Binti is the first piece of science fiction in the Tor novella line, which is appropriate. Not only is it a story about an intensely clever, brave and compassionate young woman who finds herself doing several things for the first time, it’s also a first contact story. The brilliance of it lies in just how many versions of that first contact Okorafor folds into the text.
The first, and arguably most important one, is the contact between Binti’s people, the Himba, and Oomze University. The text deals with the banal, constant prejudice the Himba face with the same awareness Binti herself does; never letting it get in the way but never unopposed by it. It’s a clear-eyed, sadly realistic approach to racism and Okorafor is careful to show us both sides of the cut it leaves. To the rest of humanity, the Himba are primitive. To the Himba, the rest of the world is hostile and they want no part of it. A cycle with no need to end.
Until Binti decides to end it.
That first level has so much wrapped up in it, so much subtle world building and commentary that it would have been easy to lose Binti herself amongst the structures of the story. That never happens, as Okorafor takes immense pains to keep this brave, pressed, clever young woman front and centre throughout the story. Binti is never off ‘stage’, never given a moment’s rest and never out of her depth. She is, as the text goes on to prove, exactly where she, and everyone else, needs her to be.
That’s especially true of the most literal first contact in the story, between Binti and the warlike Meduse. The Meduse are described as elegant, wafting creatures of murder. Their offhand, efficient slaughter of the entirety of the crew of the University transport is the book’s most disturbing point as well as the one that locks us into the viewpoint of Binti herself. It also challenges us, subtly, to buy into the human view of the Meduse; warlike, barbaric, evil. A view that Binti, a woman who is familiar with what it’s like to be on ‘everyone’s’ villain list, knows all too well. And, quickly, finds herself rejecting
The understanding between the Meduse and Binti, as each side solves the puzzle of the other, makes for one of the most involving, clever and poignant first contact stories you’ll read. It also leads to the novella’s two best moments, both of which involve the connections between Binti’s past and her future. Her viewpoint, her experience, places her in a unique position. Okorafor uses it to give Binti agency and to act in the same way the otjize she brings does; binding things together. Making new shapes out of old forms and perceptions. Healing, with all the change in perspective that comes with it.
That change in perspective is also tied to the final kind of first contact. As well as Binti’s life, this is a story about what happens when imperialist approaches to academia collide with the real world. Which, written down, sounds incredibly dry but the way it plays out is fascinating and folds elegantly back into Binti’s own life. Oomze University is changed forever by Binti’s arrival and what she brings with her. There are subtle, cutting points made about academia and ethical practice here, ones that will stay with you long after the story’s done. As will Binti herself. An unusual, remarkable heroine at the centre of an unusual, remarkable story. And one you absolutely should not miss.