N is for Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
A friend sent me a copy of BINTI as a gift last Christmas. Both of us were looking to support more Black creators, and since this novella had won several awards, it seemed like a good story to pick up.
BINTI is an Africanfuturist science fiction horror novella about the titular character, Binti, a Himba girl who is the first of her people to be accepted to the prestigious Oomsa University elsewhere in the Milky Way. She gives up her traditional life to travel on a spaceship to Oomsa, but along the way, the ship is attacked and taken over by the jellyfish-like Medusae. The Medusae kill everyone but Binti, and their next target is Oomsa University, where their chief’s stinger is on display in a museum. Using a mysterious piece of technology called an edan, Binti acts as a go-between for the Medusae and Oomsa University and manages to negotiate the safe return of the stinger without loss of life.
Before I really start on my review, I just need to say off the top that I did not enjoy this novella. There were a lot of elements that didn’t work for me, even though I really wish they did.
I had a hard time with Okorafor’s style, especially in the first half of the novella. Events would go from the present, to Binti explaining her culture, to random events in the past, back to the present – the narrative was constantly bouncing around. For example, when the ship is attacked, an extremely dramatic moment that will change Binti’s life forever, the narrative is told in a very broken way, with Binti jumping around from the event itself, to the weeks leading up to it, to her running out of the room, back to when the Medusae first attacked…it would have been much more impactful if it had been told straight through. Additionally, every two to three pages there would be a section break that implied time had passed, but not how much. Sometimes these breaks would be between a long section about culture or history and the present, a stylistic choice that seemed like a lot of telling and very little showing. I would much rather have seen the info integrated into the story, revealed slowly within the narrative.
The second half of the novella flowed better with little interruption, although for me this was when the suspension of disbelief became far too much. There were just so many coincidences that centered on Binti: she found an edan – a mysterious piece of technology – in the desert several years previously and she never figured out how to use it until the Medusae attacked, at which point she realized it could be used as a translation device. Somehow the edan protects her from the Medusae – they say that the edan is “shame,” but that’s never explained. It’s also referred to as a godstone, but again, no explanation. Later in the novella, when Binti has to give up the edan, she somehow is still able to understand the Medusae. She says it’s because she’s a “master harmonizer,” but never explains what that means. At one point it's said that her father passed down this oral tradition to her about circuits, currents, and math, but what that means for harmonizing is...unknown. Then there’s the otjize, a mixture of clay and oil that Binti’s people coat their hair and skin with. For Binti, it’s a part of her cultural identity. For the Medusae, however, it has magic healing powers, although the reader never finds out why. Somehow Binti is stung by one of the Medusae and grows tentacles from her head like hair, but again, it’s not explained. There were simply too many coincidences and questions left unanswered.
There was also a lot of repetition that seemed wholly unnecessary. The reader never gets to know Binti’s friends – there are six of them – but their names are recited over and over, as if they mean something to the reader. When Binti learns she can understand the Medusae with the edan, the Medusae ask her over and over “How do you understand us?” and her answer is always, “I don’t know.” And because she doesn’t know, the reader doesn’t know. That never changes. There's no info that lets the reader figure it out before Binti does, so why have this question be asked so many times? If Binti suddenly understood, she’s the type of character who would volunteer that information. She repeats how important otjize is to her, but that information had been given to the reader many times already and I started to wonder if Okorafor thought the reader wouldn’t be paying attention.
The pacing was both too fast and too slow in turns. This could have been better as a stripped-down version and turned into a short story – toss all that needless repetition and just start with the Medusae attacking the ship – or fleshed out into a full novel, where at least there would have been better space to introduce other characters and see more of Binti’s friends, family, and journey. Binti mentions that she’s received a lot of messages from her family back on Earth, but we never find out what they say. She says she’s a master harmonizer, but we don’t know what that entails. She repeats the names of her friends so many times, but we don’t know them. Even the ending dragged on, going through Binti’s process of applying otjize to herself yet again – we know how this works already – then her having to find clay to make more once she runs out.
Binti is clearly clever and wise, able to come up with a way to save herself and Oomsa University and appease the Medusae. She is scared and alone, and those feelings are made clear. The best I can say for it is that Binti is a relatable, realistic character in a story that felt new. This novella won several awards, including a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award, so clearly there’s something about it that other readers liked that just totally went over my head.
Have you read BINTI? What did you think of it?