96 pages| publisher: Tor.com| Science fiction
The digest: Not the wonder I thought it would be.
I read Binti in two 35-minute chunks over two days after seeing some absolute rave reviews from those I follow and respect well on YouTube and within the blogging community. After reading some other novellas from the publisher, Tor.com, and enjoying them well enough (both of Emma Newman’s Industrial Magic books have been reviewed here before), I was hopeful that this story would be no different. Truth be told, I expected it to completely blow my mind – there seems to be hardly any criticism online (965 of the review on Goodreads are 3/5 or above!) so I went ahead and bought the eBook. Unfortunately, this novella just did not click for me as it seems to have done for almost everyone else.
I’ll start with what I found interesting before launching into my issues with the novella. For one, I found the focus on mathematical ‘magic’ almost to be original and intriguing, if massively underexplored. The ‘treeing’ part of this system is also quite compelling and I would have liked Okorafor to focus more on these than she did as what we are presented with very much seem like a teaser. Unfortunately, the lack of explanation and exploration here does not add anything to the story – I know that infodumps are awful but something more than what we have here would have been much appreciated.
In a similar vein, I thought that the edan (a ‘god stone’ or thereabouts – no spoilers!) was an interesting component in the worldbuilding and had a lot of promise in terms of both plot progression and universe development. Again, however, I thought that the author told us the absolute bare minimum to justify the talisman’s existence within the storyworld and didn’t give us enough hints as to begin to work out its origins or other potential uses. In fairness, there is also a third more obviously sci-fi/fantasy element in Binti, but as it comes towards the end of the novella I won’t discuss it any further than the reinforce what I have already said: the core idea is promising but its execution is mediocre at best. In 96 pages I don’t expect a properly developed history of all of the characters, nor to be told everything their species is capable of; I do not want to have pages removing all mystery from the plot. What I do want is a reason to care about the characters and the tools at their disposal than Okorafor gives us.
The history of Binti and her people is interesting and I appreciate the fact that the main character is black and female, breaking from tradition to do what she wants demonstrating a feminist streak. Should we laud a book purely due to the fact it introduces readers to a new culture? I don’t think so. By the end of the novel I just don’t care about Binti. At best her characterisation is on par with an average 96 page novella, but I do think that many reviewers praise story for the MC’s cultural backstory instead of the story we are actually reading.
Onto parts I enjoyed less…
I found the plot (and especially its resolution) to be massively lacking in almost every aspect. The pacing was inconsistent, the explanation for the progression of characters was almost non-existent, and perhaps worst of all, it was unbelievable. Of course, speculative fiction rarely makes perfect sense and relies on suspension of disbelief, but in Binti, I was thrown out of the narrative by questionable choices made by the author. I felt as if I were reading a rushed summary of a much larger work with the author expecting the reader to supply far too much information. I won’t ruin anything, but the first sign of conflict in the narrative acted as a turning point for me, at which I found myself reading the story purely to see if it got any better. It did not.
The final third of the novella irked me due to the fact that Binti and the other characters act in such a nonsensical way. I can see what the author is trying to do, and perhaps what other reviewers enjoyed so much, but for me the climax and conclusion are far too simplified and unrealistic. Mass genocide is never a desirable outcome, but the resolution of the novella is just… bad. Not even meh, I was genuinely frustrated with the cliched, obvious conclusion.
The setting is rather bleak and uninspired – hardly any real detail is put into the worldbuilding to make either of the two main locations seems like real places. The desert is dry and dusty, the ship Binti is traveling on is large and rather nice – but aren’t these exactly what a reader would expect? To be clear, I don’t expect every novel(la) to introduce a series of original ideas, but I do expect authors to present a compelling enough location for their characters if they play such a large part of the story. Isolation is a key theme in the book (both socially and physically), and I am left thinking that Okorafor could have emphasised this aspect of the story more by focusing more on the smaller details of the ship Binti travels on. the long way to a small angry planet, for example, provides a much more thorough overview of a ship in just a couple of paragraphs than Binti does in many pages.
A technically strong female character from a minority background would be wonderful, it is just a shame that we don’t have one here. Fair enough, Binti comes from an inward-looking race which stands as the backbone of society due to its manufacturing of certain tools (or so it would seem) but are treated like second class citizens at best. Her people have traditions quite unlike any other human groups, and they are subjected to worse treatments in no small part because of these. She is isolated in her home for excelling as she does, and isolated from everyone else due to her race. Is Binti a strong character? In the context of the narrative, sure, she doesn’t die of fright, but the main reasons for her survival are not in choices she makes but in aspects carried forward from her origins. As I touched on above, I don’t think that she is a strong character from a technical standpoint.
You could probably take the first 96 pages from any truly good book (let’s say 4/5 or above) and still know more about the storyworld and the cast of characters. In Mistborn’s first 100 pages (take literally any of the books), Sanderson manages to draw us into his story. The same goes for Pratchett, Schwab, and many other authors.
I find myself asking what is particularly ground-breaking about this. We have a severely disadvantaged girl give up her familial responsibilities and identity (to a certain extent) in order to pursue her aspirations and true calling in life. Is this not a trope we see in a lot of fantasy and science fiction books? Of course, most fantasy of this ilk revolves around a young male character, usually not in any minority group, but other core elements are the same. Okorafor seems to have had half an idea and then got lost along the way – Binti needs to be strong in her own right, and whilst celebrating her heritage is wonderful, I can’t help but feel as though if she had had more to do with her own survival, I would have been more impressed. Admittedly, our protagonist does make the odd decision to keep herself alive, and she is strong enough to do what she believes is right for her even if not for the wellbeing of her family, but the development is nowhere near as deep as I would have hoped. Of course, there is only so much a writer can convey in so few pages, but it was up to Okorafor to create the story as we see it.
At 2/5 I do not recommend this novella unless you are incredibly interested in a linear story with the occasional interesting idea floating about. The premise of the novella had such promise and I am thoroughly disappointed – given enough time I might eventually read its two sequels to see if Okorafor improves at all, but that will be some time off if it ever happens. For reference, I think that Emma Newman’s series (mentioned above) demonstrates how a considerable amount of worldbuilding and storytelling can take place in few pages. The same can be said for a whole world of short stories. Themes of isolation, resilience, success over disadvantage are all present, but anyone expecting these to be presented in new (or even interesting ways) will be disappointed. Instead of following up with this series, I will instead try to find better examples of speculative fiction written by those from minority backgrounds.
As a bit of a sidenote: I am aware of the author’s academic success, but that doesn’t mean she is a great author. Pratchett had comparatively little education but produced wonderful stories the second he was published.