Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Night Masquerade (available on January 16 – I was lucky to get to read a pre-publication copy) is the third (and at least for the moment, final) installment in the series that began with Binti (2015) and continued with Binti: Home (2017). The three books individually are of novella length; though the third installment is almost as long as the previous two combined. Indeed, the three together can be regarded as a single novel, both in terms of word length and in terms of imaginative scope.

The Binti series is Afrofuturist science fiction. The eponymous protagonist and narrator is a young woman from the Himba people of Namibia. This group is known today for the way that they strongly maintain their traditional practices and ways of life, while at the same time engaging fully with social and technological modernity, and the other peoples with whom they interact. This is still the case in the future world of the novellas: the Himba rarely leave their desert territory, and they keep to something like their traditional ways of life; but at the same time they are known for their cutting edge technology, which they sell to other peoples on Earth, and even to beings from other planets.

Binti herself is a mathematical genius, who comes from a family who make their living by manufacturing astrolabes – handheld electronic computing and communications devices which are small enough to fit into a pocket, but at the same time evidently far more powerful than our present-day phones and other computing devices. Binti is proud of her Himba heritage; the traditions with which she has grown up are an essential part of her. But at the same time, she has outward ambitions and desires that go beyond what these traditions can accomodate. Her mathematical skill and passion is something universal, rather than particular. She often goes into a trance — she calls this process “treeing” — while envisioning mathematical equations, such as the formula for the Mandelbrot Set (which produces infinitely ramifying fractals). Treeing is all at once psychological (she often enters into the state in order to calm herself, when she is feeling stressed or anxious), imaginative (it allows to to contemplate extended possibilities that she would not be able to see otherwise), and powerful (through envisioning the mathematical structures she is able to call up electrical currents that she can direct so as to manipulate aspects of her body and her environment). Mathematics is finally Binti’s mode of access to the universal, or to order of the universe (an intuition that has often been expressed by mathematicians and physicists; it exists at the point of union of the mystical, the scientific, and the real). (Though Binti insists that, while mathematics is her route to something like the ultimate, other people may well have other routes to the same asymptotic goal).

In any case, one could say that the conflict between the particular and the universal is what drives and underlies the narrative of the whole series. Though I should add that I am unhappy with the Hegelian tone of this formulation, which is not Okorafor’s but just mine; I’d like to figure out a way to say it less grandiosely, and less totalizingly — which would be more in tune with the way the novellas actually work themselves out. Binti’s Himba identity is very important to her, at the same time that she has desires that point beyond it. The first book begins with Binti doing what she cannot help thinking of as a transgressive act: she leaves her family and community behind — indeed she leaves the Earth itself behind — by getting on a spaceship and travelling to Oomza Uni, on a distant planet. It’s the best university in the galaxy; and Binti has been admitted thanks to her mathematical genius. But leaving her family and her homeland goes against her heritage; the Himba don’t like to travel, and they strongly value staying together. Binti leaves early in the morning, when everybody else is asleep, and without her family even knowing that she plans to go.

So the first Binti novella begins as a coming-of-age story: a feminist and Africa-centered version of the “myth of the hero’s journey” we’ve heard about so many times. (In interviews, Okorafor has made no secret of her love for the Star Wars series, probably the best-known work explicitly modeled on that so called universal myth). Personally, I hate Joseph Campbell and all the hero’s myth stuff – there is nothing more boring and oppressive than being told that there can be nothing new under the sun (or even in the whole galaxy), just recapitulations of the same fucking story. So I love the ways that Okorafor departs from the myth, and pushes her story in new directions that change things radically. Of course, it still remains possible for a reader to subsume everything that happens in the three books under the “monomyth” after all — that is part of what I hate about the theory: it can take anything whatsoever and subsume it into itself. But if you read the Binti series in such a way, you lose what is most rich and exciting about it. The novellas continually surprise us because, behind the story of the plucky young woman discovering her true potential and becoming a hero, there are all kinds of swerves and deviations, which turn the story into something else.

For the Binti series is not just about the universal, but equally about particularities, and all the ways that – for both good and ill – they resist being subsumed into the universal. Mathematics gives Binti a universal structure; its abstractions mean that she can use it to comprehend just about anything. But she also continually has experiences that push her beyond her limits (to the point where the only use she has for her beloved mathematics is to calm herself). In the first novella, when Binti defies her family, leaves town, and gets on a spaceship, her trials are only beginning. All the other human beings heading to Oomza Uni are Khoush — a lighter-skinned ethnic group that control most of the Earth, and who are mostly racist, looking down condescendingly at the Himba. The Khoush really are Hegelians (though Okorafor never designates them as such); they cannot accept the stubborn refusal of the Himba to be subsumed within the “higher” universality that they represent. But as soon as we think Binti has gotten a handle on this problem — she has made friends with many of the Khoush students, gotten them to accept her, and found common terrain with them — something else happens. Another intelligent species, the Meduse — their bodies are sort of like giant jellyfish — invades the ship, commandeers it, and kills all the Khoush — Binti is the only human being left alive, aside from the pilot. It turns out the Meduse have grievances against the Khoush, who have behaved towards the Meduse in the same arrogant, colonialist fashion as they have towards the Himba. The Meduse at first try to kill Binti as well, but they fail — it turns out she has both technologies that repel them and are dangerous to them, and technologies that can soothe them and cure their ailments.

I won’t discuss all the turns and twists of the plot in the three novellas (I justify what I said above about the first volume because it was published long enough ago that nobody has the right to object to spoilers; but I will avoid any spoilers regarding the new volume). Suffice it to say that the Meduse invasion of the ship is only the first of many situations, throughout the three novellas, in which the Star Wars heroic paradigm simply fails to work. Not just in the early part of the first volume, but through all three novellas, Binti is continually faced with problems that cannot be resolved either by antagonism, or by cooperation towards some higher cause. She has to find (or better, to improvise) oblique solutions, which involve the contingencies of particular cases and particular histories as much as they involve the universality that can be (to some extent) realized through mathematics.

These oblique solutions are also always partial and temporary. There is no repose and no completion: no sublation into the universal, and no self-reflexivity to close the circle. Even though all three volumes have happy endings, there is never a real sense of closure. Binti always remains afflicted by anxiety and by a violent ambivalence. There are always dissonant notes in her harmonies. I use the word “harmonies” here advisedly; Binti’s vocation, according not only to the Himba but also to others, is to be a harmonizer. This means that she is able to pull things together and allow them to coexist; when faced with an intractable opposition, she is able to perform “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast” (to use Whitehead’s great phrase). Her harmonizing conversions are not reconciliations, however; tensions and inequalities always remain. Okorafor’s future Earth, and indeed her galaxy, remain subject to colonialism and racism, and other forms of oppression just as the actual Earth does today. Harmonization is less than revolutionary transformation; what it is about, ultimately, is finding a way for oppressed or subordinated groups to not only survive, but even flourish, in spite of the (continuing) state of oppression. Binti harmonizes by improvising, finding the best solution she can in situations that remain unsatisfactory.

Binti’s harmonizing improvisations are characterized by two things: diplomacy and hybridity. I mean diplomacy here in the strong sense that has been developed by Isabelle Stengers (in the final volume of Cosmopolitics, as well as elsewhere):

What is difficult and interesting about the practice of diplomats is that it frequently exposes them to the accusation of betrayal. The suspicion of those whom the diplomat represents is one of the risks and constraints of the profession and constitutes its true grandeur. For what is demanded of the diplomat is characterized by an irreducible tension. On the one hand, diplomats are supposed to belong to the people, to the group, to the country they represent; they are supposed to share their hopes and doubts, their fears and dreams. But a diplomat also interacts with other diplomats and must be a reliable partner for them, accepting as they do the rules of the diplomatic game. Therefore, the diplomat cannot be one with those she represents.

Binti faces this problem, mediating between the Meduse and the Khoush — who have been bitter enemies for a long time — as well as between both and the Himba (and also among other groups of humans and sentient extraterrestrials whom we meet throughout the three novellas). Binti’s Himba heritage is what allows her to be a harmonizer, or a diplomat in Stengers’ sense; but her assuming this role means that she also finds herself apart from the Himba, and can no longer unproblematically belong to them or be one of them. This logic is alreadyat work from the very beginning of the first novella, when Binti violates her heritage while clinging to it at the same time. The paradox of diplomacy is not only the displacement of the diplomat, but also the fact that, on the one hand, without diplomacy we are doomed to the horrors of continual unabated conflict; while at the same time, there is never any guarantee that diplomacy will work: it is always susceptible to failure, and even at best its improvisations are fragile and ephemeral. We experience all of this — the failures as well as the partial successes — throughout the course of the three novellas.

Binti’s activity as a harmonizer is also an adventure of hybridity. She is no more able to just exist, rootedly and unproblematically, as a Himba, than she is able to cast off her Himba-ness and dissolve (as it were) into the universal. Over the course of the three novellas, she enters into several symbioses — at once cultural and biological — first with the Meduse, and later with other groups both human and nonhuman. Hybridity does not mean merging, or entering into a “melting pot.” Binti remains, or increasingly becomes, an assemblage of identities, or characteristics, from different sources, that do not coalesce but must learn to coexist. Her vocation as a harmonizer or diplomat must first, and most importantly, be exercised for, and upon, herself. Her emotional ups and downs in the course of the story are aspects of this process. It’s a trajectory that never comes to a definitive ending point, but needs to be renewed and maintained throughout, and this is still the case at the end of The Night Masquerade.

I will stop here. Saying more would involve getting into the details of the new volume, and I promised not to introduce spoilers. I am also leaving for a later time questions about how Binti relates to the rest of Okorafor’s fiction, and to Afrofuturism more generally. Here I can only testify to how compelling and impassioning a read the Binti saga is, how absorbing it is on a page-by-page and line-by-line basis, as well as all the deeper questions it raises.