The following review of 2019 Mathical Honor Book Binti by Nnedi Okorafor was submitted by Mathical Selection Committee member Betsy Bird.
Thanks in large part to the film Black Panther, the term “Afrofuturism” has become more widely known, at least in the literary community. According to the website Artsy, the term was created in critic Mark Dery’s 1993 essay “Black to the Future.”
Dery describes Afrofuturism as “the cross-cultural philosophy of artists, musicians, and writers who drew on the techno-utopian thinking of the space age to reimagine Black life in the United States.” Since that time, numerous Afrofuturistic novels have appeared, but perhaps none have been quite as well-regarded as Nnedi Okorafor’s unforgettable novel Binti.
In a future where space travel is de rigueur, the book opens with an escape. Binti hails from the Himba tribe, and is secretly leaving her people to travel on a ship to the stars. There she hopes to study at Oomza University where she can hone her math skills and better help her people (many of whom work with higher mathematics).
Unfortunately, the trip does not go according to plan. The university is operated by the Khoush, a people at war with an alien race known as the Meduse. When the Meduse attack Binti’s ship and kill all but her and the pilot, she must use all her brains, cunning, and (yes) math skills to keep her body and dreams alive.
At first glance it appears that Binti falls into that old trope of the mathematical genius viewed as strange by other people. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that she hails from a culture where math is embedded so deeply into everyday life that it is literally woven into our heroine’s very hair.
“Math is ingrained into the heart of this book in such a way that readers are left buoyed and curious by its potential.”
For Binti, math provides solace and order. To better concentrate she can “tree,” or go into a trance where she envisions various mathematical equations. If you ever wanted to see the formula for the Mandelbrot Set used in a work of science fiction, here’s your chance.
Most significantly, the book and its subsequent sequels (it has two) require its heroine to come up with solutions to problems that have no easy answers. Needless to say, it is Binti’s math brain that allows her to become a diplomat in an impossible situation. Math is ingrained into the heart of this book in such a way that readers are left buoyed and curious by its potential.
Told with a clear cut sense of how the universality of math crosses boundaries of culture, race, and class, Binti is a tale for our time. It is a slim, smart little novel that will make science fiction fans of us all.
By Nnedi Okorafor
Tor Books, 2015
2019 Mathical Honor Book, Grades 9-12
Mathical selection committee member Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird is the collection development manager at the Evanston Public Library system, former youth materials specialist at the New York Public Library, and reviewer for Kirkus and The New York Times. Find her at A Fuse #8 Production or on Twitter @FuseEight.