I was so lucky to be granted a review copy of Nnedi Okorafor’s newest (and one of her best!) books. Thanks to DAW for the e-ARC. It is much appreciated, especially since it turned out to be truly brilliant. Nnedi Okorafor achieves in 200 pages what other authors can only dream of achiving in twice as many. The future she paints is vivid, believable, and peopled with diverse characters. I really, really loved it.
by Nnedi Okorafor
Published: DAW, 16th November 2021
eBook: 224 pages
My rating: 9/10
Opening line: I would never do this again. But for the moment, I survived.
From Africanfuturist luminary Okorafor comes a new science fiction novel of intense action and thoughtful rumination on biotechnology, destiny, and humanity in a near-future Nigeria.
Anwuli Okwudili prefers to be called AO. To her, these initials have always stood for Artificial Organism. AO has never really felt…natural, and that’s putting it lightly. Her parents spent most of the days before she was born praying for her peaceful passing because even in-utero she was wrong. But she lived. Then came the car accident years later that disabled her even further. Yet instead of viewing her strange body the way the world views it, as freakish, unnatural, even the work of the devil, AO embraces all that she is: A woman with a ton of major and necessary body augmentations. And then one day she goes to her local market and everything goes wrong.
Once on the run, she meets a Fulani herdsman named DNA and the race against time across the deserts of Northern Nigeria begins. In a world where all things are streamed, everyone is watching the reckoning of the murderess and the terrorist and the saga of the wicked woman and mad man unfold. This fast-paced, relentless journey of tribe, destiny, body, and the wonderland of technology revels in the fact that the future sometimes isn’t so predictable. Expect the unaccepted.
I believe the last time I was this taken with a Nnedi Okorafor book was when I picked up Binti and marveled at how much a truly great author can pack into such a little package. Noor is longer than a novella, but for a novel it’s still pretty slim. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it doesn’t have teeth, though. There is a lot to discover between its covers and I’m still reeling a bit. I also pre-ordered a hardback copy, just to give you an indication of how impressed I am.
AO just wants to live a quiet life without being judged on sight. She’s an auto mechanic in Abuja where people have come to know and accept her for who she is. She may not like that they call her “more machine than human” because that’s just not true, but at least she is accepted as a member of society and can go about her business like anyone else. Until, that is, shortly after her boyfriend had left her, she goes to market to buy some food and a handful of men decide that she is an abomination and must be punished. Well, it’s not smart attacking a woman with a bionic arm… A few heartbeats later, AO is looking at the result of the men’s violent attack and realizes she has to run. Police are never going to see her side and so she flees north into the Sahel desert and closer to the natural disaster known as the Red Eye, a huge sandstorm that only few managed to survive.
It is on her rather aimless journey that she meets a man who feels equally uprooted, who has lost what he considered his normal life as well and is being hunted as a terrorist. So AO joins this man, DNA, and his two steer GPS and Carpe Diem and they try to find a new purpose together, a reason to live, and a place to be accepted just the way they are.
I loved everything about this story, beginning with its incredible protagonist AO who probably has more than a little Nnedi Okorafor in her. If you’ve read her non-fiction TED book Broken Places & outer Spaces (which I highly recommend, btw) you’ll know that Okorafor lost the use of her legs at a young age and regained it only through hard work and a lot of pain. It’s not quite the same as her character AO but there pere parallels and certain descriptions that made me think it’s not all imagination but some of it was real, lived experience. When AO decides to replace her crushed legs with bionic ones, people aren’t exactly supportive and part of the reason for that is that you can only make those legs work if you withstand a lot of pain. AO sees the world through a red fog of pain for a long time before she can walk with ease.
I also adored DNA – short for Dangote Nuhu Adamu – the Fulani herdsman in the desert, who loves his steer dearly but who also has a nomadic family. Unfortunately, the Fulani are seen as little more than terrorists by other people when all DNA wants to do is live quietly with his steer, maybe a wife someday and some kids, with no ambitions for riches or glory. Much like AO, he is simply looking for acceptance in a world that refuses to see him as he truly is.
I’d always had it coming. In the dark this was all clear. I emerged from the warm protective darkness of my mother’s womb poorly made. A mess. And then years later, fate had unmade me. How dare I embrace what I was and wasn’t, and build my self?
Speaking of the world – Nnedi Okorafor packed so much world-building into this book, it’s hard to believe. Starting with the Red Eye, that eternal sandstorm that has changed the lives of people living nearby dramatically, to the constant presence of Ultimate Corp who harness the Red Eye’s wind power to send energy to other places around the world. The way technology, the internet, drones, and bionic limbs work in this world, was also highly interesting. It all goes together so well and paints the picture of a real, lived-in world, a believable portrait of the future with both good and not-so-good sides. Another thing I loved (even though we’re used to it from Okorafor’s fiction) is the focus on Africa, Nigeria and its surrounding countries in particular. Sure, you might say that’s the whole point of Africanfuturism, but it is still refreshing when the US or Europe are only mentioned in passing as places that exist but that are not the center of this story.
As much as Nnedi Okorafor has to say about making yourself into the person you want to be, about freedom, about big corporations getting rich on the backs of cultures they think worthless, about preserving a way of life, and finding friends and maybe even love in the most unlikely situations, what she also does is write a damn good action scene! Because although I haven’t mentioned it yet, Noor‘s plot kicks serious ass right from the start and with hardly any pauses. Whether it’s entering a deadly sandstorm, making crazy plans to save someone in need, being confronted with an army of drones, or surviving a physical attack – I held my breath many times while reading this book. And then came the twists which made me gasp out loud. Add to that the moments of emotional resonance, the quieter character-focused scenes, and you’ve got a novel that does pretty much everything right.
I already know I will nominate this book fo r a Hugo Award next year. It was so impressive on so many levels and mixes themes and subgenres in a way that only Okorafor does. If you like her writing already, go and buy yourself a copy right now. If you’re new to her fiction, this is a great starting point. In fact, if you even remotely like science fiction and fantasy, pick this up and join me in cheering for Nnedi Okorafor and the way she gets better and better over the years.
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!