When it was first published in October 2015, Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti earned a considerable amount of praise from readers who bestowed it with the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella, as well as a slew of nominations. It’s a fantastic interstellar adventure that follows an impressive central character. Earlier this week, a sequel, Binti: Home, hit bookstores. It’s a vibrant character story that is in every way a worthy successor of an already fantastic story.
Binti earned every accolade that it received from critics and readers. It’s a short little book: just under a hundred pages, it’s a quick read about a young African woman who leaves her family to study at a prestigious interstellar university called Oomza Uni. She’s particularly skilled at mathematics, and she’s the first woman in her family to undertake such a journey.
While traveling to Oomza Uni, her ship is attacked by aliens known as the Meduse, a floating, jellyfish-like species that have no particular love for humans. After killing all of the passengers, Binti escapes to her room, where she is eventually able to talk down the invaders, negotiate her safety, and achieve peace between humanity and the Meduse — all before the ship arrives as the school.
For such a short book, there’s a lot in here. Okorafor has been writing some incredible novels that build deeply on her Nigerian heritage. Books like Who Fears Death and Lagoon both tell stories that are radically different from what you typically find in the speculative fiction genre, and Binti is no exception, as it deftly explores questions about race and cultural identity through her titular character. Binti comes from a group of people called the Himba, who cover themselves from head to toe in a local clay, and Okorafor places her in a situation where various identities clash, making her an ideal person to solve the problem at hand: the murderous jellyfish aliens bent on killing her and her friends.
Binti: Home builds on everything that we see in the first installment. Binti, now a year into her studies, is still dealing with the trauma from her encounter with the Meduse, even as she’s befriended one of them. She returns home, changed by the experience, literally and figuratively, to undertake a traditional pilgrimage.
This followup is twice as long, and Okorafor plays with a slightly more ambitious narrative. Change is at the heart of everything here, from a woman who has left her family to follow her ambitions, to the physical and mental changes that the attack wrought on her. When she returns home, her reunion with her family is complicated: she’s a different person than when she left, and when she embarks on her pilgrimage, she discovers even more about her family than she ever knew.
These stories are both the products of an interesting publishing experiment that science fiction publisher Tor Books has been working on. In 2014, Tor announced that it would turn its website, Tor.com, into its own publishing imprint dedicated to “novellas, short novels, and serializations,” to be published as ebooks, audiobooks, and print editions. Binti was one of the first to launch under the imprint.
That experiment is proving successful, and Binti is a prime example. Not every science fiction novel needs to be a huge tome of a story. Okorafor’s stories are short, but they don’t feel stripped down. Rather, their length allows the author to play with what must feel right: discrete episodes in Binti’s life. The novella line of books can allow for any number of short entries that tell a larger collective story, without being constrained by a novel’s format. A third Binti adventure is coming at some point in the near future. I already can’t wait to read it.
At the heart of these two Binti stories is an astonishingly good character, and Okorafor incorporates elements of Afrofuturism to a genre that often overlooks Africa, and it’s a welcome addition. Binti is a brave, ambitious woman stepping into a much wider world for the first time, and seeing the universe through her eyes makes for a fantastic adventure. Binti: Home builds on these themes of cultural identity and making one’s way in the world, making for a compelling journey.