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War Girls
by Tochi Onyebuchi
Razorbill, $18.99, 464pp
Published: October 2019

I've been enjoying quite a bit of Nigerian science fiction this year: Nnedi Okorafor's 'Binti' stories were fascinating, especially for YA, and I got a real kick out of Suyi Davies Okungbowa's 'David Mogo, Godhunter'. This book appears to be more prominent than either of those, but I liked it the least, though that's oddly changing.

Certainly I like it a lot more in hindsight than I did while reading it. It does a lot of impressive things, but I didn't grasp a few of those while I was actually reading it. The book has stayed with me, though, and my brain is still chipping away at it, thinking about this and that and coming to a few realisations. In short, it's a much better book than I thought it was.

I struggled with it for quite a while, because I couldn't find a connection to it. We're in 2172, the planet ravaged by nuclear war and climate change, the rich and powerful now living on space stations. We're in what we might think of as Nigeria but in what the lead characters think of as Biafra, the southeastern corner of the country that seceded in 1967 and fought a losing war to stay that way. Up to three million Biafrans died of starvation. And we're in a camp where the warriors are girls, smart and fierce ones who can use the tech of their time to great effect.

I loved the idea of examining the Biafran War through the lens of a science fiction novel set a century and a half into the future. However, I found it difficult to focus on the social commentary when everything played out like a cheesy anime. Onyii is a teenager who pilots a mech. Ify, a younger girl, has an implanted Accent which shows her the underlay beneath the tech, which in this world is everywhere, and provides her a connection to it. They have an android nanny called Enyemaka. Sure, they're struggling to find enough to eat in a Biafran camp rather than studying in their sailor suits at an-ever sunny Tokyo High School, but it all felt anime to me and that cheapened it.

What I only gradually realised is that everything here speaks to how we see others. Some of that's obvious, because we emphatically join this story on the Biafran side and hear all sorts of stories about how bad the northerners are. When we roll into the second part with Ify taken by the Nigerians, who believe she's one of their own stolen away by the enemy, the stories become how savage and primitive the Biafrans are.

I saw this as a way for a Nigerian writer to explore the concept that racism isn't always black and white, which of course he does, pitting Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba against each other. Major factors in the real Biafran seccession were the massacre of 90,000 Igbo by northern Nigerians, displacing a million or two more, and the economic blockades that followed.

Perhaps I should have realised that Tochi Onyebuchi was going much deeper, a century and a half making all the difference. Enyemaka is important, even if we don't realise it at this point. She's an android, so just a tool for the girls, but she becomes more than that later. It's not important to the plot, so I'll point out that, by the end of the book, Enyemaka may be sentient and has moved with other androids to live in a shared community in the desert. A population of 60 million Nigerians in 1960 belonged to as many as 300 ethnic groups. Enyemaka and her fellow androids become just another one.

Later in the book, we get another example in the Biafran's Abd Program that is spun up as part of the escalation of technology that always occurs during wartime. Abds are synthetic humans, body parts scavenged from corpses fused to an artificial skeleton. The key mech pilots in the Biafran forces get an abd each and we watch them grow together in almost symbiotic fashion. When the Abd Program is terminated, the abds are terminated along with it. After all, "they're just synths."

It's these bigger ideas that have stayed with me most from this book, which I believe succeeds more at painting intolerance in impressionistic fashion than it does at following a specific plot. Most novels would have taken one side or the other and preached at us. Onyebuchi teases at that, introducing us to the Biafrans first and establishing a pair of Biafran girls as leads, but then yanks that rug out from under us.

Onyii may be Biafran but Ify isn't. Are we on Onyii's side or Ify's? Is Ify still on the Biafran side after four years as a Fulani stolen by the Igbo, believing that Onyii is dead? Maybe both sides are wrong and Onyii and Ify will eventually forge a new peace through their shared connection, once the inevitable reconciliation occurs? No, this isn't remotely that simplistic. Clearly there's good in the north and bad in the southeast, even if we're supposed to connect more with the latter. Maybe we should join Enyemaka in her new android community in the desert.

Really, the characters are there not just to evolve as human beings but to highlight how easy it is to get trapped into a role. It's hard not to feel for Onyii and Ify both at every point in the story, whether they're on the same side or not, because they're human beings who want to do good, even if they do bad in the process. However, while we're conditioned to see them as protagonists, we only come to realise that they're victims too. And, perhaps above everything else, that's the point. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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