Monday, April 25, 2016

The Book of Phoenix

Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix fits the mold of her previous writing (Binti, Lagoon) for me: it is vaguely science-fiction/fantasy, with characters whose choices are opaque to me even when the writing reveals their inner monologues. It touches on racism and slavery and human testing and the limits of scientific ethics, for very strong values of "touches on" (in the same way that District 9 "touches on" apartheid).

The protagonist, a woman named Phoenix, is the result of a scientific experiment, and has lived all her life in a large lab complex, surrounded by prodding scientists and the bizarre and puissant other human/animal/robot experimental subjects. She begins as fairly naive and innocent, although very well-read.

Then, of course, she escapes.

The book is her own firsthand (maybe) account of her escape and the ensuing series of revelations (about the extent and horror of human-subject testing by this powerful corporation) and rescues/destructions wrought (of the other human subjects and of the company's physical holdings and employees, respectively). Her reflections on human testing are pretty much as expected: "Human beings make terrible gods." (p. 152)

As always, the conclusion is that Racism Is Bad. All other types of discrimination, too: we should all aspire to just get along, respect each other, be kind, and improve the lives of those around us. ("He accepted what I was as if it were normal. He gazed at me but didn't stare. His world was big and there was room for me." p. 155)

The story was a bit jumbled, or at least, it was not designed for someone with my mindset to comprehend. For example, some event happens several times. Time A it takes 3 days. Time B it takes 1 month. Time C it takes a few minutes. After time C, one onlooking character says that it is getting faster... a conclusion which I think unwarranted, given the available data. But he says it with a certain conviction, and without any second-guessing in the narration, that indicates (to me at least) that the readers should accept this pronouncement as accurate. It is narrative fact. This causes some dissonance in my brain, as the available data might just as well suggest that it is alternatingly fast-and-slow, or just noisy and unpredictable, or really anything.

The entire book is like this: it's not what I expect, I never feel comfortable with what is going on, and it explicitly calls out privileges that benefit me. It's discomforting, but as with Okorafor's other writing, this discomfort is clearly meant to be a feature of the writing for readers like me. And I think that it's good, or right, or at least social-justice-minded, for me to "sit with [my] discomfort" (in the words of Another Round host Heben Nigatu, episode 15).

The final notes of the book are weird --- there is a framestory to wrap up, but then we pop the stack one more time. Somehow. Somehow we pop the empty stack, we jump up another level to a frame story that no one even knew was going on. The fourth wall is broken, which is of course pure Lila-bait, but it's brief and weird and I am still thinking about it and not sure what to make of it: "Once the author wrote the story, the author became irrelevant." (p. 210) and "'I know what you think,' she said. 'You can rewrite a story, ... Think before you do; your story is written too... Who is writing you?' she asked."(p. 211)

This post's theme word is rhizophagous, "feeding on roots". The three-mile-high tree had tremendous rhizophagous needs.

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