I’ve been enjoying N. K. Jemisin’s science fiction and fantasy. I mentioned somewhere that I was delighted to see an African-American woman becoming a successful writer, so someone suggested I might like Nnedi Okorafor. From my inter-library loan system I ordered Binti, the first of a new series of books by her.
Not to keep you in suspense, Binti sucks. It’s just appallingly bad.
On realizing that, I had to step back and take a look at my own attitudes. Was I perhaps reacting negatively to this book, or proposing to criticize it publicly, out of unconscious racism?
I had a look around on the Web, to try to learn more about Okorafor. If she was a talented high-school student, I should certainly maintain radio silence, in Thomas Dolby’s phrase. But no. She wrote this novella at the age of 30. It’s not her first published book. Worse yet, it won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best novella in 2016. What the actual fuck??? Did I get a defective copy of the book that someone sandwiched an entirely different story into? Not a tenable hypothesis, but I’m grasping at straws here. How could something so deficient in basic science fiction technique possibly win those awards?
The story is easily summarized. Binti is a 16-year-old girl. She is part of a smallish and apparently rather isolated ethnic group on Earth. She’s also a math genius. She has secretly applied to and been accepted by Oomza University, a really big, prestigious university on some other planet somewhere in the galaxy. How she plans to pay her tuition or living expenses is never discussed, but we know she has run off secretly, not even telling her parents, so they’re not the deep pockets.
She smears red clay all over her body, and in her hair. All the time. It’s what her people do. They do it instead of bathing, because they live in an area where water is scarce. You may, if you like, imagine the colonies of bacteria that are thriving under the layer of red clay, but I’m not going to go there.
Here is Okorafor’s explanation for this bizarre habit. In Binti’s voice, “On my people’s land, fresh water, water humans can drink, is so little that we do not use it to bathe as so many others do. We wash with otjize, a mix of red clay from our land and oils from our local flowers.” I’m all for multiculturalism, but this is weird. First, they’re not bathing, because they don’t scrape the clay off the way the ancient Romans scraped off oil — they leave it smeared all over their bodies. Second, flowers don’t produce oils. Third, to grow flowers at all you have to have water. Fourth, if wikipedia is to be believed, clays “become hard, brittle and non–plastic upon drying.” Clay is only flexible to begin with because of its water content. In this case the water has been replaced with oil, but even if you start with dry, brittle clay and add oil, you have a worse problem. Your body is now covered with oily clay, which means your sweat can’t evaporate. If you live in the desert, as Binti’s people do, you will very soon die of heat stroke because your body can’t cool itself by sweating. Either that, or the clay will be dripping off of you as it mingles with your sweat (although oil and water don’t mix — I’m not planning to experiment in order to research this), so you’ll constantly have to apply more clay.
For reasons that would be tedious to explain and that also don’t make a lick of sense, the clay is an important part of the plot, so it’s smeared on practically every page. On balance, though, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s picturesque, but picturesque is not guaranteed to be good science.
Binti hops on an interstellar ship that’s going to carry a bunch of students off to Oomza Uni. The trip will take only a few weeks — major faster-than-light travel is part of the scenario. The ship is a bio-engineered shrimp, which is laughable, but whatever. Her private room in the ship has a window, which is pretty silly, both for safety reasons and because there’s not much to see out the window when you’re traveling faster than light. Okorafor never bothers to tell us what’s visible out the window. Also … a private stateroom with a window for a 16-year-old student? That’s a heck of a scholarship she’s got.
There are other weird little problems like this. The ship plainly has artificial gravity, because in one scene she’s struggling to pick up a tray that’s heavily laden. Yet toward the end of the book one of the aliens comments that Binti’s feet are wobbly because, now that they’ve landed, she needs to get used to the gravity. Also, when the ship enters the atmosphere her ears pop. This is a standard thing on airplanes, and might even happen on the Space Shuttle for all I know, but it would absolutely not happen on an interstellar spaceship entering the atmosphere.
The editing mistakes are minor — “peak” instead of “peek,” “sunk” instead of “sank,” a stray comma where one doesn’t belong. The editors at Tom Doherty Associates are supposed to catch this kind of thing, but these days editing ain’t what it used to be. The pacing tends to be tedious; Okorafor jets away from an action scene to tell us more about how Binti grew up, and that’s kind of unforgivable. Bottom of page 27: “Everyone was dead. The dinner hall stank of blood.” Top of page 28: “None of my family had wanted me to go to Oomza Uni. Even my best friend Dele hadn’t wanted me to go.” Head spinning now.
I’m getting sidetracked. The primary incident in the story is this: The ship, which is whipping along much faster than light in interstellar space, is boarded by a bunch of hostile aliens whose ship has docked with the human ship. Two or possibly three things about this are flatly impossible.
First, interstellar space is really, really big. Detecting another ship at all when it’s traveling along some other vector than your ship at a faster than light speed and then matching velocity with it so as to dock and board — wait, we can’t even call it “velocity,” can we? If they’re traveling faster than light, it isn’t velocity. Whatever. In an episode of Star Trek, aliens could possibly beam onto your ship, because beaming technology is just as silly as faster-than-light travel. But Okorafor specifically tells us that the alien ship docked with the human ship.
Note to aspiring writers: Spaceships are not at all like ocean-going ships. Do not confuse the two technologies. Just don’t.
Second, no alarm is raised when this happens. The students are quietly eating lunch in the lounge when the aliens burst in and gruesomely murder everybody. Everybody except Binti, that is. No alarm? How could the crew on the bridge possibly not have noticed an approaching alien ship?
Third, and maybe I’m being too picky here, to dock one ship to another when there are breathing entities in both ships, you have to produce a decent vacuum seal at the end of the docking tube so as not to lose air. But these aliens have been pretty much at war with humans for a while now — so is it credible that their docking tube would be mechanically compatible with the hatch on the human ship? Not really. And they must have blown open the hatch from the outside (without causing alarm bells to ring, but I already mentioned that, didn’t I?), because the hatches on spaceships are not often equipped with exterior door knobs.
From there, it gets worse. Binti happens to be carrying an artifact — some sort of mysterious “old technology” she picked up in the desert — that both protects her from being butchered by the aliens and then allows her to converse with them in their own language. Then we learn that the “chief” of these tentacled aliens has had his “stinger,” a lethal anatomical appendage, stolen by humans. How they managed to steal it without killing him is not explained.
The stinger is now, you guessed it, in a museum of weaponry at Oomza University. He wants it back.
Let’s assume (Okorafor is vague about this) that the chief is only the captain of this one alien ship. He’s not the head honcho of their whole spacefaring race, because what would the alien emperor be doing cruising around on a spaceship? The order-of-magnitude confusion between one ship of hostile aliens and a whole hostile alien society is something that Okorafor never bothers to clear up, but whatever. Let’s also assume that the chief has figured out (somehow) that this particular ship is full of students headed for Oomza Uni, which will enable him to use the ship as a sort of Trojan horse to land a bunch of fighters on the Oomza planet to try to get his stinger back. That’s his plan. This would be quixotic, as the aliens would quickly end up dead, but let’s assume his honor demands that he try it. Okay.
The conclusion of the story is, as you may have guessed, that Binti single-handedly manages to negotiate a settlement between the chief and the bigwigs at Oomza Uni. They return the chief’s stinger and invite one of the tentacled aliens to remain as a new student. Happy-happy joy-joy, interstellar peace and good vibes achieved at last. It’s not hard to see that Okorafor was likely inspired by stories about the return of pilfered archaeological treasures, and that’s certainly a worthwhile topic for a story. An amputated anatomical part is an awfully big stretch, not to mention that it can successfully be reattached, but I’d be willing to cut the author a little slack on that.
No, the problem that remains unresolved and indeed unaddressed at the end of the story is that the chief’s aliens have butchered several hundred passengers and crew members on the human ship — a huge crime — and yet they’re allowed to return to space and sail away, free and clear.
Isn’t that special?
I really ought to start voting in the Nebulas. It’s only one vote, but if I can do my part to prevent a repeat of this kind of train wreck, reading all those novels and stories would be time well spent.