Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti steers the reverse-colonialism story in a new direction
Science-fiction has a long history of being obsessed with colonialism. From The War of the Worlds to Red Dawn to Independence Day, the alien others are always invading us just as we, in the past, invaded them. Two cultures meet; one must die.
It’s like Highlander, but with geopolitics and tentacles…
In part, these reverse-colonial stories are an externalized guilty conscience.
H.G. Wells openly muses on how turnabout is fair play:
“The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
But that Catholic appreciation of the viewpoint of our exterminators is also, in its way, justification. Those others, out there, would kill us all if they got the chance, just like we have killed them. All’s fair in love, war, and genocide — and better to do unto others first, if we’re truly in a war of all against all.
One of the loveliest parts of Nnedi Okorafor’s Hugo-winning novella, Binti, is the way that it uses the reverse-colonial narrative to tell a different story, with a different moral.
The title character of Binti is a young girl from the Himba people of Namibia. She is a mathematical genius, and, despite the skepticism and opposition of her family, has obtained a scholarship to the offworld Oomza University dominated by the people of the Khoush culture. However, just as she’s getting to know the other students on board, the ship is attacked by an alien race known as the Meduse that proceeds to kill everyone on board – except for Binti, who escapes and then manages to communicate with them.
She learns that the Meduse want revenge on Oomza University because its professors stole the stinger of their chief. They plan to land on Oomza and kill everyone they can, but Binti convinces them that she can serve as a negotiator instead. She’s ultimately successful, the Meduse leader gets back his stinger, and Binti even befriends Okwu, a young Meduse who stays with her to study at the university.
That’s a lot of plot for a novella. But, again, the most striking part of the story is the way it sketches a reverse colonial narrative — the Meduse are invading Oomza University — only to undermine it.
The undermining starts with, and centers on, Binti, who is exactly the sort of person who doesn’t show up at all in reverse colonial stories.
Whenever aliens invade earth, the earth they invade is always oddly monocultural. The 5th Wave presents worldwide apocalypse, but the people being apocalypted are overwhelmingly white and suburban, as if the entirety of the earth had somehow been transformed into Winnetka. Independence Day acknowledges the existence of Jews and black people, but only to show them as joined in assimilated solidarity with the rest of America (and America here deliberately stands for the entire world, since the whole point of the plot is to turn July 4 into a global holiday).
Aliens first exterminate not human life, but human cultural difference:
“Then there was Heru. I had never spoken to him, but we smiled across the table at each other during mealtimes. He was from one of those cities so far from mine that they seemed like a figment of my imagination, where there was snow and where men rode those enormous gray birds and the women could speak with those birds without moving their mouths.”
Of course, humans do have commonalties across cultures; at the start of the flight, Binti makes friends with the other young people on the flight out, because they’re all young and all obsessed with math. “We sat in my room…and challenged each other to look out at the stars and imagine the most complex equation and then split it in half and then in half again and again.” In the vastness of the universe, humans are humans; or at least, mathematicians are mathematicians.
However, while Binti finds commonalities with her peers, she also insists on her differences. Even in space, she continues to cover herself with a traditional clay paste, otije, using earth brought with her from her home in Namibia. Her rituals, her appearance, and her culture are in many ways as alien to the Khoush as the Meduse are — a fact underlined when Binti ends up taking on the role of Meduse translator and negotiator (she is even partially transformed into a Meduse, when her hair plaits are changed into tentacles). She’s not just human, but alien, and not just alien, but human — a bridge between the two.
Reverse invasion narratives are built around the idea that such bridges between cultures don’t, or can’t, exist.
Think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where alien/communist infiltration means a total transformation of the self into evil ugly plant people. There’s not a lot of room for compromise there. Similarly, in The War of the Worlds, the Martians are destroyed by exposure to the common cold virus. The very atmosphere of earth rejects them, ending their military genocide with a bio-genocide of its own.
In contrast, Binti discovers that her otije paste actually heals the Meduse’s wounds. The Meduse originally invaded the ship in an effort to retrieve their chief’s stinger, which was stolen and put in a glass case by the anthropologists at the university, but the end of the novel, when the stinger is reattached, Binti uses her paste to heal the chief’s scar. The university saw difference as an opportunity for imperialist plunder; Binti instead offers her difference as a gift.
“The Meduse left Oomza Uni happier and better off than when they’d arrived,” she says in satisfaction – a happy ending very different from The War of the Worlds, with its dead Martians scattered about the English countryside:
Here and there they were scattered, nearly fifty altogether, in that great gulf they had made, overtaken by a death that must have seemed to them as incomprehensible as any death could be. To me also at that time this death was incomprehensible.
All I knew was that these things that had been alive and so terrible to men were dead. For a moment I believed that the destruction of Sennacherib had been repeated, that God had repented, that the Angel of Death had slain them in the night.
Binti is, most directly, a coming-of-age story, about how a girl from a rural backwater comes to the urban center of the universe. But it also challenges science fiction to see that journey as an answer to its apocalyptic invasion obsessions. Every cultural exchange doesn’t have to be a genocide — and, in fact, people from other cultures are not hard to find. There are different people everywhere.
The question is whether you’re willing to see them, and willing to let them change you, rather than the other way around…
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