Comfortably Numb: Binti

binti-by-nnedi-okorafor

*Minor Spoilers Ahead!*

Within its 96 pages, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti delivers a complex and stunning lead character, entrenches her in a detailed and culture-rich future Earth, and then rockets her off into a vast and equally vivid universe. It is, without a doubt, a master-class in both world-building and character driven 1st person perspective, and it challenged my expectations at every turn; about story structure, about the hero’s journey and, most of all, about how to write deeply layered vulnerability.

That last one is so tricky. In my graduate lecture at VCFA, one of the topics I addressed was the problem of Bella Swan (from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight). Bella is ridiculed by many critics and readers as being a weak protagonist, in part, because she becomes so frustratingly numb after Edward leaves her. In response, I argued that while her grief may damage her, Bella’s willingness to allow the reader access to her as she suffers makes her incredibly powerful. It isn’t the suffering that makes Bella a weak protagonist. She’s a weak protagonist because she’s passive.

I bring that up because there is a moment in Binti where the entire story explodes. Aliens besiege the spacecraft on which Binti travels. Death suddenly overwhelms the narrative. Prior to that, we’ve followed Binti as she confronts the expectations of her family and community, her otherness in the eyes of her world’s majority, and her own anxiety as she dares to chase her dreams of studying at the esteemed Oomza Uni. Okorafor doesn’t prepare the reader when, suddenly, Binti becomes a completely different kind of story – one full of blood, violence, and monsters that stalk corridors.

a hero’s journey the likes of which I’ve never read.

During the initial attack Binti manages to lock herself in her room. For three days, according the narrative, nothing really happens. She remains in her room. Takes no action. The monsters are still aboard the ship. Everyone that was aboard the ship but the pilot (Binti presumes) and Binti are dead. Nothing happens. Three. Days.

It’s a Bella Swan moment, complicated all the more by the abrupt shift in tone that the narrative takes. I’ll admit: when I first read it, I felt betrayed. Once all that violence soaked through the story, I wasn’t ready for (or expecting) our hero to so completely shut down. Okorafor had never shown Binti to be that fragile. I couldn’t get over it. While the aliens who murdered every other living thing on her ship do whatever they please, Binti sits. She doesn’t know their intentions, and despite her instinct for survival we get no other clues that Binti has any real fight in her. I wanted her to open that door and do something. It bothered me tremendously that she refused. . .

. . . and then I realized:

Binti is not Ellen Ripley. I shouldn’t expect her to be. Binti’s power isn’t in picking up a weapon and exacting terrible vengeance on the monsters that violated her. She’s also not Bella Swan. She’s not passive. We know this because the first half of the novella makes it very clear. Binti is vulnerable, yes, but she’s also thoughtful, capable, and (unlike Bella) she’s full of agency and fiercely active. Since she’s the one telling us the story, Binti’s admission that she spends three days locked in her room displays her willingness to allow the reader access to her suffering. Binti chose to leave that detail in. The choice informs us of her inner strength. She’s incredibly powerful, and she proves it in what follows: a hero’s journey the likes of which I’ve never read. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that Binti eventually does arm herself and commits to battle. Just not the way I expected. She uses the weapons of her people; their values, her compassion, and the unique traits that make her who she is.

Binti an extraordinary work with an extraordinary hero. Read it.

Nnedi Okorafor is a novelist of African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults. Find out more about her work at: http://www.nnedi.com

BINTI, and its follow-up, BINTI: HOME are available now in paperback and e-book from Tor. BINTI: THE NIGHT MASQUERADE drops on January 16, 2018

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