Thursday 14 June 2018

#CBR10 Book 44: "Binti" by Nnedi Okorafor

Page count: 96 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Spoiler warning! In my explanation of what worked and didn't for me in this story, I will be going into plot specific details. If you want to approach this story completely unspoiled, you may just want to read the first few paragraphs.

Binti is the first of her people, the Himba, to be offered a place at the Oomza University, the finest in the galaxy. She pretty much runs away, knowing that her decision to take her place at the university might mean she is no longer welcome back with her family. While the prospect of going far away is daunting, the promise of using her skills and learning is a heady draw. On the space shuttle on the way to Oomza, she begins to make new friends, but then disaster strikes.

Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, a race of jellyfish-like aliens who are known throughout the galaxy as warlike and fearsome. Binti is in terrible danger and needs to find a way to communicate (and hopefully placate) these beings if she is to survive and make it to her destination.

In 2016, this novella won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Nommo Award and was nominated for a Locus. I had heard a lot about it and Nnedi Okorafor, so when this was the monthly pick in Vaginal Fantasy a while back, I figured it was finally time to read it (as is the case more often than not, I didn't actually get round to reading the book until after the hosts had discussed it, but the various hosts' enthusiastic responses to the story made me optimistic). Having heard so much about it and with it having won so many awards, I was expecting something more.

Spoilers beyond this point...

I get that this is a novella, so the author doesn't have the time to go into the depth that she could in a novel, but I've also read novellas that are pretty much perfect in the way they capture not only characters, but a specific time and setting. So it can clearly be done - and I found this story lacking. It felt like Okorafor spent a lot of time dealing with Binti's preparations for the journey and establishing a bunch of characters that are then just killed off. I'm still not entirely sure how Binti was the sole survivor of the Meduse massacre, but it seemed to have to do with her "magic clay". As far as I can tell, the Meduse have been at war with the people who run the Oomza University for some time and there's been a lot of killing (including the entire spaceship full of students that Binti was on), but then the situation is fairly rapidly resolved in the end, and lo and behold - one of the Meduse will even get enrolled as a student - no grudges held?

I would have liked a bit more elaboration and clarification on quite a few points. I never understood exactly what it is that Binti is so brilliant at, what made her get accepted to University in the first place. She does calculations at an advanced level? It wasn't adequately explained exactly why Binti would risk shunning by her family and culture for going away to University either. Then there is the fact that this inexperienced student from what appears to be a minority culture (on Earth - what planet is she from, really?) manages to convince this fearsome race of aliens not only to spare her, but to let her negotiate a peace treaty on their behalf? Which they allow her to do, after physically altering her forever, without her consent. This did not sit well with me.

Then there's the whole conflict between the Meduse and the people who run the University was started by the Meduse leader's stinger (I don't entirely remember, it's been a month and a half since I finished the book) being stolen, and everything was resolved by its return, miraculously negotiated by Binti. Cause it seems to me there must have been others more capable of sorting this out in the past, without so much blood probably being spilled on both sides? Also, after what seems to have been a long and aggressive conflict, it's totally ok to just enroll a Meduse student at the University, no more questions asked?

I liked Binti as a character - it's always to have science minded girls who defy expectations to pursue their interests, but I didn't feel I got to know her enough. She also seemed entirely too unbothered by the life-altering modifications done to her by the Meduse, but since everyone else on the ship was killed, maybe she feels that it's a small price to pay to still be alive?

I'm left with a few too many questions and niggles to really have been able to enjoy this story. Having not read any of the other novellas nominated for the awards it won, I honestly can't say whether it was a deserving winner - but I do have to question it. It seemed just a bit too simplistic to me. There are two more novellas in this series now, but I'm not sure I can be bothered to read them. That's not exactly good for something that won that many awards and so much critical acclaim.

Judging a book by its cover: I think the cover is quite beautiful, with a confident-looking woman of colour staring out at the reader. The colour she's rubbing over her face has significance in the story and is a big part of Binti's identity. I think I like the cover more than I do the actual book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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