THE BOOK OF PHOENIX – Nnedi Okorafor (2015)

The Book Of PhoenixThe Book Of Phoenix is a kind of prequel to Who Fears Death – a post-apocalyptic science fantasy book I haven’t read. It is my first exposure to Nnedi Okorafor’s writing, and a book that left me frustrated and unsatisfied – yet humbled and uncertain too. I think Okorafor has cleverly hidden her true intentions with this book, and that makes it both an artistic success and an artistic failure – depending on one’s perspective. Let me first write about what Okorafor didn’t manage to do.

While the first fourth of the book was gripping, the plot quickly lost all tension. The Book Of Phoenix is for the most part set in the 29th century and is – roughly – about a child born as an experiment in genetic engineering, done by a shady Big Evil cooperation. That cooperation, LifeGen, has several “towers” spread across the USA where it conducts experiments of all sorts, mainly on Africans that seem to have been enhanced X-Men style – presumably by some alien artifact. The experiments are generally unethical.

At first the world building was fresh and quick. I was gripped by the first couple of (short) chapters. It quickly became clear though that Phoenix, the protagonist, turns out to be an immortal character with nearly godlike powers: she can’t be caught nor hurt, and packs a rather big punch herself. As far as the general plot goes, this fact sucked all the tension out of the reading. At page 60, it was 100% obvious what was going happen in the remaining 170 pages: the destruction of all the towers, straightforward revenge.

On top of that, Okorafor didn’t write characters with depth or complexity – but then again, I don’t think she wanted to. The Bad Evil cooperation is just that: only one shade of bad. Phoenix herself doesn’t know a lot of emotions either: there’s some straightforward love and a bit of self-doubt, but it’s mainly rage and anger.

A big reason for this lack of complexity is the result of a narrative choice Okorafor made: the bulk of the book is told as a first person account by Phoenix – and Phoenix is emotionally still a child. So this lack of depth & complexity is a tricky point to argue, as Okorafor is true to the voice of her protagonist. Be that as it may, the choice resulted in me being bored for the entire second half of the novel. But then again, I respect Okorafor’s choice, if I understand her motivations for doing so correctly…

The book’s main political underpinnings are racism & colonization. That screams at you from every other page. These topics are dealt with in the same way as the characters were written. The reader experiences Phoenix’s emotional responses to racism, and they are again straightforward and binary – generalizations about “all Americans” and “these people” included. Phoenix also has strong ideas on how  a real African Arab should dress: not in a suit for sure. As such, this is not a novel that will refine some of your philosophical stances on colonization. But again, I don’t think that was Okorafor’s intention.

What we do get instead is a kind of translation of how raw and visceral experiencing racism must feel – an experience that is difficult to imagine for me as a white European. Phoenix’s anger is understandably fed by her knowledge of American history – from the slave trade to the place of black actors in Hollywood.

I think this is the core and true strength of the book: it is a story that stabs at racism in the same way racism stabs people: brutal, not nuanced, angry. As such, The Book Of Phoenix is a triumph.

So what could be a conclusion? Somewhere in my notes I scribbled that this book is an “uneven marriage between dreamy magical SF realism & political obviousness”. I also scribbled “lack of focus: & cyborgs & nanomites & regeneration & seeing the future & aliens & walking through walls & Fela Kuti & divine intervention & slavery & the Holocaust & Noah’s flood & talking plants & …”. I rolled my eyes while reading the last few pages: a meta manual on how to read this book and the next, in a kind of contrived Postmodernism 101 mise en abyme-way. I also thought of writing something about the fact that if a genre runs of steam, artists tend to start mixing stuff in an attempt at originality, yet end up with the already known, simply rearranged and less coherent. Maybe all these things are true: the book did lose my interest quickly, and annoyed me for its comic book simplicity.

But all that misses the point: while I didn’t really connect with Phoenix – or any of the other characters – I did feel her pain. All else is secondary, and only criticism – fed into a keyboard from a privileged position.

I’m extremely curious about Lagoon.

 

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12 responses to “THE BOOK OF PHOENIX – Nnedi Okorafor (2015)

  1. This book is my favorite Okorafor’s work, I had some issues with it, I didn’t like how scientists were portrayed but I also interpretated it as being Phoenix’s vision. She’s a child in the body of a woman, she has theorical knowledge (thanks to books) but, when you’re three years old, even if you’re incredibly smart, it’s hard to see that everything isn’t black or white (quite literally in this book). Some parts of it frustrated me but I think that they were indeed do intentionally. I didn’t like Lagoon as much but since it was the first thing I read by Okorafor, I’m pretty sure that I would like it more now that I know her style. Great review, it was cool to think about this book again! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I had that same thought on the portrayal of scientists too, but didn’t write anything about it because it fits the character’s POV as you say: I’d hate them too if I were Phoenix.

      I’m curious about Lagoon. From what I’ve read online about it, I think it will be as political, but less obviously so – and as a result something I could really like.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes, when a particular issue is very important to you – and I can understand how important it is for the author – it’s easy, too easy to fall into the trap of “preaching vs. storytelling”, and in this particular case it seems to have robbed the author of any desire to give her characters more depth and behavioral shades. That said, this title did capture my interest, and I will read it, if nothing else to add a new, different voice to my collection.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think Okorafor preached too much in this book, if that comes across as such in the review, that’s my bad. I think the lack of depth is more a result of this being a story told by a character that is only three years old (emotionally) in a kind of mythological fashion. The lack of depth fits the character & the story well, but to me that didn’t result in something that kept me interested throughout. That’s mainly a matter of taste I guess. Likewise, it was a bit too obviously political for my tastes, with the stress on obvious (not on political).

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  3. That’s what I intended with ‘preaching’: driving the message home in such a way that it was clearly a message and not something the reader could attain on his/her own. I guess this is what Tolkien meant when he said he disliked allegory and preferred applicability… 🙂

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    • Yes, in that way it’s the same indeed. Still, I’m not sure this message is the most important thing for Okorafor. On Twitter she stated that she doesn’t write with “an agenda”, and that the political content of her books are the result of her characters being non-white. I can understand the latter part of the statement, but I don’t see how that’s not an agenda an sich. It may be interesting philosophical debate, but to me it doesn’t really matter for the end result, as it seems to just shift the political decision (the agenda) a bit earlier in the writing proces, in this case to when deciding on characters. However it came to be, it is no denying this is partly a political novel – although it may not have been Okorafor’s own focus when writing. Of course, in a way, everything is political, so taken on its own that is not a negative at all. If anything, we need political changes urgently, on a lot of fronts – climate, income inequality, racial inequality, armed conflicts across the globe, fair trade.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. True: science fiction is, more often than not, a mirror of our world, a way of observing current problems through the lens of fiction – and as such it works quite well in showcasing those problems and (hopefully) make people *think* about them, and about the way they consider those issues.
    In this respect, I do see issues like racism as political and worthy of exploration – after all it’s exactly what some fringe groups would like to avoid (as the infamous Sad Puppies). But still I prefer to see it done through well-defined characters, people who possess more than just one or two facets.
    And now, I’m even more curious about this book than I was before!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting and thought-provoking review as usual. As you know, I really liked this book. It hit all my buttons at the right time. I digged “its comic book simplicity”, but feel it was a little deeper than you suggest.

    I liked the character Phoenix *because* of her childlike emotions, and thought that Okorafor wrote her well. Yes, the other characters were a bit opaque but I found myself still thinking about some of them a couple of months later. I can’t put it into words very well but there was a unique atmosphere to the story that made an impression on me. A feeling that stuck with me while I was reading it. Maybe it was the heat of Phoenix’s rage,… I don’t know. There was a kind of other-worldliness to it that worked for me.

    I’m also looking forward to ‘Lagoon’ and ‘Who Fears Death’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the elaborate reply! I agree with you that Phoenix was well written, but I just didn’t think her a very interesting character, as I said, I didn’t really connect with her. I also agree that the book had a unique atmosphere, it’s quite fresh, but at the same time I thought it lacked focus & was a bit disjointed, so the uniqueness of atmosphere, its other-worldliness as you describe it, alone wasn’t enough for me, as the story was a bit too predictable.

      I can understand people liking this, and the book certainly has merit, but in the end, as always, I guess it boils down to a matter of taste. I didn’t like Vandermeer’s first entry in the Southern Reach trilogy either. I guess I’m not much of a fan of books that rely heavily on atmosphere only.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m with you on the loss of narrative tension — as soon as she discovers that she can travel through time, burn up the tracking nanobots in her system, and bascially do whatever she wants (even die repeatesly) without any consequences…it becomes kinda hard to care what happens to her as you know she’ll be fine. Interesting to note in the acknowledgements that this story was both a short story and a novella before becoming a novel, and you can see the amount of padding worked in to make it long enough to publish on its own.

    But, yeah. the atmosphere is superb and the sense of confusion even when it’s clear what’s going on to you, the reader, is very well handled from a narrator’s perspective. I guess I’m just a fan of decent storytelling alongside decent atmosphere, and I’ll take te first over the second any day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes indeed! The fact that it is an ‘expanded’ work doesn’t make it stronger. A novel is structurally different from a short story, I guess even from its conception on. But then again, I guess any idea in whatever form can serve as a springboard. I haven’t read the short story, but I wonder if she built on that and just added pages, or started again from scratch.

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      • I’ve not read the original either, but I wouldn’t be completely surprised if it dealt with, say, the escape from the tower in chapter 1 and then left it open what happened from there, with the revenge plot being added afterwards to make it up to a novel. Probaly very wrong, but it just feels like very little in the second part is built on any firm foundation in the first. A shame, as it could have been excellent, and Okorafor is clearly a talented writer.

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