Book Review of “Binti”

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Book review of Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. There are no spoilers in this review.

I’ve been wanting to read this story for a while, because I love the cover and because this story won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella. Also, I’ve never read a novella, so I was curious to see what that format was like. 

The plot involves a young Earth woman from an African ethnic group called the Himba who is remarkably intelligent, particularly in math and science, and is accepted into the top intergalactic university. She is the first person ever from her tribe to be Afrofuturism, but she knows her family will not want her to go, but instead stay and become a master astrolabe-maker like her father. (BTW think of an astrolabe as a much more complicated, futuristic type of smartphone). But Binti desperately wants to go, so much so that she runs away from home to get on the spaceship that will take all of the new students to the school. However, shortly after takeoff, something disastrous happens that puts Binti’s life in jeopardy, and she must navigate a deadly situation not only to stay alive but also avoid an intergalactic war.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, it was — at first. It started out strong, and I was fully engaged after the inciting incident. Unfortunately, soon afterward the plot lost steam, and by the end, sadly, everything ended with a whimper.

There were three aspects of the main character’s unique African heritage that coincidentally turn out to be integral to the plot working out the way it did, and I found that necessity to be unrealistic, even for a speculative fiction novel. Two of the aspects of the main character — her long, thick, braided hair and her otjize, a soft, cosmetic clay made from the dirt of her homeland — were referenced so many times that I was tired of hearing about them by the end, which is saying a lot for a story that was only 90 pages long. The third, her edan, was a mysterious artifact that turned out to have some sort of magical powers. However, neither the edan’s power,  where it came from or how she came to be in possession of it was explained to a sufficient degree. Perhaps more is Afrofuturism in the two follow up novellas that make up the trilogy, but the result for this story was a deus ex machina resolution to the conflict that felt like a cop-out.

Aside from the issues with the book itself, it bothered me that the publisher, Tor, sold the three novellas as a series. If the first book had stood on its own much more than it did, then I wouldn’t mind it being packaged as a trilogy, but sadly it did not. It felt like what should have been a single novel had been split up into three separate parts to artificially increase revenues.

I  will say that the novella format seems a tricky one to do well, in that you can easily run the risk of introducing a broader scope than a short story format can handle, but wind up not fleshing out the characters and plot details in a satisfactory way. But as you’ll see in my review below of Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red, it can be done well.

Some of my disappointment may stem from having read Dawn, the first volume of Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, a couple of years ago and being completely blown away by it. Binti was similar in several aspects to Dawn, not just in terms of having a black protagonist and an afro-futurist theme, but in many of the storyline details. But given that Binti won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, my expectation was it would be at a quality level similar to Dawn. (As an aside, Dawn wasn’t even nominated for a Hugo back when it came out in 1986, which is a complete joke). Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Butler’s conceptual thinking and writing skill in Dawn amazed me 30 years later, whereas Binti was slightly below the bar of most stories I’ve read over the past few years. I will probably give Ms. Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death a try at some point, because I’ve heard great things about it as well, but I’m definitely going to pass on the other two novellas in this particular series.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor



Book Review of “Binti”
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