Binti / Hammers on Bone
Today we'll be reviewing two novellas, both from Tor.com. One was released last year, the other just this week. Please note that there are minor spoilers in these reviews.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Release Date: September 22nd, 2015
We recently reviewed the winner of the 2016 Hugo Awards, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. While that won Best Novel, Binti was the winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella. Binti is a futuristic science fiction tale where space travel and sentient alien life forms are a reality. Binti is one of the Himba, a technologically savvy people that never leave their homeland and, just like the actual Himba of Namibia, cover their hair and body with a special paste known as otjize. Binti is the first of her people to be accepted at the prestigious Oomza University located far off in space, but leaving her home would be akin to permanent shame and exile. Despite the risk, Binti packs her things and takes off with other students in a shuttle headed to "Oomza Uni." The people she's traveling with, and the ones who seem to make up the majority of the local population that aren't Himba, are known as Khoush. During her trip, the ship is attacked by an alien race called the Meduse, which are near-transparent jellyfish-like beings at war with the Khoush. The Meduse, of course, don't know the difference between one human and another, and kill everyone on board. Binti is able to protect herself and communicate with the beings with an old machine that she carries around with her as a good luck charm, and after a series of harrowing encounters, she and the Meduse reach an understanding of why they attacked and what they'll do when they land on Oomza Uni.
Binti has a lot of neat ideas. The protagonist struggles with how her cultural identity clashes with her inner desires and goals, and she insists on using the otije despite questioning its purpose away from home. The concept of the Miri 12, an organic spaceship that is a living being used for transportation is very intriguing. We are given vague hints of the advanced mathematics that have occupied a lot of advanced sciences. Despite these ideas, the story doesn't really come together. We are told that Binti is anxious about her decision to leave home and that terrible things will happen to her if she ever came back, yet at no point does the reader ever feel the risks involved. It's "tell, not show" in that regard. If the reader had witnessed the fallout of a character leaving the community, for example, maybe that would have given more weight to her decision. It seems like a safe choice. That, I think, is the novella's issue: there are a lot of safe choices. The only time I felt any fear or surprise at the situations being given was during the initial attack on the ship and the sudden deaths of her friends.
One of the major parts of the novella is the introduction of the Meduse race. We are told these jellyfish-like creatures are completely inhuman, and see the world differently than us. And yet their language translates with little issue, and they share the same values and ideas that humans have. Concepts like authority, justice, dignity, and vengeance aren't strange to them. It's difficult to tell if the point was to show that "they're not that different from us after all!" but I never felt that that was the story's intention. The reason the Meduse take the ship is to plan a surprise attack on Oomza, which struck me as a purposeful parallel to modern terrorism. But like the rest of the story, it doesn't really go anywhere. The ending (and this is a major spoiler here) has Binti attending the school alongside one of the Meduse named Okwu. How has everyone forgotten that Okwu and his companions murdered a ship of innocent students? How is something like that ignored?
The author Nnedi Okorafor is the daughter of two Nigerian immigrants, and writes a lot of African-inspired science fiction. I appreciated all of the touches that were added to the story, such as the use of African customs. I felt that using a member of the Himba people was a great way of expressing the isolation and misplacement that Binti feels. But while Okorafor has some interesting ideas, I found the writing style unnatural. Words, sentences, and ideas are often repeated without much rhythm, rhyme, or reason, and sentences often seemed stilted and uncomfortable. The story lacks tension, the characters lack character.
Overall, I cannot really recommend Binti. It's not awful, but in the end I didn't enjoy it. There is probably something I'm missing about it: it won a Hugo and Nebula Award, after all, and if it seems like something you'd be interested in, then it's a very short read. I welcome any discussion that disagrees with my assessment, as I'd like to know what it is about the story that I'm missing, but my initial take on the novella is not positive.
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
Release Date: October 11th, 2016
Hammers on Bone is an interesting amalgamation of Lovecraftian horror and hard-boiled noir in a modern setting. John Persons is a detective operating in London, when he's approached by a small child asking him to kill his step father. Of course Persons refuses, that is until the boy tells him that his step father is like him; a monster. See, Persons is no ordinary gumshoe. He's got a secret lurking inside of him. But he's trying to use it for good. Well, sort of good.
Cassandra Khaw's novella transports us into the world of a man out of time. John Persons narrates the story with vernaculr like "broad," "bird," and "skirt" to describe women, "the bulls" to describe cops, and other old-fashioned descriptors like "shamus." Meanwhile, he spins similes that would make Raymond Chandler jealous. Amongst all of this, he cooly encounters disturbing horrors, while going through the twists and turns of a short mystery. Some of the monsters, characters, and quotes come directly from the Cthulhu mythos, and Lovecraft's influence can be seen everywhere, if not exactly felt. Lovecraft was a man of intellectual horror; Persons' world is a real, visceral place, made up of hideous voices, illuminating scents, and longing hungers. Descriptions of food or other mundane fare are given a sickening and grotesque air with speed and casualness. The subtleness accentuates the horror in Persons' mystery, where terrors are lurking, sometimes literally, right underneath the skin.
I enjoyed Hammers on Bone, and I admire Khaw's dedication to maintaining the hardboiled noir detective atmosphere in a modern setting. At times it seemed a bit off-putting, and I wondered how any character could take John Persons seriously when he speaks like Sam Spade. It's a bit sad that this was only a novella, as I felt it would do well with some additions and expansions, and a much fuller, intricate mystery. But I have a feeling that this won't be the last we see of John Persons and the Weird Tales Croydon that Khaw has created. I recommend this to anyone who has a sincere interest in the Cthulhu mythos. but I'm afraid a lot of it would be lost on anyone who was not already a fan of that type of story.