Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Book of Phoenix - Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor is a prequel of sorts. A story that explores what happened to create the world described in her 2010 novel Who Fears Death. I read Who Fears Death in 2013 and thought it was a very confronting and in some ways very depressing book. It got quite a bit of attention at the time, but maybe not quite as much as it should have. This new entry in the series started out as a short story published in the March 2011 edition of Clarkesworld. It was then expanded to a novella, which appeared under the title African Sunrise in the Fall edition of Subterranean Magazine. The once again expanded novel version of the story was published by DAW in May of this year.

Phoenix is a genetic experiment. Her growth is accelerated and she is able to do things no ordinary human can. She grows up in a facility called Tower 7 among doctors and other genetic experiments. Her heritage is unknown to her as is the full extent of her abilities. Her captors don't seem to fear her as much as they should though. She is not allowed to leave but gets unlimited access to information. She seems content until one day the only man she considers a friend witnesses something that pushes him to take his life. After that, the world is beginning to take shape for Phoenix. She becomes destructively desperate to escape her keepers.

In Who Fears Death, Okorafor tackled some very difficult themes. The use of rape as a weapon of war was one of them, female genital mutilation is another. For her western audience this is something that, while horrific, is not likely to be part of their personal experience. Most western countries haven't had a war fought on their soil in two generations, such brutalities usually take place in far away places. Easy to close the book, shake your head and move on if you choose to do so. In The Book of Phoenix Okorafor tackles slavery. It forces the white western reader to consider their part in that ugly piece of history. There is a lot of uncomfortable material in either book but for different subsets of Okorafor's readership.

The novel shares the same type of futuristic magical realism with Who Fears Death. It is essentially set before the wrath of Ani destroyed the highly technological society that preceded Onyesonwu's world. It is a world severely impacted by climate change, but not so much that society has collapsed completely. With the aid of technology, people have adapted. Technology is the key to power in the world and genetics is an important part of it. It is presented as a framestory. An explanation of how one man found an account of the end of the world in a cave in the dessert and how he, with the aid of his wife used it to write the 'Great Book' of the Okeke, a book that would go on to create misery for many of the characters in Who Fears Death.

Phoenix is essentially a slave in the book. She is valued as an experiment, not a human being. Her fellow prisoners are traded like commodities, used to enhance the quality of life for the ruling class. The parallel with the African slave trade is inescapable. Okorafor does a very good job in exploring how Phoenix and her fellow captives are dehumanized and how the fact that their captors don't recognize them as human beings with human desires eventually leads to their downfall. The arrogance of the ruling class in this novel is painfully obvious and possesses the short-sightedness displayed by many currently wielding economic and political power. The Book of Phoenix does not attempt to be a completely accurate extrapolation of current trends but it certainly contains a warning for a society displaying a similar kind of hubris.

Another thing that struck me was how the novel lashes out at the consistently one-sided view of Africa that can be found in western media. What we get to see is the wars, the natural disasters, famines and epidemics. Africa in the media is a place to pity, to send emergency aid to and to avoid if you want to stay healthy. This incomplete image of the continent is one that annoys Okorafor and she is quite clear about it in the novel. One of the characters puts it better than I ever could:
"Will you come with us?" I asked again.
"No." He spread his wings. "I am guarding New York."
"Why not Mali?"
"Africa bleeds, but it will be fine," he said. "I go where I am most needed."

Chapter 18 - Deus Ex Machina
That should give the reader something to think about.

Most of the story, all of the material in the frame, is written in a first person point of view from Phoenix' perspective. The name of the main character is no accident. She is quite literally a phoenix. The novel tells the tale of her transformation, her deaths and her rising from her ashes. Each incarnation is a bit different from the last. Phoenix is a character that doesn't respond well to injustice and one that wields the power to break free of who ever tries to contain her. She spends quite a lot of the novel exploring those powers and figuring out how to use them. Her growth as a character is often in violent spurts, conveyed to the reader in emotionally powerful scenes. She is rash but also compassionate, deeply in love but filled with rage at the same time. She is in other words, a wonderfully complex character.

The Book of Phoenix could be considered science fiction but the language, imagery and themes of the novel are not those encountered in novels that are generally considered science fiction. Is Phoenix post human or godlike? How about the tree that grows through Tower 7? Does humanity fall because of messing with genetics too much or for cutting down the tree of life? Or is one simply a differently framed image of the same thing? Okorafor pours her science fiction in a mythological cast that results in a book with a slightly magical atmosphere to it. It is a rare combination, one that sets this book apart from pretty much everything else I've read this year.

There is probably not much in it but I think this prequel is a better book than Who Fears Death. It is a pretty wild ride, looking over the shoulder of a very unpredictable main character. I felt Who Fears Death relied a bit too much on magic to resolve tricky problems in the plot. The Book of Phoenix is better in that respect. Like its predecessor, it is a novel that asks equally difficult questions to most of its readership, and one that doesn't shy away from pointing out uncomfortably truths. Combine that with beautiful writing and a complex main character, and you end up with a very interesting read. Very much recommended.

Book Details
Title: The Book of Phoenix
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: DAW Books
Pages: 233
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7564-1019-3
First published: 2015

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