Tag Archives: nnedi okorafor

Archive: Reading The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor,

This review originally appeared in Interzone 259 (July-August 2015).

The Book of Phoenix
Nnedi Okorafor, Hodder & Stoughton, 232pp

The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death. As the title suggests, it is the story of Phoenix, ‘mixed, grown and finally birthed’ in Tower 7 on Manhattan, two years old but an accelerated organism with the body of a forty-year-old woman. She is able to read a substantial book in a couple of minutes, plants grow unusually fast when in her presence, and her body’s temperature has begun to soar. Later, she will discover other unusual abilities. Phoenix, as she finally comes to realise, is an experiment, in a building filled with other genetic experiments, many of which have gone horribly wrong. Her ultimate purpose will be to become a weapon. And yet, to begin with, not realising that anything is out of the ordinary, Phoenix is happy enough with her life. Things change after the death of her only friend, Saeed, when she realises that her home is in fact a prison, and determines to escape from Tower 7.

Her account of her experiences we hear from Phoenix herself, but in a roundabout way. Indeed, for all that the novel is ostensibly about Phoenix, the reader is well advised to also pay attention to that Book in the story’s title, for this is also a novel about storytelling. Phoenix’s own story is embedded within another narrative, set further in the future, in which an old man, Sunuteel, caught in a storm in the desert, discovers a cache of old computers. The computers were hidden by the Okeke, of whom Sunuteel is a descendant, at a time when things began to go wrong on earth: ‘just before Ani [the earth goddess] turned her attention back to the earth’. The Book of Phoenix downloads itself onto Sunuteel’s ‘portable’, and he listens to it while he sits out the storm, a storm which seems itself to be something to do with the spirit of Phoenix.

It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to see this cave as some sort of repository for latter-day Dead Sea Scrolls, the computers hidden in haste and then left, their stories untold; the very title, The Book of Phoenix, suggests a flavour of the biblical, while much of Who Fears Death hinges on interpretations of the mysterious Great Book. As for Sunuteel, he is a recorder and a reciter, a man who speaks many dialects of Okeke, as well as a number of other languages. This in turn suggests that it is no accident that he has been brought to this cave at this time. We are also dealing with a character who proudly carries a copy of Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ on his portable, although Barthes’ perception that ‘the author enters into his own death, writing begins’ will be vigorously challenged during the novel. The point being made is that once written, a story lives. It can be rewritten, yes, but the story itself also persists. And persistence and endurance are very much at the heart of this novel.

Alongside Phoenix’s own persistence in understanding how she came into being, disentangling her true story from the lies told to her by the managers of Tower 7 and its sister towers in other US cities, we are also led to understand that Phoenix’s own story has shaped the world that Sunuteel now lives in. However changed they might be, stories about her have lasted. Sunuteel is better qualified than anyone else to see the truth of this, however terrifying this may be to him, in a future shaped by Phoenix’s actions.

The intricate storytelling forms that frame The Book of Phoenix, as well as the recognition of the need that everyone’s stories should be heard, may seem strange to those who prefer their genre neat, but frankly, that is their problem, not the author’s. Quite apart from drawing on traditional storytelling forms, and peopling her world with characters who are emphatically not white, Okorafor delivers a searing (almost literally so in places) commentary on big pharma, experimentation on human beings, the theft and misuse of genetic material, globalisation, companies that function way beyond the law, and all of this from the point of view of the people who are routinely on the receiving end, the people who struggle to maintain their humanity in the face of the appalling violence regularly inflicted on them. This makes for hard reading at times but it’s rewarding work.

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BSFA Awards shortlists

Two shortlists in one day, as the BSFA Awards shortlists were also announced yesterday. Another interesting set of nominations. And for the second time, Paul Kincaid, Karen Burnham and I are all up against one another in the Best Non-Fiction category.

Best Artwork:

Richard Anderson for the cover of Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, published by Angry Robot Books.

Blacksheep for the cover of Bête by Adam Roberts, published by Gollancz

Tessa Farmer for her sculpture The Wasp Factory, after Iain Banks.

Jeffery Alan Love for the cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, published by Gollancz

Andy Potts for the cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, published by Egmont

Best Non-Fiction:

Paul Kincaid for Call and Response, published by Beccon Books

Jonathan McCalmont for ‘Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines’

Edward James, for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War

Strange Horizons: Nina Allan, Dan Hartland, Martin Lewis, Juliet McKenna, Kari Sperring, Maureen Kincaid Speller for The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium

Karen Burnham for Greg Egan, published by University of Illinois Press

Best Short Fiction:

Ruth E J Booth for “The Honey Trap”, published in La Femme, Newcon Press

Octavia Cade for The Mussel Eater,  published by The Book Smugglers

Benjanun Sriduangkaew for  Scale Bright, published by Immersion Press

Best Novel:

Nina Allan, for The Race, published by Newcon Press

Frances Hardinge, for Cuckoo Song, published by Macmillan

Dave Hutchinson, for Europe in Autumn, published by Solaris

Simon Ings, for Wolves, published by Gollancz

Ann Leckie, for Ancilliary Sword, published by Orbit

Claire North, for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, published by Orbit

Nnedi Okorafor,  for Lagoon, published by Hodder

Neil Williamson, for The Moon King, published by Newcon Press

 

Kitschies Awards shortlists

It’s time for the Kitschies Awards shortlists  – always a highlight in my reading year. I’m very much looking forward to working my way through the lists.

2014 FINALISTS

The Red Tentacle (Novel)

  • Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith (Egmont)
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (Viking)
  • The Way Inn, by Will Wiles (4th Estate)
  • The Race, by Nina Allen (NewCon Press)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut)

  • Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
  • Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins)
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (Self-Published)
  • The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art)

  • The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, design by Steve Marking, lettering by Kimberly Glyder (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming, cover by Ben Summers (Hodder and Stoughton)
  • Through the Woods, cover by Emily Carroll and Sonja Chaghatzbanian (Faber and Faber)
  • The Book of Strange New Things, cover by Rafaela Romaya and Yehring Tong (Canongate)
  • Tigerman, cover by Glenn O’Neill (William Heinamann)

The Invisible Tentacle (Natively Digital Fiction)

  • echovirus12, created/curated by Jeff Noon @jeffnoon, Ed @3dgriffiths, James Knight @badbadpoet, violet sprite @gadgetgreen, Richard Biddle @littledeaths68, Mina Polen @polen, Uel Aramchek @ThePatanoiac, Graham Walsh @t_i_s_u, Vapour Vox @Wrong_Triangle
  • Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, by Cardboard Computer
  • 80 Days, by Inkle Studios
  • Sailor’s Dream, by Simogo