This is a delightful amuse-bouche of a book! I haven’t really read novellas before, but I really enjoyed how Nnedi Okorafor sketched a fascinating ‘working’ world (well, universe) in just a few pages.
The brushstrokes created a lovely, multisensorial universe and a few interesting characters that I assume are more fleshed out in other works. Texture and smell and color and sensation were all integral to the story. Binti, the heroine, comes from an isolated desert community, and, at 16, she runs away from home to attend university; she is the first Himba person to be admitted to the university. She brings literal earth, or otjize, from her home to cover her body and hair – the brief descriptions of this suggest an aromatic, colorful, viscous substance in a monochromatic, aseptic, highly technological universe (although the spaceship is a large shrimp? And much, much later, the range of beings in the universe expands and expands). Binti’s hair, which is knotted in a code that her father created, is another example of the level of detail that highlights Binti as an other, but also provides an economical capture of her specific cultural touchpoints. Her family and the Himba people, are both rooted to the land where they live and highly mathematical: they create astrolabes that the universe uses (for communication? while astrolabes are periodically referred to, it isn’t entirely clear what their purpose is).
Conflict beyond Binti’s internal conflict occurs quickly and horrifically; the book definitely turned from what I thought it would be quite suddenly! Meduse, an alien species, attack the ship and her survival tale begins. She eventually communicates with them (using a magical device, which is a little frustrating, since she seems like a pretty good communicator without a sprinkle of magic) and she eventually offers to use her skills as a Harmonizer to negotiate a peaceful resolution between the Meduse and the University. What a Harmonizer is remains a bit of a mystery. The resolution occurs very quickly and without conflict – which seems unreasonable. I find it incredibly hard to believe that the University would accept the total execution of new students with little more than a shrug and an ‘our bad.’ I also think Binti would have more internal conflict about the Meduse and the University and her physical changes, but perhaps that is explored in more depth in later books.
I really enjoyed the world building and Binti as a potential character as she navigated completely new worlds and cultures, and as she tried to define who she was away from Himba and her family. I appreciated the work for not over-explaining, but that meant my brain would categorize things as magic or like a cell phone but with more math. I assume Ms. Okorafor had a much richer image in her head when she wrote about these things. Despite the negatives, I enjoyed this novella quite a bit, and I loved reading it quickly, enjoying the worldbuilding, and then getting to move on. I will likely seek out other books in the series, although it isn’t a top priority for me.