A frequent complaint regarding today’s short speculative fiction is that it is too frequently only nominally speculative or not really speculative at all. I’m leery of going that far, if only because I like non-speculative fiction just fine and I particularly like fiction straddling the line between speculative and non-speculative (e.g., Ron Rash’s Serena). But I like the speculative elements. And more damning of much of today’s short speculative fiction, it simply isn’t very good. Binti is so successful because it succeeds in its literary pretensions, succeeds in its speculative elements, and succeeds in intertwining the two seamlessly. And it reads as short as it is while having an entirely satisfying arc, something else too little of today’s short speculative fiction pulls off.
Binti, the eponymous protagonist of Okorafor’s novella, is the first of her people to ever have the chance to travel to the interplanetary, interspecies university Oomza. But.
“We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otjize is red land.”
Himba don’t travel, but Binti does. And that dichotomy drives the story—the tension between Binti’s culture and upbringing and her potential and dreams. And between her potential and her dreams and the people who don’t understand her people or their ways. It’s something that’s highly effective at a literary level that Okorafor marries to a good sci fi yarn, with organic ships and jellyfish aliens.
Binti is based in part, per the acknowledgments, on the Himba people of Namibia and the United Arab Emirates.