2: African girl comes home.
Book 3: African girl becomes home.
Read Binti, and you’d be hard-pressed to stop yourself from getting yourself the sequel post-haste. One piece of advice though, if you’re about to finish Book 2, make sure you have the third book within reach because the second one ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger.
Like the first book, the two sequels too are novellas, with both clocking in at less than 200 pages each. And therein lies one of the other big charms of the books: none of them overstays their welcome. Three novellas, three story arcs in three distinct segments, and when you’re done with the whole trilogy, you realise that it is much more than the sum of its parts. Okorafor’s mastery of her craft – she’s a full Professor of Creative Writing & Literature after all – means an economy of words that delivers big thought-provoking ideas in bite-sized novellas, which a lesser writer might’ve turned into a doorstopper tome. Okorafor’s prose is simple, evocative, and the ample sub-text does not weigh the books down in any fashion, making Binti a galloping read, but one that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Little wonder then, that it won a clutch of literary awards, apart from the Hugo and the Nebula. And now, you have a chance to win this amazing book, Binti, with the New Worlds Weekly giveaway!
The original title and the name of the girl was Bint, which simply means ‘girl’ or ‘daughter’ in Arabic. But given its racist, and negative connotations, Okorafor changed it to ‘Binti’ which also means ‘daughter’ in more than one language, including Swahili. So, here’s the question you have to answer to win one of two copies of Binti (yes, we’re giving away 2 copies!):
Which familiar Indian name – though popularly used as an epithet for a goddess – specifically just means ‘daughter’, just as Binti does. Clue? It’s derived from a Sanskrit root word that means ‘celebration, delight’ thus giving this name the connotation of one who is the cause of celebration, as a daughter who brings joy to the family. Also the name of a few brands which should be familiar to many.
Since you wouldn’t want someone copying your answer/entry, instead of publicly posting, send in your answers via DM to me at @thebekku (on Twitter), via FB Messenger to tgshenoy, or if you’d prefer, mail your answer to tgshenoy [at] gmail. Send in your entries before midnight of Friday, 23rd February, and you never know, you could be one of 2 people who win a copy of Binti.
All the best, and…Live Long and Prosper!