The 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.