Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Rating 7.8/10
An interesting and cerebral mix of science fiction and fantasy that features an unlikely heroine

We prefer to explore the universe by travelling inward, as opposed to outward.

Binti is a curious science-fiction novella, presenting themes on leaving home, what it means to hold onto tradition, and how that affects you when adaptation becomes a necessity. The eponymous Binti, a sixteen-year-old mathematical genius, was born and raised a Himba in a small reclusive village in Namibia. She builds and "harmonizes" astrolabes, which are like a combination passport, cellphone, and lifetime resume. Her skills make her extremely valuable to both her tribe and the surrounding Khoush people. The Khoush is a fictional non-white race of humans who think little of the dark-skinned Himba, even though they depend on the advanced technological prowess and intellect of their Himba neighbors.

The story begins with Binti escaping her homeland in secret, intending to leave Earth to attend Oomza Uni, an advance university on a planet far away. Binti was offered a full scholarship to attend, but her family and friends laughed it off, as the Himba rarely ever leave their own small piece of land. But Binti has bigger dreams and sets her mind on leaving Earth to fulfill her potential. She discovers that there is only a 5% human population on this university planet, so Binti will have to interact with creatures and species that she knows little about.

Although Binti quickly leaves her family and friends behind, she cannot part with some Himba traditions. One ritual she practices is the constant application of otjize on her skin and hair. Otjize is made by mixing red clay from the soil of her village with oil from a local flower petal. This sweet-smelling mixture is applied to her face and plaited hair, and has wondrous effects on keeping skin and braids healthy and young. Even though walking around with such dark skin and red mud causes Binti to be an easy target for torment, it doesn't stop her from leaning on this mixture as one of the last remnants of her past.

Soon after Binti boards the ship, a shocking tragedy strikes, and she must utilize all of her intelligence and relics from her past in order to save not only herself, but put a stop to an impending war of races. (Well, that escalated quickly!) This was a jarring an unexpected shift in tone for the story, but it was a wonderful experience witnessing how this young and capable girl subverts expectations to stay one half-step ahead of mysterious forces and unknown traditions.

One of the best parts of this novellas is also one of its biggest drawbacks: Okarafor has created some startling original and extremely cool creatures, set pieces, means of travel, and other tenants of science fiction and fantasy. However, many of these ideas are only touched upon briefly, so I was left wanting more. Perhaps that's a good thing? Luckily there are two more novellas in the Binti trilogy which I look forward to tackling next.

If you're looking for an interesting and cerebral mix of science fiction and fantasy that features an unlikely heroine, I recommend giving Binti a read. It can easily be devoured in a couple of hours, for better or for worse. It contains plenty of thought-provoking scenes that made me consider the value of tradition and culture, and how lateral thinking might be used to solve foreign crises -- certainly relevant to our own world at large.

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