Category: Science Fiction

Binti: Home

binti-homeby Nnedi Okorafor

eISBN 978-0-7653-9310-4

“Tribal hatred lived, even in Oomza Uni. And today that hatred, after simmering for a year, was coming to a head.”

Having succeeded in negotiating a tentative peace between the Meduse and Oomza Uni after the attack on the Third Fish transport, Binti and Okwu have settled in as students on the university planet. Binti is supposed to be a master harmonizer, but ever since the attack, she has been experiencing violent mood swings, feeling almost uncontrollable flashes of anger that have convinced her she is unclean. To purge herself, Binti decides it is time to travel home, and make the traditional Himba women’s pilgrimage. But returning to Earth will mean making her first space trip since the attack, and facing up to the consequences of defying tradition when she chose to leave her family behind to attend university.

Binti returns to Earth after a year at Oomza Uni, with Okwu as her travelling companion. Okwu is the first Meduse to ever visit Earth for a peaceful purpose, and their arrival at a Khoush spaceport causes a great stir. This serves to highlight just how tentative the peace with the Meduse is. Over their first year of study, Okwu has been in constant conflict with its human teacher, and Binti has the sense that the fact that war has been forbidden only makes the Meduse want it more. Despite being regarded as a hero at Oomza Uni, her friendship with Okwu has prevented her from making any other close friends there.

Although Nnedi Okorafor begins Home with a fight, for the most part, it is a quieter affair than the first Binti  novella, focusing on interpersonal relationships, including social and familial constructs and traditions. When Binti comes home, she must face the fact that she has disturbed the line of succession in her family, abdicating her place as her father’s heir in the astrolabe business, and also forfeit her position as a woman within Himba society. No man will want to marry her, as her old friend Dele makes abundantly clear, and her family’s emotions are a warring mix of pride in her accomplishments and anger at her abandonment of their way of life.

The most interesting part of Home takes place when Binti makes an unexpected detour to visit the Desert People, known among themselves as the Enyi Zinariya. Binti’s father is descended from them, but this is considered a shameful fact, never spoken of, and Binti is embarrassed by the darker skin and bushier hair she inherited from her father, though her hair has now been replaced by Meduse okuoko. After highlighting the tension between the Khoush and the Himba in Binti, Okorafor takes it a step further here, exploring the people who are looked down upon by the Himba, just as the Khoush look down on them. In making peace with herself after the traumatic events that took place aboard the Third Fish, Binti must confront the part of her heritage she has denied and been taught to be ashamed of.

The character and world-building in Home may be stronger than the action, but the pace picks up in the last five percent of the book, heading towards a cliff-hanger ending that promises a more eventful third installment in the Binti series. Whereas in the first volume, Binti looked out to the stars and dared to imagine a bigger life for herself, here she must come home into order to look within, and reconcile her dreams with her roots. While Binti is beginning to feel a bit more like a serialized novel than stand-alone novellas, I nevertheless look forward to the next volume. The third Binti story is titled The Night Masquerade, and is due out in September 2017.


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Who Fears Death

The Fate of the Tearling (Queen of the Tearling #3)

Cover image for The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansenby Erika Johansen


“For three long centuries the Fetch had watched William Tear’s dream sink further and further into the mire. No one in the Tearling could even see Tear’s better world any longer, let alone muster the courage to dig for it.”

By handing over the Tear sapphires to the Red Queen, Kelsea has bought a reprieve in the war with Mortmesne, but at a terrible price. She is taken captive, and imprisoned in a dungeon beneath the Palais in Desmesne. With her hold on her kingdom slipping, the Red Queen is desperate to master the magic of the sapphires before the dark threat from the Fairwitch sweeps her off her throne. The Mace is left in charge of New London, torn between his duty to rescue Kelsea as head of the Queen’s Guard, and his responsibility to rule Tear as her Regent. He cannot leave Kelsea imprisoned, but sensing an opportunity, the Arvath is attempting to wrest power from the crown, and Lazarus must move on two fronts. The fate of the Tearling hangs in the balance.

In The Queen of the Tearling, the series began as a traditional fantasy tale of a young monarch coming to power after being raised in secrecy for her own protection. In her first days on the throne, Kelsea Raleigh Glynn made powerful enemies by stopping the shipment of Tear slaves to Mortmesne. But from that prosaic beginning, the trilogy has made some unusual choices, revealing a dystopian twist, and a science-fiction turn that create an interesting blend of genres. Johansen has built a unique world, but one that requires a high level of buy-in from the reader, and acceptance that not everything will be readily explained. With The Fate of the Tearling bringing the trilogy to a close, there are still many questions and loose threads left over from the second volume.

Raised in exile by a historian, Kelsea believes strongly in the importance of history, and that the past can help her unlock their present predicament. Imprisoned in a Mort dungeon, she gives herself over to her strange fugue states, which mysteriously continue despite the fact that she has been separated from Tear’s sapphires. Though Lily Mayhew is still alive at the time, Kelsea is now seeing William Tear’s Town through the eyes of Katie Rice, the daughter of Tear’s trusted lieutenant, Dorian. As Tear’s utopian dream begins to unravel in the years after the Crossing, Katie is recruited for secret training to guard Tear’s heir, Jonathan. These flashback sections are more loosely framed than in The Invasion of the Tearling, possibly because with Kelsea imprisoned, there is little other action to interrupt.

Since Kelsea is imprisoned in Mortmesne, Johansen draws on the perspectives of wide variety of secondary characters to flesh out the wider story. In New London, Andalie’s daughter Aisa observes events from her new position as a member of the Queen’s Guard. Several chapters are seen from the perspective of Arlen Thorne’s witch, Brenna, who was captured and imprisoned in the Keep dungeon. The traitorous Gate Guard Javel follows the Queen’s Guard on their mission to Desmesne, more to find his long-lost wife than for any interest in rescuing the Queen. As usual, Johansen perfectly times her changes in perspective for maximum dramatic tension.

In the first two installments of the series, Kelsea relied heavily on the magic of the mysterious Tear sapphires, handed down through generations of Raleigh monarchs. Their precise origins and the source of their power both remained unexplained, making them a rather unsatisfying device. In The Fate of the Tearling, we finally get some answers, but perhaps not as many as some readers might desire. Despite the explanations, the sapphires are still overly-convenient devices, but understanding their history does mitigate this somewhat. This reliance on the sapphires weakens Kelsea’s character, and the series as a whole, but Johansen’s strong pacing, and complex characters such as Mace, the Red Queen, and the Fetch carry the series to an intriguing if not entirely satisfying conclusion.


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The Last Star (The 5th Wave #3)

Cover image for The Last Star by Rick Yanceyby Rick Yancey

ISBN 978-0-599-16243-5

“No one is ever going to read this. By the time I’m gone, there won’t be anyone left who can read. So this isn’t for you, future reader who won’t exist. It’s for me.”

Humanity has been devastated by wave after wave of attacks from the Others, disembodied aliens who have come to…well no one really knows what their goals are. Why would a disembodied consciousness need a planet? But Evan Walker—part human, part alien Silencer—knows that in four days, on the spring equinox, the Silencers will be called home to the mother ship, and the next wave of destruction will begin. The remaining survivors, Cassie, Sam, Zombie, Ringer, and Megan are almost out of time.

The Last Star opens on a priest, holed up in a series of caves in Ohio with some of the remnants of humanity. He says mass for the last time, having run out of wine and bread to serve as the host. The language of a Revelations-style apocalypse is worked throughout this final installment of the series, an on-going motif that helps evoke an atmosphere of imminent doom. In The 5th Wave, bodies as battlefields and cockroaches were the choice images, while rats and the silver thread connecting people featured heavily in The Infinite Sea. Here the motif is faith in its many forms; who and what do we trust or believe in at the end of the world?

From there, Yancey divides the story into four sections, one for each of the remaining days before the next phase of attacks begins. He continues to utilize multiple perspectives, often shifting between voices at key moments, but striking a better balance than he achieved in The Infinite Sea. Cassie’s voice in The Last Star is snarkier, more on edge. Writing in her journal, she tries to use humour to diffuse the almost unbearable tension, but it only serves to highlight the desperateness of the situation. Evan has a plan to use the fact the Silencers are being called in to strike back at the Others, but Cassie worries about all the many unknowns that could derail the plan. So many of their assumptions have already been overturned, and their reunion with Ringer only serves to further emphasize that fact. Yancey’s imagination remains gritty and horrific.

The 5th Wave was probably one of my favourite reads of 2013, though it didn’t make my top five, in large part due to a gross scene in which Cassie says no and Evan proceeds anyway. As I put it at the time, “authors, having your heroine say NO and your love interest ignore her IS NEVER ROMANTIC.” In The Last Star it was Ringer’s situation that bothered me on a number of levels, the least spoilery of which was Zombie’s ongoing crusade to get her to smile for him, just once. The intention was likely to show that Zombie cared about making Ringer happy, but forcing women to smile is loaded with cultural baggage. Apparently even the end of the world doesn’t excuse women from smiling for men. In the end, I couldn’t get on board with either of the series’ romances.

Like many YA series, The Last Star features an epilogue. As usual, I kind of wished I hadn’t read it. After such a gritty series, Yancey’s efforts to evoke some sense of hope feels forced and cliché. In terms of plot, this is a fairly strong conclusion that improves upon the scatteredness of The Infinite Sea, but the series struck enough sour notes along the way to leave me with mixed feelings.

Arabella of Mars

Cover image for Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine by David D. Levine

ISBN 9780765382818

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher. All quotes have been checked against a finished copy.

“Here she could exercise her mind in a way her mother, indeed all of English society, would never tolerate in a girl or even a grown woman. In these moments all shame at her continued deception fell away, replaced by anger at the opportunities denied her by her sex.”

Born and raised on Mars, Arabella Ashby find herself dragged by to Earth so that her mother can turn her into a proper English lady before it is too late, and she destroys her marriage prospects with her tomboyish behaviour. But when her home and family on Mars are threatened, Arabella disguises herself and takes a job as a captain’s boy aboard the Marsman Diana in order to get herself home as soon as possible. But the journey between Earth and Mars is not without its dangers, and every delay threatens the timeliness of her news, or the revelation of her secret. And there is no time to waste, for the life of a family member hangs in the balance. (Aside: Levine summarized the plot of his novel in a filked version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Alexander Hamilton”. You can watch it on my YouTube channel!)

David D. Levine at University Bookstore Seattle, July 29, 2016
David D. Levine at University Bookstore Seattle, July 29, 2016

David D. Levine sets Arabella of Mars in an alternate Regency England that follows from a history in which Captain William Kidd set out for the first expedition to Mars in the 1600s. This is a universe in which the space between planets is occupied not by a vacuum, but by air. Speaking at University Bookstore Seattle on July 29, Levine readily admitted this was a fantastic alteration. In reality the physics of such a universe would send the planets spiraling into the sun. Two hundred years later, the English colonial presence on Mars is well-established, and children such as Arabella and her brother Michael are Martian-born humans who have never seen their home planet of Earth, or their parents’ native England.

Mary Jo Putney’s blurb on the back of the book describes this novel as the “delicious love child of Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, and Jules Verne.” The first comparison is perhaps the biggest stretch. The book is set during the Regency period, and an entailed estate does feature prominently in the plot, but in tone and action, there is really no similarity. But the action is reminiscent of Verne, and Levine credits the inspiration for the airship aspects of the novel to O’Brian’s books, and a great deal of attention is lavished on the sailing and navigation parts of the tale. Additional research was done at the  Musée national de la Marine, in Paris.

Levine employs an old sci-fi version of Mars that predates our current knowledge of the red planet. It is home to Martians, though much of the story is set among humans, and aboard Diana in transit between Earth and Mars. Levine still dedicates a decent amount of attention to the development of his Martians. They are made up of different groups and have a variety of languages. Many have learned English, but few humans return the favour. Levine also reverses the genders, casting the Martian females as hunters and warriors, though most English refuse to perceive the difference, and will hire female Martians only as nannies. It is as such we meet the main Martian character, Khema, who was tutor and caretaker to Arabella and Michael. While Levine does some good development of Martians as a whole, Khema is unfortunately the only individuated Martian character, and one of few named.

Levine is best known as a writer of short stories, and Arabella of Mars is his debut novel. He describes Arabella herself as having burst from his brow fully formed and armoured, already entirely herself. He immediately recognized it as a novel-sized idea, but thought it might be Young Adult. Tor decided to publish it as adult fiction, but with no sex and all curse words dashed out Regency-style, it has good crossover appeal for younger readers. Arabella of Mars was written to stand alone, but with the possibility for sequels. Tor has purchased two more books, and the second Arabella adventure is due out next year. It will see Arabella take passage from Mars to Venus aboard Captain Daniel Fox’s ship Touchstone.


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The God Wave

Cover image for The God Wave by Patrick Hemstreetby Patrick Hemstreet

ISBN 978-0-06-241950-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ECCC 2016. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“Matt loved to win. He had definitely won the battle to steer the neurokinetics program towards the commercially viable side. He could only shake his head at Chuck’s wish list of disciplines for initial experimentation. Leave it to the academic to come up with impractical, feel-good choices.”

Chuck Brenton is a cutting edge neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins with ideas that some people would dismiss as science fiction. Along with his assistant Eugene, he has been studying the gamma waves that the human brain produces when it is in a flow state, and working to develop a computer interface that will allow artists, programmers, and architects to manipulate their computer software using only these brain waves. But it isn’t until he partners with Matt Streegman, a mathematician from MIT with a sharp mind for business, that he is able to create the proper interface. Soon they have launched their own lab, Forward Kinetics, and Matt is courting government and military contracts for their unproven technology. But then something strange begins happening with the study subjects; once they have become practiced at sustaining gamma states, some of them begin to produce readings that are off the charts—a whole new brain state that seems capable of bypassing the computer entirely.

The God Wave has been marketed on the classic and often-abused sci-fi trope of the untapped potential of the human brain. However, Patrick Hemstreet works hard to avoid the cliché, spending more than a hundred pages in the first part of the novel carefully laying the scientific groundwork so that the development of a powerful new brain state feels like a natural progression rather than a jump that requires a huge suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. As the subjects practice focusing and become adept at sustaining the flow state, they are essentially flexing new mental muscles with unknown potential. However, this is a thriller, and once the ground work has been laid, the action can take off.

More central than the well-used premise is the clash of ideals it causes between Chuck and Matt, and the other employees of Forward Kinetics. While Chuck dreams of medical and scientific applications—helping the disabled, making space travel safer—Matt has his eye on financial profitability, and nothing is more secure than a military contract. As they ramp up towards production, the riff deepens around the secrets the two men are keeping from one another. Chuck has continued to work with his artists, even though they don’t fit Matt’s regimented business plan. And unbeknownst to Chuck, Matt has brought in a martial arts expert, Lanfen, to aid the development of combat applications for their technology. But as they get in deeper with the shadowy military organization, Lanfen begins to mistrust the partnership, even as the other early participants start to have doubts about the new recruits they have been tasked with training. However, they struggle to persuade Matt that something suspicious is going on.

The God Wave is the first in a series, and as such leaves off with a cliff-hanger that poses more questions than it answers. Not even Chuck knows the full extent of what might be possible for his protégés, and in an effort to protect them from Matt’s ambitions, he may well have taken them from bad to worse.


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We Stand On Guard

Cover image for We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughanby Brian K. Vaughan

Art by Steve Skroce

ISBN 978-1-63215-702-7

“They’ve never given a damn about land. This has only ever been about our water.

In the year 2112, Amber Roos watches the breaking news on CBC from her home in Ottawa as the White House burns. Soon, missiles are falling on the Canadian capital in retaliation, killing both her parents as a terrible war for Canada’s natural resources begins. More than a decade later, Amber is surviving alone, roughing it in the wilds of the Northwest Territories as the American military pushes those few who resist ever northward. It is there that she hooks up with the Two-Four, a small, motley band of Canadian resistance fighters. Yellowknife is about to become a hot zone, as the Americans set their sights on the bountiful waters of Great Slave Lake.

Vaughan’s story takes place in a future where the American use of drones has evolved and magnified to include giant robots in a variety of forms. However, the villains are diverse and complex. One major player is revealed to be Canadian-born, but raised in America, and questions arise as to whether Canada may have undertaken a pre-emptive strike after growing fearful about American designs on Canadian resources. Meanwhile, the protagonist has a relatable back story from the beginning of the war, but is pretty cagey about her recent history. I’ve seen criticism of the premise as unrealistic, but in a world dried out by global warming, leaving Canada as “the Saudi Arabia of H20” in the words of Brian K. Vaughan, it isn’t all that hard to imagine the United States going to war to get it the same way they have done for oil in the past.

With an American writer who is married to a Canadian, and a Canadian artist, it was interesting to me (as a Canadian who lives in the US) to see how We Stand on Guard signaled Canadian identity. The title is a great touch, taken from a line in the national anthem. French is sprinkled in largely untranslated, the Tim Hortons logo appears in the background, and the CBC changes from national broadcaster to resistance communications network. Vaughan credits artist Steve Skroce for slipping in a variety of other Canadian references, which make for great Easter egg hunting. Moreover, Vaughan doesn’t seem afraid to make America the villain, albeit in a far-flung future, allowing for a genuine conflict between the two identities.

The Deluxe edition collects the limited six issue mini-series from Image Comics, making this story really a slice of a larger conflict we may never get to hear more about. The issues are presented as chapters, with the original cover art beginning each section. Steve Skroce goes to town drawing outlandish animalistic war machines, but he also has a fine hand for expressive human faces, even in the smaller panels where some artists’ characters become indistinguishable. Unfortunately, many of them don’t get much time to shine before becoming collateral damage. This criticism could go for most of We Stand on Guard; the biggest problem is that there isn’t more, leaving little room to develop a large concept. But the glimpse we do get is brutal and fascinating.


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Guest Post: Departure

departureby A.G. Riddle

ISBN 9780062431660

**This is a guest review by my brother Josh Shortt**

Disclaimer: A free review copy of this book was provided by Harper Voyager.

“People who love LOST will like it,” my sister explained as she handed me a copy of Departure. To my ears that sounded like a dare. A dare, as evidenced by the following review, I did not pass up.

The cover art of Departure makes it clear that the story commences in a similar fashion to LOST, with a plane crash in the countryside. The first part of the tale is interested in survival concerns such as assisting the injured, gathering food and supplies, and exploring the environment. As in LOST, the crash provides dual protagonists Nick Stone and Harper Lane a second chance at unsatisfactory lives. The story heads in its own direction in Part II, although many tropes also used in LOST remain in play.

Nick Stone is a natural leader who rises to the occasion to assist other survivors. Underneath this strong exterior is a desperate man who is worried about a potential business proposal. Should he seize the opportunity or pass it up and potentially miss out? Harper Lane is not a natural leader, but is brave in her own right. Harper finds herself torn between writing another biography (financial security) vs. writing her novel (following her dreams). While both choices are business dilemmas, they differ in that Harper’s motivation behind her choice is more clear, while Nick isn’t entirely sure why he is dissatisfied with his life. Harper knows what it is she must do, she is simply reluctant to go through with it.

A.G. Riddle never takes Harper beyond these two obvious choices. An unseen third option that Harper conjures up under pressure could have made her a more satisfying character. Of course, that would entirely change the story. At least Riddle tests Harper’s commitment to her decision and allows us to witness her agonizing over it. At first, Nick doesn’t have much of a choice to make as he first needs to realize what is wrong. Unlike Harper, he does come up with a third solution, but we don’t get to see him come to this conclusion. Instead, his choice is made in between scenes. He simply declares what this choice is at a later time.

Overall, I did not feel the level of empathy towards these characters compared to those in LOST. I did feel some empathy for Harper because she is a fellow writer who humorously avoids her writing. Any writer can relate to that. By avoiding what she is supposed to be doing Harper shares a similarity with Jack from LOST. Jack stubbornly avoids the inevitable for six seasons.This long journey of avoidance emotionally wrecks him. When he finally accepts his destiny, it is one of the most satisfying moments in television and film history. Even though I enjoyed Harper’s sense of humour, I prefer the more emotional approach to character. Such an approach allows you to better appreciate the enormity of the journey a character goes through. Jack might have a sense of humour but he certainly tips closer to the emotional end of the spectrum.Arguably, I may be faulting Riddle’s story for being something that it’s not, and who wants a story that’s an exact clone of another story anyways? The difference is especially apparent in the fact LOST had the luxury of developing its characters over the course of 121 episodes whereas Riddle only has 322 pages.

What Riddle doesn’t clone is his personal philosophy on life and storytelling. He expresses this philosophy by tailoring his characters to the science fiction and dystopian genres, all the while using Harper’s career as a writer to discuss storytelling. Nick and Harper are tailored to the dystopian genre because their problems express anxiety about the future. When they make poor personal choices they “depart” from who they should be and arrive at desolate versions of themselves. Additionally, this anxiety extends to how these personal choices will negatively impact the world at large. The big science fiction concepts are used to explore the impact of those choices. While reading the exposition for these concepts I felt empty and bored. The science results in giant vanity projects for many of the characters. The world that is built from these ideas is not interesting in itself, but the characters get swept up in the scale of the ideas, and seem to think they are more imaginative than they actually are. The fact these vanity projects are named after Greek mythology makes a god complex abundantly obvious. However, as previously mentioned these sci-fi concepts are used to demonstrate how the characters’ poor choices impact the world, which means these sci-fi concepts are ultimately well used. To describe them as uninteresting is to note that vanity projects in science fiction are commonplace, which makes it difficult for them to illicit the surprise and awe they once had. Riddle is wise to recognize that these projects will not solve the characters’ problems, making the emptiness and boredom they illicit strangely appropriate.

Instead, story itself is the solution to the characters’ problems. A common science fiction trope is used as a metaphor for story itself.  Departure makes the argument that story creates self-knowledge for the characters and for the rest of humanity. This self-knowledge grants Nick and Harper new found lucidity to apply to their respective dilemmas. By applying their lucidity they have a chance to vanquish their dystopian anxiety about the future. According to the author’s biography, his own journey inspired that of his characters. The rear flap states that “he spent 10 years starting internet companies before retiring to pursue his true passion: writing fiction.”  This piece of information brings the meta-storytelling of Departure into focus. By understanding himself and pursuing his passions, the author put his own self-knowledge into action. The question is: will Nick and Harper do the same? For Riddle, taking control of one’s own story is self-knowledge well-utilized. If I smiled while reading this book, it was in response to Riddle’s passion for story. Of course, he is preaching to the choir. It is certain that the marketing team was pleased when they saw that the characters share similarities with the author. As demonstrated by the author’s biography, the marketing team didn’t pass up the opportunity to point out those shared characteristics. Allowing the audience “to get to know the talent behind the product” is one of the oldest tricks in the game.

It should be noted that Riddle’s philosophy is not as spiritual as the philosophy of LOST, which marks an important distinction between the two. More specifically, LOST is influenced by the mysticism of Star Wars while Departure feels more like a self-help seminar at times. Mysticism and self-help are both concerned with becoming a part of something bigger than yourself, but mysticism is the more emotionally convincing of the two. After all, story is about feeling everything the character feels. Without that level of empathy it is difficult to believe the story has taken you all the way. The exclusion of mysticism does create a benefit to the story. The benefit is that it allows the tale to maintain the purity of the science fiction genre. Science fiction gives the audience a concrete explanation they can believe in, while mysticism—by its very nature—defies explanation. Many complained that LOST pretended to be science fiction before morphing into science fantasy, despite the fact mysticism was present since the pilot episode. It is safe to say Riddle won’t be facing that particular criticism when it comes to Departure. The absence of mysticism is also apparent in Riddle’s descriptions of the environment. He focuses on man-made structures rather than the natural environment itself (See pp. 68 for a key example). By focusing on these structures he is again granting primacy to science fiction. LOST does have important man-made structures scattered across the Island, but the story and camera do not overlook the environment. In the end, Riddle’s approach may not provide the emotional authenticity of mysticism, but he does achieve the science fiction genre more purely than LOST.

Whenever Story A is compared to Story B it suggests you will like Story A because of the shared similarities to Story B. The comparison creates expectations in the mind of the reader. The reader’s expectations may illicit the curiosity required to pick up the book, but expectations can also prevent the reader from appreciating what the story does well on its own. I repeatedly found my own expectations reminding me that I prefer the mysticism of LOST to the science fiction of Departure. With my preference in mind I was also conscious that I would not appreciate it if Departure had been an absolute clone of LOST. Whether a story veers too far from the comparison or goes its own way can results in a no win situation.  Even though the comparison can create a barrier to enjoyment, a story can surprise with its own unexpected characteristics. I picked up the book with the intention of seeing how well the comparison would hold up, but closed the book appreciating Riddle’s passion for storytelling instead. What makes us enjoy a story isn’t necessarily similar premises, tropes, themes, etc. Admittedly I was entertained enough to finish the book, but if given the opportunity I would not purchase my own copy.

–Josh Shortt


Cover image for Binti Nnedi Okorafor by Nnedi Okorafor

ISBN 978-0-7653-8446-1

“We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.”

Sixteen-year-old Binti is Himba, from the indigenous peoples of northern Namibia. She is a brilliant mathematician and master harmonizer, destined to take over her father’s astrolabe shop thanks to her masterful manipulation of math current, and her ability to tree. But Binti has been accepted to Oomza University, the top school in the entire Milky Way galaxy. Only five percent of the population is human, and no Himba as ever gone. Binti is prepared to defy tradition, destroy her prospects of marriage, and venture out on her own for the first time in order to fulfill her dream of attending. But the trip to Oomza Uni is dangerous, taking the spaceship within the territory of the Meduse, ancient enemies of the Khoush people of Earth.

This novella covers a lot of ground. In the beginning it is about Binti’s role within her family, and her decision to leave in order to pursue her studies. As she travels from her home to the space port that will take her off-planet for the first time, it becomes more about the conflict and cultural differences that exist between the Himba and the Khoush. But despite these long-standing differences, the Himba are still caught up in the Khoush’s feud with the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien race that regards humans as evil. Interplanetary relations are just as fraught as the relationships between the different people of Earth. The latest conflict comes about because some of the scholars of Oomza Uni have stolen something of great value from the Meduse, to be placed in their museum and studied. The Meduse regard this as an act of war, and Binti is caught up in the middle.

Coming from a desert place where water is scarce, the Himba use a mix of red clay and essential oils to bathe, known as otjize. More than hair and skin care, it is an important part of Binti’s identity, and also has symbolic value within the story. Waiting in line at the space port, the Khoush women standing behind Binti feel free to touch her hair without asking her permission, and then discuss her otjize as if she cannot hear them. They speculate about whether or not it is made of shit. Binti is defiant when a classmate on the ship to Oomza Uni says he could not help touching her hair, but she obviously also has a complicated relationship with it herself; she confesses that she is not proud of the Desert People blood that comes from her father’s side of the family because that is where her “dark skin and extra-bushy hair come from.” Later on however, her braids help the Meduse relate to her; they see her braids as similar to their tentacle-like appendages, called okuoko. This is but one way that her traditional knowledge serves her where Khoush ways have failed.

Although Binti is a short work, Nnedi Okorafor fits in some fascinating world-building details and cool science. The space ship that travels towards Oomza Uni has a biological exoskeleton, and is powered by the gases absorbed by the ship from the greenhouse inside. However, a big part of the plot does rely heavily on a mysterious, ancient device called an edan, which serves multiple functions with little explanation. Binti found the object in the desert near her home, and carries it as a sort of good luck charm, but does not know what it is made of, or its original purpose.

Binti is novella length, and the brevity involves a couple of skips and jumps that are a little jarring. I also wanted to know more about math current and especially the mysterious edan that enables so much of the plot. However, I do know that I have a bit of a bias towards novel length works, as I really like things to be well developed, so others may find this to be less of a problem for their reading experience. I’ve been meaning to read Okorafor for a while, and this does leave me eager to dig into one of her novels. Okorafor has also said she is “not through writing about her or her world,” and Tor has just announced the acquisition of two more Binti stories, including one that will take her home to confront her family. I look forward to seeing how this world develops.


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