Book Review: Binti
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If you have been following my Classic Reviews you may recall the lavish praise that I heaped on Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy. Since my first time reading those books I was smitten but since then I have been often disappointed with contemporary science fiction. These books and speculative fiction in general are meant to be exploratory yet so often despite massive changes in setting and plot the viewpoint and the root culture remains the same. Even creatures with completely alien biology and supposedly alien beliefs behave in the very same ways. The simple scaffolding of a “Western” plot structure, character progression and the assumptions that accompany them shackle so many books to the past when they are meant to be looking to the future.
Nnedi Okorafor is a fitting heir to Butler's exploratory legacy. Clearly demonstrated in this book. Binti is a science fiction story examining contact with alien races from the perspective of a girl as she leaves her people and planet behind for the very first time. Binti comes from a race of people that are discriminated against by the majority population in the lands where they live for their beliefs and rituals. They are a people that have turned inward, fascinated by mathematics and computing but disinterested in warfare. Binti herself is trained as a Harmoniser. Someone that can make peace in the mathematics that drive the universe where others see nothing at all. The fugue state that she can drive herself into when attempting complex calculations gives her complete clarity while introverting her further. That seeking of harmony is at the root of Binti's character and is the reason that the plot of this book breaks away from expectations so casually.
Binti is the first of her people to be accepted to attend an intergalactic university and no small part of the book's narrative is internal, as she struggles to become the person that she needs to be to break away from her own people while still trying to stay true to them. All of the events between her leaving home and regaining contact with her family and her people are secondary to that arc, of Binti trying to find peace within herself despite all of the change that accosts her.
Finding harmony is how Binti survives an attack that renders all of her fellow students dead, it is how she negotiates peace between two warring races, it is how she tolerates rude women in airports touching her hair, it is how technology beyond the understanding of a planet sized university functions at her touch, it is how she is a part of more beloved families by the end of her story than she could have ever dreamed of and it is how her religion, her culture and her science never come into conflict.
It takes time to adjust to Okorafor's style where emotion is valued as highly as the physical events and it takes time to move past assumptions about how the story of Binti should play out but it is time well worth spending.