Friday, July 8, 2022

Book review: Binti

 I've never written a book review before, but what is a blog if not a platform to give your uninformed opinion to people who don't care about it :)

Recently I read the novella Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. I had recently saw it on the shelf at the library and I remembered it being pretty popular back when it was released, so thought i would give it a go. Overall, i liked it up to the ending, which I strongly disliked.

In general, it seemed like a fun coming of age/space opera-esque story. You have a main character who is an outsider and unsure of herself. Due to circumstances beyond her control she is thrust into the middle of interplanetary conflict which only she can resolve due to unique traits which originally had marked her as an outsider.

None of this is particularly ground breaking - I have read many stories with that type of plot structure - but it still makes for a fun story. The weird part here, is I don't think this is the type of story that the author intended to write. From what I remember of this book's release, the selling point was supposed to be how it explored the main character's culture (Which from what I understand is based on the real human culture of the Himba people). However, to me, that seemed like the most weak and superficial part of the book. All we really get, is that they don't like outsiders, and use an ointment made of mud that is very culturally important. We get very little in terms of why this is meaningful to the character, or how it affects her worldview, etc.

Its a reasonably common theme to explore "culture" in science fiction works. Admittedly, it is somewhat rarer but definitely not unheard of to explore it as an end in itself. More common is to have an alien culture to juxtapose against contemporary mainstream culture to make some point about the mainstream culture of the context the writer is writing in. Novels such as The Dispossessed and Stranger In A Strange Land come to mind as novels that posit some alien culture to contrast it with contemporary culture. Other times alien characters have a unique culture to provide an aesthetic of otherness for them. Consider how boring most aliens in star trek are compared to the Klingons that have a much better developed cultural back story. Or how alien the aliens feel in the Lilith's Brood series. Even if the cultural exploration is arguably not the primary point to these novels, the cultures they explore feel rounded and fleshed out. The cultural depiction in Binti seems flat comparatively, because even if its tied to a real culture, it was barely explored in the novella.

Ultimately I felt like this novella worked as a fun space adventure; it didn't work as an interesting cultural exploration.

Last of all the: The ending [Major spoilers ahead]

The ending ruined the book for me. It did not make sense in terms of character logic nor character emotion.

Basically - the aliens, who are very isolationist, are mad because the university stole the stinger of one of their leaders to display as an artifact. So they decide to murder everyone on a ship full of students in order to sneak in and retrieve it (or die trying). The situation is resolved by the university saying sorry, claiming that doing such a thing was against policy, and the appropriate people will be punished. Additionally one of the aliens was invited to be an exchange student.

To me, this felt just one step above, "it was all a dream". It makes no sense how the university could accidentally have obtained the artifact without realizing it was unethically sourced. Some researchers just show up with an alien body part, from aliens who generally refuse to talk to outsiders, and everyone just assumed the alien gave consent for this? It is difficult to reconcile these plot points together logically, unless the university was intentionally turning a blind eye, in which case, why would their apology be accepted? Second, nobody was at all upset that everyone on the ship was slaughtered. I could understand maybe letting bygones be bygones for the greater good - but they should at least be a little sad about it. Nobody seemed to care at all.

In conclusion: Generally fun plot. The "cultural" aspects were superficial and overrated. Ending sucked.

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