The title of this volume is a little misleading, as it contains four stories rather than three, each of which has been described as a novella, though the lengths are wildly different. The 'trilogy' proper is comprised of 'Binti', which runs fifty pages and won the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novella. 'Binti: Home' is twice as long. 'Binti: The Night Masquerade' is as long as the two put together, but may still count as a novella. 'Binti: Sacred Fire' sits in between the first two of those and, at thirty or so pages, ought to count as a short story.
Together, they tell the story of a singular heroine, the Binti of the title. Nnedi Okorafor was born in the States but her parents were Igbo, which is a southern Nigerian ethnic group, and this connected set of stories is clearly rooted in African culture. It's a coming of age tale that speaks a lot about identity and diversity and the meanings of home.
I enjoyed it a great deal, though it's clearly YA, even with a particularly traumatic scene that resonates throughout the series. The language is simple even though there are many deep ideas woven into the stories. This actually caught me out at one point. Binti uses a transporter, which I didn't realise for a while was just something that transports, like a powered cart, rather than what 'Star Trek' has us conditioned to visualise.
Binti is from a village called Osemba in the Namib desert, which is home to the Himba people. They're an emphatically isolated tribe, looked down on by the Khoush majority who nonetheless benefit from the technical genius of the Himba, who are specialists in creating custom astrolabes, devices that serve as a combination of smartphone, passport and personal archive. Binti, who is sixteen as the novella begins, is about to seriously cut the cord.
Not only is she rejecting a secure future in the family business, but she's about to leave home with serious emphasis. Himba just don't do that. They're so insular that any girl who leaves will find herself unable to marry on her return. Binti knows this and still leaves, not just her village but also her planet, because she's taking a place she's been offered at Oomza University, the most prestigious institute of higher learning in the whole galaxy.
'Binti' is a hard novella to dislike in the same way that it's difficult not to like the People stories of Zenna Henderson. It's not just the writing but the universal sense of belonging that they convey. Binti will initially seem very different to most people who read her story, as a young and intelligent African girl with a strong affinity for maths and a deep tie to her culture that extends to covering her skin and hair with otjize, a pigment to protect from the desert climate, and weaving her history into her plaits. That's not remotely me, but I connected to her isolation, her loyalty, her humanity.
All that said, I'm surprised it won the Hugo and Nebula, because it's a very short novella that sets up so much but delivers so little because it has no room to do so. The worldbuilding is magnificent, Okorafor quickly conjuring into being a fascinating heroine; cultures Earthbound and galactic, insular and diverse; wild futuristic technology; and a magnificent alien race in the Meduse.
The latter are jellyfish-like creatures who massacre everyone on the living ship carrying Binti and her peers to Oomza Uni, as they've been wronged as a species. Binti only survives because of a mysterious device she carries and so finds herself brokering peace. She does so and she does it well, but it's all far too quick and easy. I would have appreciated this far more at double the length because Okorafor could have deepened things and made them feel a lot more realistic.
Fortunately, 'Home' and 'The Night Masquerade' are longer and deeper and I'd say that they're all the better for it. As the middle episode, 'Home' could have been the weakest link but I think it's the strongest. Having finished a highly enjoyable year at Oomza, she feels drawn to go home for a traditional pilgrimage which, of course, doesn't go remotely how she planned.
Binti wouldn't seem to be a 'kick-ass strong female lead' in the sense that Hollywood is starting to define. However, she's quietly strong, because she goes through a heck of a lot in this trilogy and she finds a way to survive and move forward against the odds, which is even more important, I think. It only starts with guilt at leaving a village that nobody leaves, so breaking a cultural bond that isolates her from her people.
She understandably suffers ongoing trauma from the massacre which generates flashbacks and survivor guilt. What's more, she was physically changed as a part of bringing peace, her hair, which is part of her identity, replaced in a genetic exchange by the okuoko tentacles of the Meduse. One of the aliens, Okwu, who helped to massacre her friends is now attending Oomza with her and has become a friend, a good and a bad thing all at once. And going home is not the welcoming experience she hopes for, especially with Okwu in tow as a cultural ambassador. Oh, and, trust me, it gets worse still.
The surface story here is fine for a YA audience but the real value here is in the depth that may only show itself later. I can see kids enjoying this but gaining more from it every time they re-read, especially as they grow in age and maturity. The themes are very strong and well rooted; young readers struggling with their cultural identity in foreign environments because it's isolating will find much to bolster them here. Much later, if they return to this as adults, they may well find that it helped them cope and grow.
That, I think, is worth more than a Hugo and a Nebula. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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