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.