The Best Kind of Pioneer: Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti

In an interview with Nnedi Okorafor this time last year, Tor.com described Binti, which they published, as following “a young woman [the titular Binti] who leaves her family to attend the largest university in the universe, only to be caught up in a strange and terrifying diplomatic mission”. The interview is incidentally well worth the reading once you are done here, not the least because it includes lines that will make you fall in love with Okorafor such as “youth is highly overrated, Martians aren’t”. I’ve stolen Tor.com’s description because it is accurate, but also because like Binti, it is wonderfully deceptive.

Had Binti been a generic heroine I think she would have been the protagonist in an enjoyable, and well written, adventure that fit Tor.com’s description. But I don’t think I would be writing about it. Okorafor’s talent is that, as with her other works, her protagonist is anything but generic. Binti is Himba, born in northern Namibia in an unspecified future which has seen the OvaHimba both adapt and preserve their culture. In Okorafor’s future, where space travel in organic vessels is taken for granted, the Himba are renown as crafters of communication devices known as astrolabes, and yet are ostracized and isolated by their determined preservation of their culture and traditional practices, most importantly for Binti and Binti, the use of otjize, a mixture of ochre and butterfat, to cover the skin and hair of OvaHimba.

Okorafor’s writing is reinforced with many such themes, of discrimination, colonialism, and injustice, often residing just below what is an otherwise riveting space adventure.

The isolation of the Himba despite their technological prowess is important because it frames Binti’s decision to leave her family, without their knowledge, and accept her offered place at the galaxy’s most prestigious university. She sets off to join an institution full of aliens, yet she is first treated as an alien when she boards a bus full of humans while still on earth. She is the ‘other’ from the outset, and it is this ‘otherness’, the embodiment of her people’s’ preserved tradition, that keeps her alive when the living starship in which she is traveling is overrun by the jellyfish-like Meduse, who use harpoons formed from extensions of their own bodies to impale their enemy.

The Meduse are as frightening and ruthless an enemy as you can find anywhere in science fiction. The move like water, killing quickly and indiscriminately. The Meduse that board Binti’s ship share her destination, determined to raid the planet as part of their ongoing war with humanity, or at least part of humanity. They are, however, not one dimensional enemies. They believe they are communicating with humanity using the only language that their interactions with humans suggests we understand: violence. What violence lead to this understanding, or lack of it, is not explained, there is simply not time as Okorafor’s novella pulls the reader ever onwards.

Binti filled me with anticipation and tension as it raced through its story, and with joy as its conclusion revealed completely Okorafor’s talent for writing approachable adventures that are nevertheless not afraid to explore deep and important ideas.

Misunderstanding is a theme running throughout Binti, between people and races alike. The Meduse raid that sees them brutally invading Binti’s ship is not driven by a desire for conquest or plunder, but is an almost suicidally desperate attempt to recover the lost harpoon of one of their elders, now residing in the same university that has enticed Binti away from home. Okorafor’s writing is reinforced with many such themes, of discrimination, colonialism, and injustice, often residing just below what is an otherwise riveting space adventure. She has been praised as a writer of Afrofuturism, writing the African continent, and its diverse peoples, into the science fiction representations of the future that once ignored them.

Okorafor’s skill in writing Binti as a novella comes in being able to tell a complete story that leaves the readers both satisfied and intrigued at the world and ideas embodied in the pages. Binti is the perfect book for a weekend afternoon, with its deceptively simple writing style making it digestible in a single afternoon. Binti filled me with anticipation and tension as it raced through its story, and with joy as its conclusion revealed completely Okorafor’s talent for writing approachable adventures that are nevertheless not afraid to explore deep and important ideas. It is for those who love adventure, and for those that who enjoy fiction that makes them think as well as smile.

Reflections on who might enjoy Binti are traditionally where I might conclude my musings on a book, but the virtues of Binti have been recognised well beyond the Black Hole. It has been awarded a Nebula Award, and more recently a Hugo Award, for best novella. The Nebulas are awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Hugos by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention, known as ‘Worldcon’. I have put off talking about these accolades Binti has received not because I do not think it deserves them, it does, but because mentioning them I feel requires me to talk about the group of authors and fans who have, for reasons I will not bore you with, called themselves ‘Sad Puppies’.

Through this maelstrom of debate Binti has sailed and emerged, like its namesake in the face of the Meduse attack, surprisingly unscathed.

As science fiction has drifted to new, more fertile ground, it has embraced the potential diversity of its protagonists, settings, and ideas. Readers and writers alike appear to have come around to the idea that a genre where anything is possible is almost by definition the most inclusive. Where once the genre was dominated by pulp adventure stories, now it features enthralling stories woven against deep and complex backdrops. Adventure, even in its pulp form, has not diminished, nor been replaced; it has simply been joined by the great diversity of storytelling that the genre allows. This shift has won popular acclaim, reflected, for a while, in the dispersal of the annual Nebula and Hugo awards.

Some, however, do not like the direction the genre has grown in. Beginning in 2013 author Larry Correia attempted without success to generate support for his unabashedly pulp Monster Hunter Legion to be nominated for a Hugo, largely on the grounds that it would annoy what Correia called the ‘literati’ (which google tells me means “well-educated people who are interested in literature”, so I’m a bit confused about why he wanted to annoy them). Correia made another attempt in 2014, expanding his campaign to include other works he felt were ‘underrepresented’, including a book by the noxious Vox Day (I do not make ad hominem comments lightly, but for him I make an exception). This time several of the works identified by Correia made it onto the nomination list. In 2015 a third campaign led by Brad Torgersen succeeded in having much of their reactionary slate nominate for Hugos. Torgersen argued that their slate reflected what was popular, the Worldcon membership however disagreed and when faced with a slate of ‘Puppy’ nominated work instead opted to issue no award in several categories.

The despicable Vox Day also returned in 2015, with his own campaign, idiotically entitled ‘Rabid Puppies’. Where Correia and Torgersen’s attempts to flood the award slate and force upon Worldcon their definition of the genre had been unwelcome,the arrival of Day and his supports was deeply troubling: Day appears to believe marital rape is an oxymoron(it’s not), and has questioned women’s suffrage. The issuing of no awards over ‘Puppy’ nominated slates appeared a victory against the attempted coup. But as NPR pointed out at the time, while we were right to welcome the victory of inclusion over self-interested exclusion, the ‘Puppies’ had not been seen off so much as temporary blocked, a block that only increased their misplaced sense of victimisation:

Puppy defenders have often made the offensive, judgmental and depressingly self-absorbed argument that voters couldn’t possibly actually like works by or about women, trans people, gay people, writers of color and so forth. Clearly, the argument claims, people could only vote for those works out of a misguided social-justice agenda.

The debate has become toxic. Vitriol is being spewed across the internet. The Hugo Awards, and by proxy science fiction, became another battleground in the ‘culture war’ for the soul of the United States, and perhaps beyond. Regardless of how the Hugos are ultimately awarded the tragedy is that even by nominating their slates the ‘Puppies’, of both varieties, are continuing to exclude works that might otherwise have been nominated. They are shouting so much, armed with their defence of their own free speech, that they are drowning out the voices of others. And so we all suffer.

Through this maelstrom of debate Binti has sailed and emerged, like its namesake in the face of the Meduse attack, surprisingly unscathed. Its virtues stand alone, the story engrossing and the writing artful. The adventure at its heart was enough to earn it the support of the ‘Sad Puppies’, and to their credit the voting membership of Worldcon did not hold this against it. It was, troublingly, the only finalist for Best Novella that was not on the ‘Rabid Puppies’ slate. Perhaps a story by an American woman of Nigerian descent about a Namibian woman was a bit too much for these, as Neil Gaiman put it in his Hugo acceptance speech, ‘sad losers’.

Okorafor does not appear to have written Binti to be a weapon in a culture war, but because it was in her soul. This is how a genre is shaped, not through internet campaigns, but through writing, through making good art.

As George R.R. Martin argued in an interview with the Guardian, science fiction has always featured writers holding views across the full range of the political spectrum. Robert Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers is conservative in so many senses, and it prompted responses by other writers, not the least Joe Haldeman’s excellent The Forever War. These books were not mutually exclusive, and despite their political differences the authors appreciated the merits of each other’s work. Writing is not a zero sum game.

I hope that in time this storm around the Hugo Awards will pass, and Binti will be remembered in people’s minds and on their shelves for the excellent storytelling, its immersive worlds, and the considered ideas it presents. I recommend Binti to people not because it won an award, not because it addresses important issues, but because it will make them smile.

-H