I’d been excited about Tor.com’s move to publishing longer novellas in addition to short fiction (or the novel-length material at their parent company Tor Publishing)–I love the vast tomes of epic fantasy that have been taking over the last few decades as much as anyone, but I also love the shorter novels of earlier eras, in particular the New Wave (I’m thinking in particular of the shorter novels of Ursula LeGuin and Samuel DeLany), and I think it’s a great move on Tor.com’s part to explore this middle-ground. While I appreciate getting a variety of lengths of fiction packaged together in one volume, when I encounter a novella in, say, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction I tend to put it off, read the shorter fiction, and then forget about it–I enjoy the experience of reading mid-range fiction like this a lot more when I get it packaged separately (and the price is reasonable–$3ish for my digital copy. The paperback is nearly $10, which is a bit harder to swallow for something so short). Looking forward to reading many more from their growing list. I decided to start with Binti (click the link for a description and preview) by Nnedi Okorafor, and that is what this post will be about. Long story short–this is an excellent short Space Opera where competent world building fits perfectly with the central narrative of an engaging and believable protagonist, who in her turn fits the genre’s need for a “special protagonist” while remaining very relatable and realistic.
I’d been looking forward to this novella since it was first announced as one of the initial stories in the series. I confess the gorgeous cover influenced me a bit (that goes for all of these books though–my goodness, whether for their short fiction or for their novellas Tor.com has really got the cover game down), but I’ve also been wanting to read more by Okorafor since hitting one of her short stories a year or two ago. I’d picked up her novel Who Fears Death a few months back, but I’ve got too many novels I’ve been trying to work through lately–Binti was the perfect size to squeeze in while still working through my other books. It was definitely a quick read–the paperback is 96 pages, so you go through it a lot faster than you expect for an independently packaged text.
The eponymous main character really makes this story–well, the fascinating far-future science fictional world, more glimpsed than spelled out in this short work, is also a main attraction here, but the narrative arc of the story, however filled with action and tragedy and problem-solving, is clearly Binti’s own character arc, and climax and closure are most satisfying when you look for them in the transformations she goes through, rather than in the resolution of the conflict on its own. Those used to longer and more complex stories (novels as opposed to short stories or novellas) may get frustrated, but you have to take it for what it is–more of a glimpse of a larger world, and a look at a particular transformative moment in the life of the main character.
To me the feel of the book is definitely YA, from the prose to the treatment of character and obstacles (as well as the youth of the MC), but if we want to think in terms of shelving at the bookstore this is definitely more at home with straight-up science fiction–this is Space Opera by someone who is well-read in the genre and has her own very competent take on the various tropes. In fact, I really loved Okorafor’s vision of a realistically diverse Space-Operatic future. Binta is Himba, and so right away we get a vision of what it looks like to enter the world of interstellar society from the perspective of a minority–and, gratifyingly, we get a vision of a future in which ethnic communities persist, rather than being erased in favor of a Star Trek-like liberal Western uniformity. Prejudice still exists, another bit of gratifying realism, and is, I think, treated very well–we get it all from Binti’s perspective, a realistically youthful one, and we get to see her reactions, her almost mundane expectation of prejudice, and the way this extra weight plays into this coming of age narrative (which it is, of course–practically a Rite of Passage in the anthropological sense. It even takes place in liminal space–literally the space between worlds–and she has a very different, in this case unexpected, identity, at the end). This all feels like a realistic element of this future world–it is specific to the concrete situation(s) of this future setting, rather than feeling like just a projection of our contemporary issues. Prejudice, systemic and otherwise, along with the drivers and mechanisms of imperialism and colonialism are real forces in cultures, societies, and individuals, and I appreciated seeing that realistically and appropriately explored here.
Communal and individual identity are also very central here, and Okorafor makes excellent use of the tropes of Space Opera in her exploration of Binti’s crisis of identity. Binti is 16 in this story, an appropriate moment for a coming-of-age story, and as I’d mentioned before she comes out the other end as, in certain ways, a very different person, but along with this movement at the level of her individual identity we also have the tension between her individual identity and her communal identity–or perhaps better to say on the one hand the tension between her identity as Himba and her identity as a member (or member to be) of the interstellar and interspecies academic community, and between her communal identity (Himba, family, culture, roots) and her individual identity as the “special one” (not meaning that to be sarcastic, despite the scare-quotes), her identity as the Space Opera protagonist with her special gift (she is marked as exceptionally gifted, and the moments when she starts “treeing” in the narrative seem like they must be intentionally reminiscent of that prototypical Special Spaceman Paul Atreides in Dune with his bred talent for seeing the future). So much of what happens (I’ll avoid spoilers) involves sacrificing what she used to be or could have been in favor (though not in all ways by her will) of becoming something new. She chose a path that would take her away from her previous identity, but ended up being transformed much more than expected, and against her will. The trope of “Special Protagonist” is so ubiquitous and overdone that it is on the one hand almost required for the genre, but on the other must be handled well and with an eye for loss and sacrifice, unintended effects, if it is to avoid turning into pure wish-fulfillment. Okorafor does this very well, and we get a story that is at once a meditation on loss (both in terms of personal choice as well as at the hands of other agents, both personal and impersonal) and a narrative of empowerment (in the face of, or alongside, the oppressive realities she is stuck with–her parents’ fears are ultimately well-founded, even if we see Binti learning to thrive as best she can).
For a spoiler-heavy review/analysis check this out. More historical context and nuance here (especially regarding the imperialist/colonialist overtones in the world of the story), and I admit it makes me feel like my reading is overly rosy (we should keep in mind, after all, that everyone else on the spaceship dies without any resolution on their behalf–and much of Binti’s transformation in the story is against her will and yet stays with her forever). Check out more of Tor.com’s novellas here–they look amazing, and I’ve got another 4 or 5 cued up on my Kindle–and of course check out Tor.com for short fiction and articles relating to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror. The two latest announced novellas (scheduled for next Fall and the one after respectively) are by Cassandra Khaw–I’d only just heard of her through this announcement, but have already read a couple of her short stories (“Disconnect” and “When We Die On Mars“) and am really excited to see what we get from her!