Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.
If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.
I’ve never come across an African society in science fiction before (save the Rastafarian space station in Neuromancer). The world of Okorafor’s Binti was a first for me in that respect, and it was fascinating. I’d never even heard of the Himba tribe until reading this novella, and the way she blended their culture with futuristic technology and a deep future philosophy was masterfully done.
Even though this is only a short novella, the world building in this story is top quality, with the technology elaborately explored in a way that developed the world but didn’t bog down the writing. With the ‘treeing’ (mathematical meditation essentially) it gave it an unique magic system- and I say magic system because although it talked about maths and was set in space, its use of technology felt more fantasy like than that of hard sci fi, and it even came complete with an ancient artefact which gave our protagonist plot powers and singled her out as the chosen one.
And speaking of magical artifacts, the plot was… shakey. It had a flowing structure and was engaging, but it relied on a couple of plot conveniences.
Binti felt way too perfect even for a protagonist. She was 16 but the best harmonizer in her tribe, the only one of her tribe ever to get into Oomza University, possesses special healing powers from her tribe which are better than anyone else’s, and yet what saves her and makes her special isn’t even really her brains but a magical deus ex machina machine that activates and protects her at the right time! It gives her so many plot convenient powers that it was eyebrow raising.
I also found it eyebrow raising how few consequences there were to the attack. I mean, there was a mass slaughtering of innocent civilians and yet one side happily embraced the perpetrators and Binti seems to forget her dead friends very quickly. Wouldn’t there be some outrage from the victim’s parents? The plot flowed well and it had a satisfactory ending which wrapped everything up, yet it felt things shouldn’t have been that neatly wrapped up.
I would complain about how overly special her Himba culture was, but you know what? You don’t see an African tribe exhaulted and treated with respect very often, so having its culture treated as having important Wisdom to impart in spite of its nomadic nature (and not in a Pocahontus way) was great.
Overall, Binti was worth a read. It may have had a lot of plot conveniences and dialogue that felt stilted at times, but the fascinating exploration of Himba culture in an imaginative science fiction was worth the price of admission.
RATING: 3 magical plot items/ 5