Read: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti is of a tribe and family that is protective of its own – their customs, their heritage, and their Otherness. She is also a prodigy at mathematics, with her future as her father’s successor in the family business already decided for. When she receives a stipend to attend the most prestigious university in the known galaxy she stealthily chooses to go against her whole family, none of which has ever travelled outside the planet and some not even outside the village, yet purporting to know everything about the world outside.

She doesn’t make a conflict about it – she just prepares without telling anyone and then slips away in the night to catch the shuttle to the space port, knowing that she by this will be rejected by her culture, never allowed to come back.

In many ways Binti – the novella, not the person – is an anthropological journey, echoing of Ursula K LeGuin and her work. I’m reminded of novellas such as the ones collected in Worlds of Exile and Illusion, but also LeGuin’s work as a whole – exploring and examining cultural and societal constructs, from the perspective  of the Other.

The person Binti – who is a Himba of the Namib, looked down on by the Khoush people that holds power over the economy and institutions on her Earth – is both perceived as Other and encounters the Other, both the known other, the other from allied but alien planets, and the Other with whom they are at war with.

The story is intriguing, and a fast read, but in the end I think it would had benefited from getting more meat on it’s bones. As now it felt much like a story outline, which was good up until the resolution. Until then the format worked well: the story is told in tight first person, in snippets but well crafted and holding together, a credible telling of a series of events. The resolution continued in that style but the ease with which a disoriented minority teen manages to resolve a long standing conflict simply by being able to talk to both parties stretches my belief a wee bit too far. A bit like those detective stories aimed at preteens were two smart kids who seemingly never goes to school and whose parents are conspicuously absent manages to outsmart both the villains and the professional police investigators.

I did like the tone and style in which Okorafor tells the story. Despite, or perhaps because of, the short length of the story she manages to instil empathy for a girl whose cultural veneer is very different from my own, conveying the idea that humaneness is intrinsic, and maybe not even exclusive to humankind. An idea examined by many authors before her but not less honourable an endeavour for that.

Despite the slightly disappointing ending I am going to seek out more of Nnedi Okorafor‘s works, and should you find Binti on a shelf close to you – don’t hesitate to read it. At 89 pages it will not take a lot of your time.

Read: The Casual Angel, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Casual Thief has been lurking in my TBR-pile ever since I first pre-ordered and then fetched it from the SF Bookshop, two years ago. There are, of course, multiple reasons for this delay, but I really did want to understand what was going on in that faraway version of our future universe populated with the Sobornost, the zokus, Jean de Flambeur, and Mieli, in The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince books, so though late I did recently began to read it.

It was, from the start, as splintered – post-modern, if you so wish – as the previous installations. Rajaniemi has a brilliant imagination.  He has peppered his tale with references to contemporary pop culture and ancient mythologies galore, and armed with those images one can easily conjure explosive, florescent, fractal, visuals to go with a tale, and it is told in shards – sometimes having to wait for things to make sense. The Thief  – Jean – is on a quest that neither he nor the reader fully understand the ramifications of, to find the Kaminari jewel, but is he a tool, and for whom, or is he self-determined? Mieli, wandering the universe to find her lost lover. Is she a tool (too)? Is this a game? Do I care? Am I made to care?

Am I compelled to read beyond the first pages?

Yes.

As I once more dived into the fantastical imaginary world that he built, and as I kept adding his world-specific concepts and their labels to my mental dictionary, the pace slowly but surely picked up. And surely soon everything would come to a conclusion, surely soon everything would start to make sense? But as  I kept turning pages, searching for content and meaning, the more I felt left floundering in the void, hope for sense and conclusion diminishing as the number of pages left to convincingly pull the trick dwindled.

The visuals and imagination is both daring and stunning, as is the world-building. But beyond that at least I need something more than one more fantastical set of props and toys, more than what if fireworks. More than a creeping revelation that everything is a game, and relative.

I found it difficult to engage with the characters, to feel for them. At times it felt a bit like I was in the middle of a Skylanders challenge, or dropped on a Minecraft plain. Cunningly designed to keep your attention, but impersonal. It is possible to smile at the odd Harry Potter reference; at the gesture of showing how storytelling creeps into our reality. But still – impersonal.

There are other authors – like the late Iain M Banks, whose Culture universe is as post-human as this one – who manages to pull it off with more conviction, adding depth beyond wonder, despite veering off on personal rants against (or for) this or that.

I do think the trilogy would benefit from being read as one book, in one sequence, as I imagine that will make the experience an easier one. Maybe then one would be able to empathise with Jean, with Mieli. As it is I didn’t feel the experience worth the effort to start it all over again, just to test this hypothesis.

Kudos though  to Rajaniemi for the trilogy being well crafted, imaginative, and consistent; I imagine that a lot of people will enjoy reading it, as did I, as long as it lasted. Fireworks can be fun. Our stories do make us who we are. Just not a once more into the breach-experience for this one.