Africanfuturism: Binti

It’s kind of amazing just how much Nnedi Okorafor packs into this little book: so much bigger on the inside than the outside. The basic bones of the story look familiar to anyone who’s spent even a little time with myths and fairy tales: girl leaves home, girl encounters terrible tragedy, girl encounters strangers, girl saves the world. But the rich details make it so much more than just a coming of age tale, from Binti’s hair care regimen to the jellyfish-like Meduse (Okorafor thanks our own earthly jellyfish for their inspiration).

Binti is a mathematical genius, and the novella opens as she sneaks out of her home, to set off on an interplanetary journey to Oomza Uni, the first of her people – the Himba – to do so. Her family doesn’t approve, and her appearance – dark skin, plaited hair, and steel anklets – sometimes gets objectifyin curiosity. Binti boards the space ship and heads off to uni. Before she can arrive, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, and almost everyone is killed; Binti is saved by the edan, a mysterious piece of technology.

The Meduse are angry with humans because of a sort of Museum theft that makes the British Museum look almost benign. Although initially saved by luck, Binti uses her brain to find a solution that will avoid further killing, and also sees her start her studies at Oomza Uni with the Meduse Olwu. Although she now has very differeny hair…

And there’s two more novellas in the trilogy!

From Murderbirds to Sherlock Holmes

2020 reading seems to fall into 2 categories: binge reading and almost no reading. I’m in the latter, at least as far as reading something new goes (I’ve reread a few novels). But there is hope for those of us who are struggling find time/energy/focus to read fiction: novellas! I have read THREE of these! Two of them were even ebooks, a format I am still not wild about but find okay for a reasonably short work (no way am I reading something like the Lord of the Rings on my tablet). Aliette de Bodard’s short fiction is the perfect length for an ereader.

First up: Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders aka Murderbirds go home for the holidays (the author’s own nickname for her mismatched couple). This one works best if you’ve already read the Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, but honestly I think if charismatic stabby fallen angels are your thing you can manage (spoiler: I love the stabby angel). A quick little murder mystery with added political intrigue, featuring Thuan, a dragon prince who’d just like a quiet Lunar New Year, and Asmodeus, the fallen angel whose default solution to problems is stabbing people. Thuan has made the common mistake of taking his husband home for the holidays, with the added fun that ‘home’ is the underwater dragon kingdom, his aunt’s position as Empress isn’t 100% stable, and Asmodeus is Asmodeus. It’s a clever little mystery , but for me this is all about watching the two husbands trying to not get themselves or each other killed – or anyone else if possible, in Thuan’s case – and figure out their boundaries and compromises as a couple, and the balancing act between two very different worlds above and below the Seine.

Oh, and then there’s Grandmother, the dowager Empress…let’s just say Asmodeus is a big fan.

The Tea Master and the Detective is by the same author, but set in a different universe (there are other works in the same universe, but these are all standalone). The only thing in common is the Vietnamese elements, but instead of dragons we’re now out in space, with a lovely Sherlock Holmes homage, except this time Holmes is a prickly scholar with a past (Long Chau) and Watson is a traumatised sentient spaceship (The Shadow’s Child). Between the two of them they have to work out what to do with a corpse — but first they need to figure out whether they trust each other enough to work together. It’s a great mystery, but something that really stands out is how, unlike some versions of Holmes and Watson, de Bodard captures the fact that Watson starts out in a fragile place and Holmes may be prickly with drug issues, but cares about people.

Adventures in Reading Nonfiction

I love reading nonfiction as well as fiction. And if I’m busy or lacking focus or for whatever reason don’t have a lot of time to devote to reading, I almost always plump for nonfiction. I find it easier to put down, whereas I tend to binge novels and then there’s the whole “up til 1am reading even though I need to get out of bed and function the next morning” issue. So, my first lockdown book was a random find from the library, which I picked solely based on the cool iridescent beetle on the cover. (Lockdown has forced me to come to terms with ebooks, which I find harder on the eyes and had avoided as long as I had the choice to read a physical book.)

SO.MANY.COOL.BUG.FACTS. They have eyes in the oddest places (the Japanese yellow swallowtail butterfly in particular). They don’t have lungs, so their blood doesn’t need to carry oxygen, so it’s not red. There is a species of mosquito which lives only in the London Underground, with different varieties for the different lines. Wasps who turn ladybirds INTO ZOMBIES. AND SOME EVEN SURVIVE! Ampulex Dementor: the soul sucker wasp named after the creations from Harry Potter (DO NOT google those last two if you have any kind of insect phobia). Dragonflies are the most successful predator on earth. And that’s before you get into the incredibly complex role that bugs play in keeping the entire ecosystem ticking over. Pollinating bees just scratch the surface.

I read just for the sake of reading, and like learning just for the sake of learning, but fellow writers, nonfiction is a goldmine. Truth is so much weirder than fiction!