Entries from April 2018 ↓

Review: Binti: Home and The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor\’s novella Binti won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year.  This year, the middle volume of the trilogy, Binti: Home, has also been nominated, and a few months ago the conclusion, Binti: The Night Masquerade was released.  So it seems like a good time to talk about the whole series!

(As I am discussing the final book of a trilogy, there will be a certain amount of spoilers for the first two books.  I will do my best to keep them somewhat vague, and to avoid spoiling the third book much.)

\"\"In Binti, we met the title character – a gifted harmonizer able to create currents of energy by \”treeing\”, or meditating on mathematical equations, and the first of the Himba people to attend Oomza Uni, a prestigious galactic university.  The Himba are strongly rooted to the earth that they live on, as evinced by her people\’s tradition of covering their skin and hair with otjize – a mixture of red clay, oil, and fragrant herbs.  The neighboring Khoush people mock and belittle the Himba for that and for their general provinciality, despite the Himba specialty – and in fact Binti\’s family\’s own expertise – in the intricate and widely used technology of astrolabes (think smartphones taken to their logical conclusion of being one\’s entire interface to the digital world).

Despite derogatory comments from the Khoush and resistance from her own family, Binti boards a living spaceship full of Khoush students, literally covered in her own homeland as she travels out into the galaxy despite the way it separates her.  She also brings her edan – a strange artifact she found in the desert, which responds somehow to her treeing – and she brings her wisdom as a harmonizer in training as well.  All of these things allow her to be the sole survivor of an attack on her ship by the alien Meduse, in which the hundreds of Khoush students are killed. Binti is pressured into acting as a representative for the Meduse and brokers a truce between them and Oomza Uni – but she is irrevocably changed in the process, becoming somehow part Meduse herself, and developing a sort of bond with a Meduse named Okwu, who becomes the first Meduse student on Oomza Uni.

In Binti: Home, she tries to go home again, a year later, and Okwu accompanies her.  She is now wearing otjize made from clay on Oomza Uni, reflecting her confusion and ambiguous feelings about what \”home\” means to her. Her family, being so strongly rooted to their homeland, is still angry about her departure; Binti has to endure barbed comments from family and friends alike. The Khoush are still angry about the Meduse attack on their students, and see Okwu\’s accompanying Binti back to Earth as a provocation. And Binti learns more about the non-Himba side of her family; her father came from the Enya Zinariya people, who even the Himba look down on. Instead of going on the traditional pilgrimage of Himba women, to attain her status as an adult of her people, she is instead taken to see the leader of the Enya Zinariya and undergoes a ritual to unlock the alien technology embedded in their blood. At the end of the second book Binti discovers that her family home, the Root, has been attacked by the Khoush, seeking revenge on Okwu.

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up immediately from that cliffhanger and thrusts Binti back into the position of trying to broker peace between humans and the Meduse.  Her own identity has been shattered into pieces – part Himba, part Meduse, part Enya Zinariya – and the tension between the different parts of her, as well as the disorientation from her new access to the Zinariya technology, leaves her unbalanced and unsure of herself.  Her otjize continues to carry the symbolic weight of her connection to her concept of home, which in this story takes quite a beating as Binti tries her hardest to resolve those tensions and figure out who she actually is – not who she\’s being told to be by her Himba family and friends, or who she\’s been turned into by the Meduse metamorphosis, or who she\’s been linked with through the Zinariya technology.  But despite all the strife she faces both within herself and at the intersection of the multiple different worlds that all try to claim a piece of her, her heart is still in the same place.  She is a harmonizer, and harmony is the meaning of her life; she seeks to bring it to those around her and strives for it within herself as well.

Dr. Okorafor writes Binti\’s struggles so empathetically.  It\’s an utter joy to spend time in Binti\’s head, even when she\’s miserable and unsure, because she just feels so real, despite the fact that the problems she faces are mostly alien to me, both literally and figuratively.  At her lowest points I was worried and desperately hoping she would find a path to happiness; at her highest points I exulted along with her in the wonders the universe had to offer, and at her strongest moments I marveled at her fortitude, her harmony, the gravitational pull she exerted on the world around her to try to make things better.  Binti: Home was a masterful conclusion to the trilogy, leaving me satisfied with the story but simultaneously hoping to see more of Binti\’s story someday.

Best Novella Hugo

Only two novellas in, and this is already a really difficult choice.  I suppose it\’s my own fault for starting with my two favorites.  As I have noted with previous ballots, I typically prefer to avoid voting to give a second Hugo to a series; in this case, Binti was awarded the Hugo for Best Novella in 2016, so I\’ll put the newcomer on top for now.

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor

Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

\"AllAll Systems Red is the first novella of a new series entitled The Murderbot Diaries.  For some of you that\’s probably enough to recommend the book already; it was for me.  (Well, that and hearing about it via Seanan McGuire\’s Twitter feed.  Any murderbot that passes Seanan\’s standards is good enough for me.)  Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

The titular character is, well, a murderbot.  Specifically, a security unit with little ambition and less interest in murdering people, who has been contracted – rented out, really – as protection for a research group investigating a new planet.  Its main interests are serial dramas and gaining personal autonomy by hacking one\’s own governor protocols; its greatest dislikes are social interactions and being forced to do things it doesn\’t want to do.

The murderbot simply refers to itself as Murderbot, and it is not a person, at least as far as its society is concerned.  The line between human and robot has become rather blurred – we know augmented humans exist, and Murderbot\’s body is at least part organic; nevertheless, Murderbot is an object, owned by a corporation and rented out like a rototiller.  But the first-person viewpoint of the story – engaging, emotional, and all too familiar to someone who suffers from social anxiety like I do – puts the lie to that idea almost immediately.

I found Murderbot to be a deeply sympathetic character, whether just trying to keep its head down and not shoot anyone, or fretting about how the humans it protected would see it, or recoiling from the humans\’ well-meant attempts to get to know it.  Murderbot clearly has a severe case of social anxiety from being treated as less than human for so long, and goddamn do I understand that feeling.

Lest I give the impression that the whole story is just Murderbot trying to figure out how to interact with humans – there are actual problems outside of its own head to solve, too; its personal development is driven by, and drives in turn, other events in the plot.  But it\’s Murderbot\’s emotional arc, and the tension between its clear personhood and society\’s refusal to consider it as anything other than an object, that grabbed my attention more than anything else – and that leaves me wanting so badly to read the next book in The Murderbot Diaries.

Best Novella Hugo

This looks like another strong year for several of the Hugo Award categories, so as I review each of the nominees for this year\’s Hugos I\’m going to build up my final ballot one by one, rather than trying to put everything in order at the end.  In this case, I read All Systems Red last year and nominated it for the Hugo, and I\’m happy to see it on the ballot.  Will it be my top choice?  Honestly, I\’m not sure; three of my nominees were finalists, and even among those I don\’t know how I\’ll order them yet.  But until I review them, my ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells

Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

\"\"Space Opera started as a joke. How else? Cat Valente was livetweeting the Eurovision Song Contest, Charles Tan made a joke about \”you should write a Eurovision SF novel\”, and Navah Wolfe immediately offered to buy the novel before a word had been written.  From these hilarious, humble beginnings came… well.

Take the combined aesthetics of David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Jem and the Holograms, and the Diva Plavalaguna and crush them into a glittery powder.  Now smash Douglas Adams and Hunter S. Thompson together in a transporter accident, and have the resulting author-golem snort an entire noseful of the aforementioned powder and then rewrite \”Encounter at Farpoint\” as a pop-song competition with humanity\’s survival at stake.  That\’s almost what Space Opera is like.

Almost, but not quite, because I still haven\’t figured out how to describe the raw, beating heart and soul of the book.  The absurd descriptions of the aliens and their technology and culture, and the improbable appearances of certain Earthly avatars seven thousand lightyears away, are certainly due at least in part to Adams\’ influence – but he never examined the failures and faults of humanity with such anguish.  The aliens\’ gonzo music scene and the variety of neurochemical alterations needed to fully grok it, as well as the unflinching descriptions of humanity at its shittiest, are also somewhat reminiscent of Thompson\’s work – but he never contemplated the human condition with such compassion.

In the end, comparisons to other authors and artists fall short.  The heart of this book is Catherynne Valente\’s own, as is the variety of startling and revelatory imagery she employs, and they\’re the same things that keep me coming back to every new book she writes.  Humanity, like all life across the galaxy, is beautiful and stupid.  We fuck things up all the time but we keep trying, and Valente loves us all for it, but that doesn\’t mean we\’re getting off easy.  Beneath all the glitter and glam, Space Opera reminds us that we\’re capable of so much beauty, if we could just stop being assholes to each other for long enough.