In Binti, a young Himba woman defied her family and left home for the first time—journeying from Namibia and across the stars to study at the galaxy’s most prestigious university. The sequel saw her return home, changed by an experience that was both harrowing and enlightening. Both novellas blend truly high-concept science fiction ideas with real heart and humanity. Binti is an extraordinarily compelling character with a rich background, drawn from the culture of the modern OvaHimba of Namibia and Angola.
Each of the previous two books in Dr. Nnedi Okorafor’s coming-of-age story saw Binti faced with tremendous change and exposed her to new truths that widened her world, and made it smaller. She’s taken on attributes of the (sometimes) murderous and very alien Meduse, and come to understand there’s more to the seemingly uncivilized desert people of her homeland than she’d ever imagined. The Night Masquerade is the conclusion of her journey, and the title refers to a spectre of change that appears to significant people at times of great crisis. It’s wonderfully evocative of the climactic nature of the story, and Binti will face a great deal more turmoil before hers is done.
When last we saw Binti, she was deep in the desert with her new friend Mwinyi, a tribesman of the Enyi Zinariya. Having grown up to believe the desert dwellers were wild and savage, Binti learned that she was not only of their blood, but that they possess hidden depths of knowledge—including information about ancient alien technology. Unfortunately, the enlightening encounter left her far from home. When she gets word that the neighboring Khoush have attacked her community, desperate to take revenge on Binti’s Meduse companion Okwu and its people, Binti must undertake a journey home that is, somehow, even longer than the trip from the alien Oomza University. Her ever-present astrolabe (for which her family are known) is all but dead, and her jar of otjize paste is nearing empty. For a Himba woman, that’s as good as being naked. By returning home with one of the Meduse, she’s reignited a war that threatens her entire community. Everything she’s accomplished has come to ruin, and what she finds when she arrives is even more devastating than she’d imagined. The Khoush dismiss her, the Meduse are indifferent, and her own blame blame her for all that has occurred. Even her connection to her past and identity grows tenuous—but all of that is only the beginning of this concluding volume.
Even stripped of home, family, and technology, Binti is hardly without resources. The master harmonizer still has a task to perform, to undo some of what’s happened by negotiating peace between the Khoush and the Meduse. The Himba, who stand in the middle, are the only ones who can help, but habit and tradition have made them wary. Binti’s people are thoughtful, with logical and technical minds, but their peaceful, inward focus has a flipside; fearful xenophobia. It’s up to Binti, whose curious nature took her on a journey that gave her tools that none of her people ever had, to change the fate of more than one civilization. Stripped bare, robbed of all of her conceptions about what it means to be a Himba woman, and inspired by visions of the Night Masquerade, her attempts to bring a conciliation reveal both the breathtaking extent of her abilities and the limitations of the real world. Throughout the series, there’s been a spiritual component to Binti’s science-centric world. Here, the mystical and the mathematical are fully revealed as parts of a whole, as the Night Masquerade ultimately stands revealed as something other than the ghostly vision Binti has always believed it to be.
In the first novella, Binti was an innocent bystander to a massacre of Khoush students by the Meduse, but now, she’s both the source of and the potential solution to the violence. Because this is also a story of two aspects of war: of the ignorant foolishness that keeps two peoples at each others throats for generations, but also of war as a metaphor for change. Violent, frightening, ugly, and inelegant: change, Dr. Okorafor suggests, is nevertheless inevitable, and often far preferable to stagnation. As we reach the end of Binti’s journey, she’s been through so much of it that she’s barely even human, at least, not in a way we’d understand. And, generally, she’s the better for it. It’s a useful reminder for our own times: growing up has never been easy, and what’s on the other side is always terrifying. But it’s always necessary, and usually worth the struggle. Not all is resolved here, but Binti’s story reaches an ending that is well and satisfyingly told.
It’s tempting to say this trilogy stands as a major achievement in afrofuturism. While that descriptor fits, it also seems a bit reductive. We shouldn’t really need reminding that the people of the nations of Africa have just as much right to a vividly imagined future as anyone else. With The Night Masquerade, Binti stands revealed as a science fiction masterpiece that’s majestic in scope, one that puts sci-fi grandeur to use to tell a story that’s deeply personal and uniquely spiritual.