Who Fears Death

There’s an appealing symmetry of form and content in Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. Its hybrid protagonist, Onyesonwu, is the mixed-race daughter of two warring tribes in a future Africa, with her dual heritage at the center of the tale. Meanwhile, the author of several award-winning books for younger readers sets out, in her first novel aimed at adults, to create a mashup of science fiction and fantasy, an interstitial “hopeful monster” mapping new storyspace for the twenty-first century.

As a fantasy—and in fact simply as a novel qua novel—the book is overarchingly and culminatively satisfying, if not without some minor longueurs. Despite Okorafor’s track record in crafting YA stories such as The Shadow Speaker, Who Fears Death really does read like a “first novel,” exhibiting some of the inevitable kinks of that inescapably fledgling enterprise. That doesn’t change its manifest accomplishments: this novel will surely find and inspire a passionate audience, heighten the author’s deserved stature as an artist, and point the way toward an extension of the fantasy genre’s subject matter, viewpoints, and angles of attack.

But as a science fiction novel, the book is exiguous and unfulfilled. Were one to eliminate all the sparse and underdeployed SF elements and set the tale in a completely fictional secondary world—a “subcreation,” to employ Tolkien’s famous terminology—not a whit of impact would be lost. But since the book’s hybrid aspirations—with all of the thematic resonance they add to the tale—depend on two equal and fully flowing tributaries, the parched quality of its conception as science fiction leaves it short of a fully flourishing work.

The era of our tale is some unspecified future period when global civilization as we know it has collapsed, to be replaced by—so far as we are shown—tiny self-contained polities with no far-reaching trade or communications. We are once again becalmed in humanity’s long village dreamlife, when the general vision and ambitions of most people extend no further than the most distant pasturage for their flocks. And since the planet is also environmentally damaged, with resources shrinking, this scenario is red in tooth and claw. 

Enter two African tribes: the Okeke and the Nuru. The former are pastoralists and craftspeople, the latter urbanites, possessing slightly more technology. (The fantasy versus SF theme is implicit in the natures of the two factions.) The Nuru have long been persecuting and killing the Okeke, but now seem intent on launching an actual genocide. The Nuru’s leader, Daib, is waging a brutal war involving rape as a weapon. And in fact Daib proves to be the father of mestizo—or Ewu—Onyesonwu, having violated and impregnated an Okeke woman named Najeeba during a raid. 

Onyesonwu’s whole life is narrated vividly in her own distinctive voice: from violent conception; to her generally peaceful maturation under the loving tutelage of her mother and stepfather; to independence as an adolescent and the cultivation of friendships with three other special girls; to her love affair with a fellow Ewu, a boy name Mwita; to final confrontation with her blood father and a violent demise at age twenty. (A demise foretold for years, yet whose ultimate reality-quotient is most intriguingly Schrodingeresque.) She will gradually come to discover her innate magical talents—Daib himself, after all, is an evil wizard of the highest order—find a mentor, Aro, and fix upon a purpose and mission: to “rewrite the Great Book” which governs the mingled destiny of the two tribes.

Okorafor has succeeded in setting down on the page in the person of Onyesonwu a complete and fully-sinewed human being, utterly believable, deep and complex. No plaster saint, she experiences highs and lows of emotion and passion, makes mistakes, learns, recovers, perseveres, and ultimately triumphs at no small personal sacrifice. The prose is simple and homely, yet potent and dramatic—as befits an innately bright heroine without much formal schooling—and the reader is soon enmeshed in a kind of non-Western Ur-storytelling with a flavor both ancient and modern.

Likewise, Okorafor tackles her themes and topics with subtlety, maturity, and wisdom. Power imbalances (interpersonal and civic), prejudice, the split duty of an individual to oneself and the community, the joy and danger of artistic creation (Onyesonwu’s magic is her art), the treacherous and ennobling nature of love—all these matters are incarnated in the persons and plot without preachiness or didactic overkill.

Finally, Okorafor exhibits a sure hand with the supernatural, crafting a convincing system of magic and depicting its usage without bombast or silliness. One gets the sense of eavesdropping on timeless rites of cosmic import.

So far, so grand. But what of my quibbles?

Consider the structure of the story. The first half of the book, except for flashbacks to Najeeba’s story, takes place exclusively in the village of Jwahir. The next two hundred pages (almost) represent five months on the road journeying to confront Daib. The last thirty pages is that confrontation and its fallout.

Both parts one and two accomplish no more nor less than the education of a juvenile Onyesonwu before she can commit her first—and only—adult action. That’s an awfully long buildup. In essence, this book is a pure bildungsroman. Call it Portrait of the Sorceress as a Young Girl. As such, it’s more about prelude than climax. The rushed battle and victory/defeat at the end seem almost tacked on. And similarly, the educational stages sometimes feel protracted and endless.

The acerbic critic Thomas Disch once maintained in contrarian fashion that all science fiction—all fiction in fact—was enjoyed and needed mostly by young people, since its main function was to teach a naïve youngster how to navigate the world. This explained why adults tended to read less fiction, and why fiction mattered so much more strongly to adolescents. In this sense, Who Fears Death is, beneath its “adult” trappings very much still a YA book, more intent on lovingly explicating the heroine’s education and how she eventually fits herself into the adult world rather than on exploring her mature life, which transpires, if at all, beyond the book’s final pages.

Very occasionally, in fact, yet indisputably, the book reads like some Sisterhood of the Traveling Chastity Girdle. (The bonding among Onyesonwu and her three friends derives from their sharing an occult clitoridectomy ceremony.) I think I realized this at the point when Diti, Onyesonwu’s spoiled “rich girl” pal was complaining about the Spartan hardships of the quest, and of having trouble with her boyfriend. I instantly flashed on Veronica Lodge of Archie comics fame, selfishly bitching to nose-to-the-grindstone Betty Cooper, and all the interpersonal dynamics made much more sense. 

And lastly, in my nit-picking of the fantasy part of the novel, I have to focus on the fact that Onyesonwu is “the One.” Yes, although that exact phrase is not used, she is indeed Neo in The Matrix, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Paul Atreides in Dune, and any one of a thousand other heroes with the same face. Truly, I am beginning to curse Joseph Campbell. I begin to wonder if it is even possible to write a fantasy or science fiction novel where the protagonist is not the Lone Redeemer, a vortex and black hole of significance who casts all secondary characters into shadow?  Perhaps something like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, whose titular character is neither Christ nor Frodo, might point the way.

And so long as we have veered toward comparisons with science fiction novels, why do I claim that Who Fears Death lacks any true SF vibe?

First is the massive disjunction between the era of the novel and our own. There’s simply no least hint at how we got from here to there, nor does Okorafor show the slightest interest in any global circumstances outside her limited remit. (Onyesonwu’s odyssey resembles that of the rabbits of Watership Down in a way, jammed into a tiny corner of the planet.) Now, I’m not demanding a Heinlein-style “Future History” timeline here—bring on the ambiguity and slipstream slipperiness! But even if answers and facts are hidden in an SF story, the mode demands some nod toward plausibility and rationality. Yet the Nuru are merely offstage ciphers. Early on, it is said that their race “came from the stars.” Are they literal aliens? They seem utterly human, and interbreed with the Okeke. Okorafor can’t be bothered to clarify.

Ninety-nine percent of the “technology” and culture that we are privy to here is magic, only the fantasy side of Onyesonwu’s heritage. Although a token climactic vision seems to show her actions reinstating a technological civilization, nothing in the book permits any kind of SF reading of events. The anti-sex “juju” inflicted during the girls’ clitoridectomy: could that be some kind of nanotech? Likewise Onyesonwu’s shapeshifting? No, resolutely not. The Nuru side of her makeup is ultimately unacknowledged, as inconsequential as the SF window-dressings.

Let me contrast the atmosphere of this book with one that is surprisingly allied to it: John Crowley’s Engine Summer. Another post-apocalypse fantasia of a village life, a young hero’s education and travel-facilitated destiny, and even the same riff of posthumous dictation of a life-transmogrified-into-fable. Yet, for all its numinous and mysterious fantasy garments, Engine Summer reveals a steely armature of pure SF, making it a true hybrid. In a similar fashion, Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz and its sequels manage to mix up genres more successfully.

Ultimately, Who Fears Death exhaustively and creatively chronicles the early career of a female Trickster, her sorrows, tribulations, and muted joys, in lucid, lilting fashion. Perhaps in her next work, Okorafor will achieve escape velocity into the cosmos of truly speculative fiction, and access a future of intimate relevance and authority.