In the library of the mind, shelve Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix between The X-Men and Frankenstein. A companion to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2011, The Book of Phoenix tells the story of Phoenix, one of the mutant “speciMen” a future government has created for nefarious purposes. SpeciMen—invariably of African descent— are experiments, medical curiosities, living farms for donor organs, or freaks of nature imprisoned in specially designed cells, but Phoenix is different. Phoenix is a weapon. An “accelerated organism” who looks 40 despite being only two years old, she was created in a lab for the purposes of destruction.
It spoils nothing to reveal that Phoenix soon turns her destructive powers against her captors. The Book of Phoenix is the latest in a long tradition of stories about escaped monsters who take revenge on the society that created them, and Phoenix’s journey follows a pattern readers of these stories will recognize. After demolishing her prison, Tower 7, in a spectacular scene reminiscent of the wrath of Dionysus—trees and vines, spurred into bizarre growth by the powerful radiation she emits, overpower the skyscraper and tear it to pieces—Phoenix attempts to live a normal human life, or as normal a life as one can have when one has suddenly sprouted wings. She goes out for Ethiopian food, flies to Africa, and settles in a small village in northern Ghana, where she falls in love. Phoenix’s trip to Ghana is ostensibly motivated by the alien seed she discovers in the wreckage of Tower 7, but this section of the book also functions as an idyll, a brief chance for Phoenix to experience “real life.” The fact that the seed wills her to carry it there and plant it in Ghanian soil only literalizes what would otherwise be a metaphorical attempt to put down roots.
This fusion between the literal and the metaphorical is a defining feature of The Book of Phoenix, which is divided into two parts: the primary plot, an expressionistic fable that more than once relies on mystical explanations, and a frame narrative set even further in the future, when Phoenix’s story is finally discovered. The former is a work of pure, oral storytelling; it is extracted from Phoenix’s own memories and told in her own voice. To quibble about the elements which don’t make sense, or make too much sense—Phoenix, for example, is named not only for the city in Arizona where her surrogate mother lived, but for her ability to emit massive quantities of heat and light; that she also coincidentally sprouts wings in a development which catches everyone by surprise—is to misunderstand the genre of the tale being told. Phoenix’s story operates at the level of myth; here, poetic logic reigns supreme.
When the organization that created Phoenix—a group whose panoptic influence is underscored by their name, “The Big Eye”—catches up to her and murders the man she loves (well, one of them), her Ghanian sojourn is cut short and the novel’s revenge plot kicks into gear. Reunited with two other speciMen from Tower 7, Saeed, who can only digest substances like rust and ashes (imagine the lovechild of Rappaccini’s daughter and Matter-Eater Lad), and Mmuo, who can walk through walls, Phoenix sets out to bring down the Towers.
Her journey brings her to the Library of Congress, to the prison where her mother is dying from the cancer she contracted as a result of carrying Phoenix, and to the Tower where speciMen children are raised for their organs. It’s here that Okorafor makes what may be the book’s boldest move by incorporating a character heavily influenced by the story of Henrietta Lacks, a kind of vampire’s victim who is herself immortal. The suggestion is that Lacks, whose cancer cells were posthumously harvested for scientific research, exists on a continuum with the speciMen, and that the events of The Book of Phoenix are the culmination of centuries of exploitative research practices.
This is a story of vengeance, a fantastic epic battle between good and evil; written as a fable for the future, it doesn’t leave much room for moral complexity. That comes in the frame narrative, in which Sunuteel, an old man in a post-apocalyptic desert, discovers Phoenix’s “book”—the audio file containing her narrated history—in a cave of discarded computers. What Sunuteel does to Phoenix’s monologic narrative fundamentally changes its meaning, and, in the process, shifts the focus of the novel. Is this a book about Phoenix, or is it a book about books?
Okorafor is deeply concerned with what stories can and cannot do. Phoenix is a voracious reader, one who, in the Tower, consumed books at an accelerated rate to match her accelerated growth. Her adventure hinges on a trip to the library; of course some of its most compelling passages would turn out to be meditations on writing and storytelling. The tension between Phoenix’s memories and the book Sunuteel makes of them adds an extra layer of interest to this inventive dystopia.