The Rest Is Silence: Ouroboros

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In Ouroboros, an indie mini-series produced by Utica-based writer and artist Mike Peckham, one of the most often used and arguably vital narrative devices common to comic books goes missing: the internal monologue.

Peckham’s is not the only comic I’ve ever read to eschew the internal monologue, but it’s the first one that I’ve read where its absence was so obviously daring.

Ouroboros is a story about memory and time travel, though trying to sum up the plot in simple terms like that doesn’t really do it justice. Peckham’s weird, heady sci-fi is as complex and strange as a David Lynch movie. He boldly hurls his reader into the middle of a twisted world blind, bewildered, and as off-balance as his aloof lead, a man called Gabriel.

To the absence of the internal monologue: I suspect Peckham didn’t let his reader into Gabriel’s mind because Gabriel, himself, wouldn’t allow it. He’s not that sort of character. He’s stand-offish. His walls are up all the time. Interestingly, Peckham’s decision to shut the reader out of Gabriel’s mind – which risks alienating his audience – arguably pulls readers closer to his reluctant protagonist. As Gabriel’s journey unfolds in its chaotic zigzag, we are always right beside him, off-balance with him. We are just as confused yet determined to solve his puzzle with him.

Peckham’s is not the only comic I’ve ever read to eschew the internal monologue, but it’s the first one that I’ve read where its absence was so obviously daring.

I claimed it was daring, and Peckham’s choice to omit the common device of internal monologue shocks like a dare. It’s a dare to the reader: Venture into the unknown without the promise of answers or the promise of any sort of resolution. Peckham dares anyone who picks up Ouroboros to jump in unprepared, and come out enlightened.

You should take the plunge. Read Ouroboros.

You can explore more of Mike Peckham’s brilliant work at his website. Located at: http://www.mrpeckham.com/

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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