Why haven’t you read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor yet? Don’t have time? It’s a novella; it will take you an afternoon; read Binti while you are deciding what book to start next. You already have your favorite authors? Diversify yourself. The fantasy/sci-fi genre is full of talented white men, it can only become richer with more authors like Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor. You’re picky? I’m recommending it! Plus, it won the Hugo and Nebula awards. (You know, if that’s more meaningful or something.) Then read Home and The Night Masquerade too.
Binti is the name of the main character who is the first of her people to be accepted to and attend Oomza University, the foremost learning center in the galaxy. The university has had other humans before (about 3% of its population) but never from the Himba tribe in Africa where women cover otjizi (a mix of clay and oil) over their skin and braids. This aspect of her physicality is an important part of the plot, and I loved it.
“My tribe is obsessed with innovation and technology, but it is small, private, and, as I said, we don’t like to leave Earth. We prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward. No Himba has ever gone to Oomza Uni. So me being the only one on the ship was not that surprising. However, just because something isn’t surprising doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with.”
All three books, Binti, Home, and The Night Masquerade, deal with the meaning of home, fitting in, and knowing who you are. The setting is Earth hundreds of years in the future, after a horrible war between the Khoush (a power-hungry group of humans) and Meduse (an aggressive jellyfish-like race of alien.) Although the Himba tribe had nothing to do with the war, its effects threaten Binti, all the students at the university, and eventually the planet Earth. The trilogy follows Binti as she goes from Earth to the university and back again, but is radically changed in many ways that keep her from feeling at home anywhere.
“For a moment, I was two people- a Himba girl who knew her history very well and a Himba girl who’d left Earth and become part-Meduse in space.”
Culture is rich and varied in this series, unlike most sci-fi novels where each planet seems to have one kind of culture or at most two. In Binti, we meet three different kinds of Earth culture from just one small section of the planet, along with so many incredibly diverse aliens. Okorafor keeps this story short by explaining the technology just enough to give you an awed sense of the world, but not enough to bog down the pace. The interstellar species of giant fish that serve as ships are wonderful, and although simply a cool background aspect in the first book, become a life-saving element by the end. Everything is explained like a postcard sent home:
“The launch port was like a cluster of bubbles, each section its own waiting space for those in transit. There were whole terminals I could not enter, because the gas they were filled with was not breathable to me. One terminal was encased in thick glass and the inside looked as if it were filled with a wild red hurricane, the people inside it flying about like insects.”
I was constantly impressed at how Okorafor could put a page of meaning in one sentence:
“Three days passed, as time always does when you are alive, whether happy or tortured.”
Binti is a master harmonizer, learning engineering from her father to create and maintain the most advanced technological equipment. However, one day as a young girl in the desert, she finds an edan, an almost-mythological device that even her father cannot decipher its purpose or who made it. This device both leads her to and saves her from destruction, depending on your viewpoint of time. She also learns math from her gifted mother, and math in this book is poetic and magical.
“My mother only used her mathematical sight to protect the family. Now she used it to look into me. Deep. She’ll see everything, I thought. Seconds passed, her hand grasping my okuoko, her eyes boring into me, her lips whispering simple, but intuitively smooth equations that slipped away from my ears like oil from soap.”
Instead of using her talent to create more advanced technology, Binti realizes her purpose is to bring harmony to groups of warring people. She discovers secrets to her planet’s past, and makes friends with the most unlikely of people. (“People” meaning any kind of sentient being.) I don’t want to say any more specifics or will ruin it for you because, seriously, each book takes only an afternoon to read, but will stay with you for a lifetime. Why aren’t you reading Binti yet?!