Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.
If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti was the first of this year’s Hugo reading, besides those works I’d already read. And I started with Binti because I’ve actually owned it since it came out and I’d heard such wonderful things about it. And, of course, I loved Okorafor’s Lagoon. Binti definitely delivered, even if I would have loved it to be longer. I would have loved to have spent more time with Binti and Okwu and see how they adjust to life at Oomza University.
Okorafor starts with a premise that is probably familiar to most of us, the conflicted feeling of leaving home and striking out on your own, but she does so with some added twists. Because Binti’s leaving for university will most likely mean her being expelled from her family and additionally, she will be the only person from her people at university, which adds layer upon layer of isolation. The Himba, Binti’s people, are strongly tied to the earth and their ancestral grounds, which is reflected in their use of otjize, a mixture made with the red clay found in their lands, to protect their skin. But to Binti it is also a sense of connection, a literal piece of home to carry with her and with this significance in mind, I loved the way the otjize played its part in the plot.
The entrance of the Meduse into the narrative is dramatic and made for fraught reading, but I really enjoyed the way Binti eventually makes contact with them and that it is their mutual curiosity and Binti’s courage that allows Binti and Okwu to build a tenuous trust and friendship between them. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge is very much a driver in this story; it is what sends Binti off among the stars, what lets Okwu want to make contact with Binti, and what set off the central conflict in this book, that between the Meduse and Oomza University in the first place.
The setting of the book is mainly on board of the space ship carrying Binti to Oomza, though we get enticing glimpses of both Earth and Oomza University. And through Binti’s interactions with the Meduse, we also learn a bit about the history between Earth and the Meduse. I would have loved to have spent more time at the university, but that’s perhaps also due to my weakness for boarding school/university novels.
My one stumbling block in the narrative was the effect the Meduse’s sting has on Binti—it physically changes her permanently, without prior consent. To me this seems problematic on several levels and raises questions about consent as it regards to women and bodily autonomy. However, while when Binti first realises what happened she is deeply shocked and between the lines you can read some anger, she seems to accept what happened — and the apparent necessity of it — without too much outward protest, which just didn’t sit well.
Beyond this though, I absolutely adored Binti. The story ends on a hopeful note, one that resonated with me a lot. I’m glad that there will be a sequel to Binti published next January, because I could read an entire series about this fantastic heroine and the incredible universe she lives in.