Monday, 6 March 2017

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

There seems to be a small sub-genre of books that straddle the science fiction/fantasy line in a very particular way - post-apocalyptic futures with some forms of magic. Some of them explain the magic away as technology that isn't recognized as such anymore, while others genuinely have supernatural powers afoot in the world, in and amongst the wreckage of computers and other things recognizably late 20th/early 21st century.

Who Fears Death is one of the latter, where the world left behind is recognizably a future version of Africa, but after a general collapse and many many long years in between. We are generations and generations past what we would have known, but remnants remain, mostly forbidden. A sacred book has come to be, and in it, there are descriptions of divinely sanctioned prejudice, the lighter-skinned Nuru put above the darker-skinned Okeke. At first, it's an oppression mostly of work with occasional flashes of violence, but by the start of the book this has morphed into the first excursions of an all-out war of extermination, although some Okeke villages persist in believing the war will never reach them.

Inspired, says the afterword, by a news story about rape as a weapon of war, with the aim of making lighter-skinned babies that will mark out the children and their mothers as victims of heinous crimes in societies that attach extraordinarily negative meanings to those who survived. The main character is one of these children, called Ewu. Shunned both for their appearance and for a constellation of myths that have attached themselves to the Ewu, Onyesonwu has to contend with a world that wishes to deny the crimes that created her, as well as belief that she will inherently be prone to violence.

As she grows, however, it becomes clear that she has access to powers beyond her ken, including shapechanging into animals and abortive attempts to resurrect the dead. She fights to be taught magic by a man who believes women cannot and should not have access to that kind of training. Caught in a web of expectations and prejudices, Onyesonwu fights to find a place, and once she succeeds in being accepted to training, to accept the death she knows is coming.

There is a lot going on in this book! Issues of race, of war, of prejudice, of women, of fate, of power and powerlessness.  And it's all done very well - it's often uncomfortable to read, but Okorafor creates societies that are not monolithic, that have internal as well as external divisions, and which often react in disappointingly human ways to downplay the violence in their midst, whether it is female genital mutilation, rape, or the right of certain people to life or liberty.

Onyesonwu is, similarly, an indelible and complex character. Marked out as violent, she does not respond by becoming passive - she burns angry, deservedly so, and her friendships and family are not immune to betrayals large or small.

I may not be doing a great job of describing this book, but it is extremely powerful, and does not shy away from uncomfortable situations, taking them seriously and from many different angles in such a way that the impact is heightened, not simplified.

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