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Posts Tagged ‘Nnedi Okorafor’

Not that we should confine our celebration of authors of the African diaspora to just one month (belated happy Black History Month!), but to close out February I thought I would highlight some African American authors I’ve either been reading recently or have loved for a long time (and maybe a few I’m still looking forward to reading). But to open–there’s a new Afrofuturist short fiction magazine out there called FIYAH, and it looks great! As has been pointed out lately, the world of speculative fiction is not immune to racism structural or otherwise, and black authors have suffered in the short fiction market as a result. The establishment of FIYAH does not let us off the hook, of course–the goal (or a goal) with this journal and its predecessor Fire!! of the Harlem Renaissance is for the larger discourse (or more concretely, you and I and all concrete individuals engaged in this as readers, writers, editors, etc) to see and repent its(/our) complicity in the marginalization of black voices.

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Delany has been one of my favorites for a while now. Note the cover for Babel-17, which does feature a female protagonist, but an Asian one. Ursula LeGuin had similar problems with her EarthSea characters being portrayed as white on the covers of her books.

The two authors always brought up in a discussion of black science fiction and fantasy are Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and that will be the case here as well, though I do recognize that there were times when they were awkwardly bundled together solely for being the only black people in the room (which is not to say we can’t speak of them together as black authors–I’m doing that here, duh–but prioritizing that connection at random can certainly reinforce the marginalization we are trying to counter here). Delany, along with Ursula LeGuin, is one of the New Wave authors who became favorites of mine post-college (and to a degree post-Tolkien, or at least the point at which I embraced fantasy that was not just imitative of Professor Tollers). Delany’s science fiction writing is mostly confined to that period from the 60s to the 70s, followed by a foray into poststructuralist fantasy in the 80s, but to my tastes his early sci-fi remains fresh and original even next to the more avant-garde elements of today’s market. I especially love Nova, a novel which anticipates cyber-punk while remaining solidly in the genre of space opera, incorporates the Tarot in an interesting way (as does Calvino–lots of potential work meta-narrative moments there), and to my mind also has some nice echoes of Ahab and his white whale, though I wouldn’t push that too hard. Babel-17 is an interesting and trippy space opera with a linguistic novum at its heart, and to my mind a must-read for fans of the New Wave. Empire Star was apparently meant to be packaged with Babel-17, though this was only done more recently–equally trippy, and I hope to teach it one day. The meditations on cognition, intelligence, and the arts are all very worthwhile, and well-woven into the fabric of this weird but engaging story.

The late Octavia Butler I am less familiar with, I’m afraid, though I have been impressed with what I’ve read. I’d heard of her before, of course, but I was primarily turned on to her by Orson Scott Card’s in-depth analysis of her prose in his book on on writing science fiction and fantasy. What I’ve read of hers can be pretty uncomfortable–she had a knack for weaving the despicable and the morally ambiguous into disturbing but productive and interesting stories–but it is well worth it. I’ve been especially wanting to read her Lilith’s Brood novels for a long time, and will hopefully get to them soon!

There are two more recent authors I want to specifically mention here: N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. I’d read Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few months ago and have been meaning to write a review, but I like to have an illustration ready before I write reviews, and never got around to making one. Maybe after I’ve read another book of hers… In any case, THTK was a solid, entertaining, and highly original bit of fantasy, and I strongly recommend it. An original cosmology, a realistic and rich diversity of cultures, courtly intrigue, and a well-developed apotheosis–this book has got it all! Again, maybe a more thorough review later. I’ve read at least one short story of hers as well, but simply with regard to her novel writing have to note that she has been quite prolific since her debut. If her other books are even half as good as THTK they are well worth reading. Do yourself a favor and check her out! You can find her website here.

wp_20170228_12_55_34_proI discovered Nnedi Okorafor through her collection of short stories, Kabu Kabu (I’ve read several so far and gladly recommend the collection on their basis). While I love Jemisin’s work as well, I feel more kinship to Okorafor’s narrative style. Her first fantasy novel for adults, Who Fears Death, is a skillful blend of both science fictional and fantasy tropes, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa but primarily focused on a realistically drawn and ethnically complex society featuring supernatural elements and magic practitioners drawn (to what degree I am not qualified to say) from African culture. I’m still working through this–the story is quite dark in a lot of ways (that tends to slow me down), and we are clued in early on to the fact that there will be some tragedy involved in the conclusion, but don’t let that scare you. This is a beautifully written coming of age story as well as a fantasy of the somewhat “messianic” sort (think Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker, etc). The prequel to this book came out in 2015–I wish it were a sequel, because then I would be able to pretend the tragic foreshadowing in WFD are red-herrings, but alas…

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch from when I reviewed the first book–not as cool as the covers for the actual book, alas.

Okorafor is (deservedly) getting the most attention at the moment for her novellas for Tor.com Publishing, centering around the young heroine Binti. I’ve read the first and am making my way through the second now. I’ve already reviewed the first in the series, so check that out! In sum–space opera, with a lushly developed far-future that, alas, can only be hinted at in a shorter work like this, but also a story which acknowledges the continued existence of marginal communities and nicely works the tension between globalization (or here, galacticization?) and local identity into the main plot. It is also a story about a university, so of course I like it. 🙂  I’ve noted before that the Binti series feels a bit YA to me, though I don’t believe it is being marketed as such. I think this is a function of the age of the protagonist (though the same could be said of Who Fears Death, but that has some clearly adult themes going on), Okorafor’s experience as a YA writer (that is where she started), and the shorter form of the novella. In any case, it is delightfully good, and I heartily recommend it! You can find Okorafor’s website here.

A couple of authors on my radar but whom I have not gotten to yet: Nalo Hopkinson, who has been a significant figure in speculative fiction for a while but who does not get as much press as some others mentioned here, and Kai Ashante Wilson, who has had two novellas published with Tor.com as well.  From what I have been hearing he is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in fantasy, so check him out now!

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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.

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch–I won’t say this is at all a canonical vizualization of Binti, and not exactly what I had in my head while I read, but it’s what came from my pen when I started doodling after finishing the book. Will hopefully get a better version (both scan and drawing) posted eventually…

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!

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