Gary K. Wolfe reviews Nnedi Okorafor
Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com 978-0-7653-9311-1, $14.99, 166pp, tp) January 2017.
In one sense, Nnedi Okorafor’s characters are startling originals in SF – women or girls either African or of African descent, deeply aware of their cultural roots and struggling to balance the essential conservatism of tribal traditions with their own dreams of independence and self-sufficiency and with the sort of progressive futures offered through SF. In another, though, these same characters follow a familiar SF template: bright, precocious outsiders in a society that doesn’t fully appreciate them, often with special talents that are destined to help them bring about fundamental changes in that society. From Zahrah the Windseeker with her ‘‘dadalocks’’ through Onyesonwu in Who Fears Death, the Akata Witch, and most recently the Himba mathematical prodigy who defied her society and family to leave home and study at the legendary Oomza University in last year’s Binti, these are figures who share at least some literary DNA with Heinlein’s young heroes, Le Guin’s Ged, or even Van Vogt’s Slan (with their tendrils and psychic powers). In fact, when Binti, as a matter of survival, has her hair replaced by alien tentacles called okuoko in Binti, the result seems much more Slan-like than Medusa-like, even though the mythological reference was underlined by Okorafor’s decision to name her alien species Meduse.
Binti: Home opens about a year after that earlier story began as a quiet coming-of-age story, turned suddenly into a survival adventure, and ended with Binti playing a key role in a kind of revolution. Now she’s one of the few human students at the vast University, her closest friend the Meduse named Okwu who helped slaughter the rest of Binti’s crew in the first volume. Binti: Home lacks the outburst of extreme violence that so radically shifted the tone of the first part, and in fact mostly takes place back on Earth, where Binti returns for her ritual pilgrimage – and perhaps to discover the meaning of the edan, a mysterious and very old metal box which she had found in the desert before leaving for Oomza. Surprisingly, and partly to help her cope with her post-traumatic stress from the earlier story, she chooses to return on the same living spacecraft that brought her to Oomza, and to bring with her Okwu, the Meduse who spared her after the slaughter that had killed everyone else on board. But Binti, already an outsider as the first Himba to leave home for university and later as a rare human student at Oomza, now finds herself an outsider in her home village: people are suspicious of her loyalty, her new tentacles, and especially of Okwu, who becomes the first Meduse to visit the land of the ruling Khoush in peacetime. Her family and her childhood friend Dele are almost brutal toward her, even blaming her for the decline in her father’s health.
When Binti accidentally witnesses a Night Masquerade (an actual ritual), though, her mission on Earth changes. The Desert People, long regarded by the Himba as primitive and possibly neurologically damaged because of their odd arm movements, take her along on a pilgrimage of their own, during which she meets the same tall woman who had confronted her in the desert when she first uncovered her edan. What she learns about the origin of that device, the true nature of the Desert People, her own heritage, and an ancient golden people called the Zinariya, alters her understanding of her own identity in a far more dramatic way than did her alteration at the hands of the Meduse or her year of study at Oomza Uni, and opens up her story in ways that may seem familiar to readers of Okorafor’s earlier tales of self-discovery and empowerment, but that, very satisfactorily, moves Binti’s story far beyond the more conventional space adventure with which it began.