Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
The Future is Bright—Not White
By Roxanne Fequiere
I’ve long been puzzled by the kind of speculative fiction plot that takes a well-worn but earthly concept—say, racism or imperialism—and shoots it off into a galaxy far, far away, seemingly just because. The distant setting and otherworldly details seem to function as window dressing. Perhaps the blue underdog triumphs over their green overlords; perhaps they are instead purple and pink, respectively. Wrapped up within these facile metaphors appears to be a single question, insistent and incredulous: Can you imagine?
I can. As a black female reader, I don’t even have to strain my imagination to do so, which leads me to consider exactly who the intended reader is, whom the “you” in question refers to. The answer, of course, is obvious. When the oppressor and oppressed characters in these narratives are human (or at least human-looking), they tend to be overwhelmingly white.
In the future, these books appear to warn the reader, certain white folks may come to be treated as horribly as people of color have been. Look upon this work, ye Mighty, and despair! Meanwhile, those once-downtrodden people of color always seem to have simply vanished into thin air. It’s a trope that’s boring and exhausting at the same time, and one that I wanted to avoid when tackling science fiction this month.
Enter Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib, the eponymous heroine of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. A gifted teenager, she is the first of her people, the Himba, to be accepted to the prestigious Oomza University, located several planets away. Her family refuses to even entertain the notion, and when the novella opens, Binti has just run away from home in order to board a ship headed to Oomza, essentially severing ties with her family by doing so. “We Himba don’t travel,” she explains. “We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it.”
Binti is the pride of her people, a mathematical genius that can decipher circuitry and manipulate futuristic technology with ease. She is also a dark-skinned woman from a remote region of Africa, her skin and plaited hair covered in ojitze, a combination of red earth and oils—a tradition that’s actually practiced by the indigenous Himba people of northern Namibia. When she interacts with the world beyond her ancestral lands, populated by the pale-skinned Khoush, they mock her, touch her hair without permission, and go out of their way to demonstrate their discomfort in her presence. Can you imagine?
En route to Oomza University, Binti finds herself among scholars who, though curious about her customs, are generally respectful and, more importantly, as enthusiastic about numbers and learning as she is. Her joy is short-lived, however. The Meduse, an alien race at war with the Khoush, board the ship, murdering nearly everyone on board. Though the Meduse-Khoush conflict is an isolated one, Binti is familiar with it—the Khoush have embedded their wars, their treaties, their history into curricula around the globe back on Earth. Still, when she finds herself trying to negotiate her safe passage with the Meduse, she finds that she has much more to learn.
Binti is brief, even for a novella, but Okorafor packs an abundance of ideas into less than a hundred pages. There are spaceships that function like living organisms, force fields, and shuttles that glide over land using a combination of “air current, magnetic fields, and exponential energy.” Yet when it comes to imagining human interactions and cultural clashes, Okorafor doesn’t assume that the future will bear witness to modern-day problems foisted onto a different portion of the population. She considers the length of the moral universe’s arc and extrapolates accordingly.
Like so many black women before her, Binti is propelled forward by her sheer will to succeed and to survive. Beyond the threshold of her homeland, she is consistently othered, but it’s within this unsurprising but still unpleasant space that she learns to read people, friends and bullies alike. When a barely educated government guard hassles her on Earth, she knows that a couple of ten-dollar words will confuse him while also forcing him to let her pass, lest he be made to look stupid in public by a poor Himba girl. When she hears a reckless defiance in the voice of one of her captors’ voices, she intuits his youth and single-mindedly hawkish stance—she’s heard it before, in the voice of her own brother.
Only five percent of the students admitted to Oomza University are human, which means that Binti’s Khoush classmates are almost as much of an anomaly as she is once they arrive on campus. It’s another one of Okorafor’s deftly-executed, forward-thinking hypotheses: in the future, technology will allow us to connect with a multiplicity of species, meaning that space won’t look quite as blindingly white as we’ve been led to believe. It’s an intriguing premise, and one I’d love to see Okorafor flesh out. In her hands, I suspect the story of the blue folks and the green folks will be rich with originality and nuance.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.