This will contain spoilers. With a story that was 90 pages long, I’d be hard pressed to put down my thoughts without giving something away.
I picked up Binti thinking it was a Sci-Fi book. Normally I try to give books leeway when they get lumped in with Sci-Fi as it is often a misnomer (I’m thinking Margaret Attwood’s speculative fiction as a prime example). But Binti both presented itself (book jacket/library location) and was presented by others as Sci-Fi.
With my Sci-Fi mindset, I read Binti and was left confused and annoyed.
If Sci-Fi is just spaceships, aliens and a few math geeks then I suppose Binti fits.
The spaceship is alive and said to be closely related to a shrimp. This may have been the most disturbing part of the book for me since climbing inside a gigantic shrimp would likely give me nightmares for weeks (I’m not a shrimp fan).
Somehow this shrimp.. Err ship.. Is capable of interplanetary travel at incredibly high speeds but I couldn’t find any mention of how that is accomplished or how the aliens were able to board the ship while in flight without damaging it.
Enough about the shrimp. When I have to narrow it down to one thing that made the “Sci-Fi” label irk me was how the words math, energy and current were thrown around.
When faced with aliens who had just killed everyone else on the ship, Binti goes into a trance-like state while she thinks about math equations. I am not a math genius but I do understand the almost zen-like state you can enter while trying to work out a problem. I would even go so far as to say that some equations and proofs straddle the lines between math, language, and art.
So we have a math genius, aliens who have killed everyone else, and a shrimp ship. This is the point where I’m expecting something mathy to happen.
The paragraph starts like this:
“My mind cleared as the equations flew through it, opening it wider, growing progressively more complex and satisfying.”
To misquote Matt Damon, I am ready for Binti to Math the shit out of this.
After a satisfying “V-E + F = 2” Binti knows what to do. She … grabs a tray from the cafeteria and loads it up with food but then makes sure to take a piece of desert. Not in a funny way, she just really enjoys this dessert. And then runs and hides in her room.
Maybe taking food and hiding isn’t such a bad idea. But our math genius who scored higher than anyone else on the freaking planet doesn’t do the math to figure out how many calories she’ll need. And the book lost me right there.
What is the point of writing about a math genius if you can’t math out a simple equation of calories in vs time to your destination?
After the last page, “What is the point?” kept nagging at me.
I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about this book than I did reading it which has to mean something. I finally resolved my problems with Binti by taking off the hardcore Sci-Fi label.
Binti is a bright teenager who wants to learn more than what her insulated family can show her.
I am a caucasian female so I won’t pretend to understand or be able to connect to the part of her life that is a corollary to a person of color in the world today.
But I do understand what it is like to break from family expectations and travel a scary path to new places.
I understand what it is like to be excited to be doing something new and scared to death of having no one to share it with.
Before the slaughter Binti sums it up with:
“I was the happiest I’d ever been in my life and I was farther from my beloved family than I’d ever been in my life.”
When you move to a new country on your own, there are fears that coexist even though it seems like they shouldn’t be able to. There is the fear that you will lose parts of yourself and your beliefs that are special because of where you came from and the culture you grew up with. Alternatively, there is the fear that you will never be able to find a place you feel fully at home again because you won’t be able to lose enough of what makes you alien in your new location.
As Binti steps onto the ship she has to make the go/no-go decision about leaving home and I really liked this little snippet.
“I was on the threshold now, between home and my future.
I stepped into the blue corridor.”
Once I felt the connection with Binti on that level the red clay took on a more serious role. It was the physical representation of what she is willing to give up to travel on her chosen path. On my first read through, the red clay seemed to be there primarily to confuse and then placate the aliens.
What if I had picked up this book and it was listed as Fantasy and sitting beside books like The Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings?
To see how far off I was, I started rereading passages and seeing if I could fiddle with them. I don’t mean rewriting. Sometimes when I don’t understand something, I’ll replace the word that is confusing me and see what pops out.
When I read “Mathematics” I immediately think of my experience with math in high school and college. It isn’t an abstract thought, I have too many years working with it to comfortably extrapolate it into what Binti is doing. I don’t think Okorafor is using ‘mathematical’ to mean the same thing I think of when I remember Calc 3 in university.
Here is an example, I’ve replaced the word “mathematical” with “metaphysical”. This is on page 31 shortly after the Meduse attack the ship.
“ And so I had become a master harmonizer by the age of twelve. I could communicate with spirit flow and convince them to become one current. I was born with my mother’s gift of [metaphysical] sight. My mother only used it to protect the family…”
I think the paragraph is pretty similar to how Okarafor wrote it. But I’m not stuck trying to figure out what “mathematical sight” means and how it would intertwine with someone who could “communicate with spirit flow”.
Instead of reading a book about a mathematical genius and waiting for some sciency thing to pivot the plot I have a new book.
Binti is a smart, independent teenager who is willing to risk everything to follow her dreams. She ends up in a horrible situation and searches for any possible way to survive, even a desperate prayer to a magical blue ancient artifact. And I no longer have to spend time thinking about why that blue artifact actually worked to help her save herself and many other lives. Magic or super advanced tech, they both work.
There are hints of magic, and the interpretation of advanced tech as magic, all through the book. I wish I had picked up on them faster. Near the very end, Binti finds out that others at the Oomza Uni are saying that she used “ancestral magic” while dealing with the Meduse.
Binti challenged my assumptions about what fits into Sci-Fi. It may never be among my favorite novellas but it was worth reading and the time spent mulling it over afterward.
Plot Synopsis – Includes Spoilers
Binti leaves her small and insular family after being accepted by Oomza Uni which is on another planet.
On route, the alien Meduse kill everyone on board except for Binti and the pilot. They plan to use the spaceship to gain access to Oomza Uni. Someone stole the stinger from the Meduse chief and it is being held at Oomza Uni.
Binti has a blue item she carries with her even though she doesn’t know what it does. The blue item she refers to as an “Edan” allows her to talk to the Meduse.
Binti convinces the Meduse to let her speak for them when they arrive at Oomza Uni. Her speech convinces the professors to return the stinger to the Chief Meduse to avoid more killing. They also offer a spot at Oomza Uni to Okwu, one of the aliens that took the most interest in Binti.
Binti uses the red clay mixture her family uses on their skin to heal the Meduse including restoring the stinger back onto the body of the Chief without a scar.
Notable Character Names:
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Daipka of Namib
Also – “the one who survives”
16 year old girl from Earth, main character
One of the Meduse aliens that kill everyone on the ship. The alien who talks the most to Binti while on the ship and remains at Oomza Uni with her at the end of the novella.