Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Mankind has spread to the stars and encountered alien races, but not all of humanity is eager to explore space. The Himba of Southern Africa remain a close-knit and traditional people, one that prefers to remain on Earth. Binti, a sixteen-year-old Himba girl, is an exception: when she is granted a scholarship at a university on another planet, she eagerly hops on board a spaceship and begins the journey.
Binti finds herself travelling alongside members of another ethnic group, the Khoush, who mock her Himba adornments: she smears her skin with a mixture of oil and red clay, wears heavy anklets and has her hair elaborately braided.
Along the way, the ship is attacked by a race of jellyfish-like aliens called the Meduse. The aliens massacre the passengers; only Binti is protected, thanks to a device that happens to be harmful to the Meduse. But the attackers still outnumber her, and so she ends up as their hostage. Her only hope for survival is to foster dialogue with the alien race…
The basic plot of Binti is simple, rather like a children’s story—indeed, Nnedi Okorafor credits her eleven-year-old daughter with devising the rough outline. Still, Okorafor does a good job of building tension, twisting the plot at just the right point to keep the reader hooked. Right when the aliens attack, Binti’s narration takes the opportunity to delve into her backstory, thereby leaving the reader on a stark cliffhanger. Later on, when Binti is trapped alone in a room on board the ship, she hears the aliens talking for the first time as they lurk just behind the door; Okorafor builds this into an effectively claustrophobic scene, one so minimalist that it could readily be adapted for stage.
But the story’s true riches lie in its imagery and connotation.
This is a story about culture clash. While Binti has departed from the earthbound outlook of her family, she literally carries her culture with her into space. The clay mixture worn by the Himba, although initially developed as a way of keeping clean in a region that lacks water, has become accepted as an essential item of clothing—without it, Binti feels naked. The braids in her hair, meanwhile, carry a code that represents her heritage.
The alien Meduse are likewise motivated by their sense of communal past. They harbour a hatred of humanity as a result of an earlier expedition to Earth; their attack on Binti’s ship, meanwhile, is part of an attempt to retrieve the chief’s severed stinger, which is being held trophy-like at Binti’s new university.
Both Binti and the Meduse are altered by their cultural exchange. When Binti finally arrives at the cosmopolitan university, her Himba trappings are drastically different.
The most poignant moment in the story comes when she washes the red earth from her body, and proceeds to smear her skin with clay from the alien planet. As she prepares for a new life on a new world, she weeps for what she has left behind.
The Builders by Daniel Polanski
The Builders is set in a world of anthropomorphised animals, comparable to The Wind in the Willows. But Polansky takes his rodent protagonists to an altogether darker place than Kenneth Grahame ever did…
The central character is the Captain, a mouse with a violent past. He once served under the former ruler of the Gardens, who was deposed in a coup organised by the skunk Mephetic. Eager to get back in action, the Captain sets about rallying together his old comrades: Gertrude, a crimelord mole; Cinnabar, a gun-toting salamander; Barley, a morally conflicted badger; Bonsoir, a French stoat; Boudica, a reclusive possum; Reconquista, a bar-keeping rat; and Elf, a psychologically troubled owl. Together, the animals set out to overthrow Mephetic and his puppet ruler, the Toad.
The Builders is a taut crime-caperer, one that delivers a good helping of black comedy before exploding in a climax of blood and gore. The plot could easily have worked for a non-fantasy story, but Polansky nonetheless adds a new level of sardonic humour by using animals as characters.
The bestial casting serves two purposes. On the one hand, it justifies the cartoonishly simple worldbuilding of the story: Polansky is free to depict an attempted coup on a monarch without having to detail the full extent of the political ramifications. But more significantly, the usage of animals is funny.
Time and again the novella gives a stretch of writing that could have come out of a straight crime story, only to throw in a comically absurd image by reminding us that the characters are small furry rodents. A good example is the barroom scene in which the Captain is propositioned by a sexually promiscuous guinea pig: “She was pretty, for a guinea pig, if you didn’t mind them heavy. If you did mind them heavy you probably wouldn’t go for a guinea pig.”
Polansky is clearly having fun with the stereotypes associated with animal species. A number of the anthropomorphised characterisations are consistent with those of popular imagination: the sneaky weasel, the luxuriant cat, the shifty skunk, the sultry vixen. But at the same time, the story is not afraid to subvert such stereotypes with more outré portrays, such as a mentally unstable (rather than wise) owl.
The most interesting contrast of all lies within the central character of the Captain. He is a mouse, a creature that we do not typically associate with violence, and Polansky consciously works with this ambiguity:
[T]he mouse is perhaps the single most helpless animal on earth, blessed with nary a resource to defend himself against the cruel privations of a savage world. Save one—the mouse knows it. The mouse is too feeble to cling to any illusions of safety. From the instant he leaves the flesh of the womb, he knows his life is there for the taking, and he grows cagey, and sharp. He sees the goshawk above him, sniffs out the polecat lurking in the shadows.
All of which is to say that when the rat levelled his sawed-off shotgun the captain was already moving, kicking his chair backwards and falling with it, the load of buckshot passing swiftly through the space he had occupied…
Each character is half animal and half human, but come the climax both aspects unite in a battle of firearms and fangs, talons and TNT. The Builders promises little more than woodland creature mayhem, and it delivers.
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
In a world that worships five gods—the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, the Son and the Bastard—a boy named Penric becomes demonically possessed. The demon, which he dubs Desdemona, has twelve personalities: Penric compares the experience to having a council of twelve invisible older sisters.
The people of the land believe that the demon was the creation of the Bastard. And so, Penric is sent to the Bastard’s temple so that he can learn to control the sorcerous powers granted by Desdemona.
“Penric’s Demon” is a very gentle work of fantasy: its treatment of demonic possession is a long way from The Exorcist. The Bastard is not regarded as a Satan figure, but as more of a trickster-like deity; Desdemona is similarly ambiguous, and emerges as an ultimately benign figure.
The narrative as a whole is best described as a romp, with Penric experiencing highs and lows as he undergoes a very strange coming of age. Bujold writes with a great deal of dry humour, as can be seen here:
Pen’s brow furrowed. “Are you saying a sorcerer could burst into flames?”
“Mm, no, the body is too wet for that. He would more just … burst. Like a grilled sausage splitting its casing.”
Penric’s Demon takes place in the same universe as Bujold’s earlier stories The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt. I have not read these, but I found that the novella succeeds as a standalone work. The worldbuilding is carried out in shorthand, with a default fantasy setting and a vague polytheistic religious backdrop; all of this works in the context of the story, where the emphasis is more on the relation between Penric and Desdemona than on a sprawling and nuanced secondary world.
Whenever Bujold dusts off an old fantasy idea to use in her story, she does so out of respect for genre practice rather than out of laziness. Even a fantasy fan who is unfamiliar with the universe should find themselves comfortably at home with Penric’s Demon.
Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson
The warlord Kai has succeeded in conquering an entire world of magic and fantasy, but his pride in this achievement is somewhat dampened. After all, as he found out decades ago, the world had been programmed specifically for him to conquer.
“Perfect State” is set in a society which believes that mankind’s moral aim should be to create the greatest amount of happiness among the greatest number of people while using the least amount of resources. It has attempted to achieve this by removing brains from trillions of foetuses and hooking them up to virtual reality worlds. In Kai’s case, he was born and raised in a Primary Fantastical State.
Kai is happy with his lot as ruler of a fantasyland, although he admits to being bothered by a philosophical question: how many other Kais are out there, all living in identical worlds…?
The regime that keeps him as a brain in a jar has decided that it is time for Kai to reproduce. In physical terms, this is a matter of the authorities extracting DNA from his sole remaining organ. Societal standards around reproduction remain largely intact, however, and so Kai’s virtual body is obliged to meet that of a woman and perform simulated sex with her. He finds this all rather unnecessary, but presses on regardless.
Travelling for the first time into another virtual reality world, Kai finds his partner: a woman named Sophie. She hails from an Emerging Equality State, where her goal in life was to bring about a new era of progressive politics as the first female World President. Upon achieving this aim, however, she found herself becoming bored:
“I gave up the presidency,” she said. “Walked right out in the middle of a world senate meeting. It caused quite the stir in the ant-hive of programmed minds. I snuck off to a High-Science State, learned some technology that wasn’t technically forbidden in my own State, then came back and armed a rebel faction with advanced weaponry. That destroyed world peace and started a global war that’s still going.”
Perfect State is great fun, resembling The Matrix a whole lot less fighting and a whole lot more comedy, and its humour works on multiple levels. At the most basic, we have the Pratchettesque absurdity of an epic fantasy hero plucked from his own genre context and placed into others, so that he tangles with Prohibition-era gangsters and giant robots.
At the same time, there is a vein of philosophical inquiry running through the story. The characters themselves are constructed almost entirely from ironies: “It does strange things to you to realize that the conservative establishment is forcing you to be a progressive liberal fighter for universal rights”, as Sophie remarks. Brandon Sanderson uses his storyline as a means of poking and prodding at the values held by Kai and Sophie—and, by extension, the values promoted by genre fiction.
Both characters have started wars in their worlds, but Kai—in his mind—did so as part of his heroic duty; Sophie started a global conflict purely for fun. Kai is shocked to hear Sophie’s callous disregard for the lives of “Machineborn” (that is, sapient AIs that populate the virtual reality worlds) but still agrees with her assumption that “Liveborn” (that is, brains in jars) are inherently superior.
The two protagonists are both fully aware of the nature of their world: all their questions about existence and reality have been answered. And yet, between Kai’s idealism and Sophie’s nihilism, they still cling to two distinct philosophies. It is this essential tension that lends Perfect State its vitality.
Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
After an interplanetary war ends in ceasefire, a large body of combatants from both sides are imprisoned on board a spacecraft, ostensibly as punishment for war crimes. The ship malfunctions and the prisoners awaken from stasis, allowing them to seize control of the vessel.
Amongst their number is a conscript named Scur. She does not see herself as a war criminal, and has no idea why she was imprisoned. Her only desire is to track down one of her fellow prisoners: Orvin, a soldier of the opposing side, who brutally tortured Scur before leaving her for dead. Scur’s hope is to exact a bloody and painful vengeance upon the man who wronged her.
A number of SF subgenres overlap within Slow Bullets. Being about soldiers, the story definitely has a foot in the military SF camp—although, given that most of its narrative takes place after hostilities have ceased, it clearly departs from the typical model. The story also has an overall atmosphere of high-tech sleaziness that owes a definite debt to cyberpunk: the protagonist is driven by murderous revenge, while macabre set-pieces deliver such sights as a malfunctioning surgical machine reducing a luckless patient to “a solid, ropy mass contained within the splatter”.
Finally, we learn that the prisoners have spent centuries, perhaps even millennia in stasis, and the civilisation of their destination planet has been wiped out in an ice age; at this point, Slow Bullets has become a post-apocalyptic tale. It is ultimately a narrative about a group of survivors attempting to preserve their knowledge of the past—the “slow bullets” referred to in the title are implanted memory chips, which turn out to play a role in this process.
Themed around punishment and redemption, with a cast consisting mainly of convicted war criminals who must face their pasts, Slow Bullets needed strong characterisation. Indeed, given that it clocks in at just under 40,000 words—making it a few paragraphs away from qualifying for Best Novel—it certainly had room for all necessary psychological depth. It is too bad, then, that Alastair Reynolds resorts to stereotypes: Scur’s character arc follows an entirely predictable trajectory, while the other major characters are given little or no development. In fact, one of them appears to have been included solely to provide infodumps.
Slow Bullets would have been better off had it either been given an extra layer of depth to take advantage of its near-novel length, or pared down into something shorter and punchier. In its current form it is too flabby to truly satisfy.
Once again we have a category with four out of five nominees chosen by the Rabid Puppies campaign, the exception being Binti. Despite this, I did not find the novellas to be disappointing as a whole. Even the weakest, Slow Bullets, has merit in spite of its flaws.
To me, the two nominees most deserving to win are Perfect State and Binti. As the only non-Rabid nominee it is a safe bet that Nnedi Okorafor will take the prize—although, given that Brandon Sanderson enjoys a loyal following at Worldcon, we should not rule his story out just yet. I would be fine with either of them earning the Hugo, but I personally believe that Binti has the edge in terms of quality.
For the final article in this series, I will be looking at the five books duking it out for Best Novel…