I was on the threshold now, between home and my future. 

I am here today to tell you of Binti, a newnovella by Nnedi Okorafor, and of its protagonist, Binti. Of a story that feels utterly personal and topical at the same time that it oozes the kind of science-fictional entertainment that I have come to expect from this author.     

Binti is the first of the Himba people to be offered a place at Oomza University, the greatest university in the galaxy—far away from her home and from everything she knows. Accepting her place there is accepting the fact that she might not have a place within her family anymore. 

The story opens with a Big Moment: the moment when 16 year-old Binti takes that first step away from home, mind made up. It’s the moment Binti breaks away from everything she knows: her family, her culture, her traditions, her home, her planet. But it doesn’t mean that she breaks free of any of those things—because she doesn’t want to.

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Binti packs a punch because it is such a rich, complex tale of identity, both personal and cultural, at the same time that is simply an adventure story of a girl who sets off on a coming-of-age journey. That has aliens in it. Aliens that kill everybody in the transporting ship and all of a sudden, on top of everything else, Binti is like Ripley, having to deal with death and drama but in a really clever way that drinks from the pool of who she is. It’s a beautiful, heady, a bit scary, and ultimately fulfilling piece of fiction that made me cry in its last paragraph because of its hopeful, uplifting ending.

Binti is, in other words, a story that explores the ways that the personal and the cultural are interconnected and intertwined in myriad ways. There is no possible separation here and the story is not really interested in that separation in any shape or form; instead, it revels in the very complexity of identities, questioning, interrogating, and interacting with the ways in which those can morph, change, and adapt. It looks at family (by blood and found) and friendship as well as at history, culture, past, present, and future, and at technology and tradition.

Binti is one of the first novellas published in the newly launched Tor.com novella program and one of my favourites so far. And like all of Nnedi Okorafor’s works, this one is also highly, highly recommend.

In Book Smugglerish: 9 out of 10. 

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.