Saturday, March 25, 2017

Women’s History of the Future: Reviews of Works by Okorafor, Brackett, and Le Guin

March is Women’s History Month. Last year I celebrated by writing a post on women's history in philosophy and science fiction.  This year I thought I'd review work from three prominent women science fiction authors: Nnedi Okorafor, Leigh Brackett, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

The three works in question are all relatively short, hovering near the border between long novellas and short novels.  Okorafor's Binti: Home is a longish novella while Brackett's The Nemesis from Terra and Le Guin's Planet of Exile are each really short novels.

All three works deal with the idea of being at home.  This theme is clearest in Binti: Home (it's right in the title!), where the title character returns home after an interstellar sojourn.  Brackett and Le Guin ask whether you can be at home in a place you're not expected to be at home; Okorafor deals with not being at home in a place where you expect to be.

What do I mean by all this?  See the individual reviews below!

This 2017 novella is a sequel to the Hugo and Nebula award winning Binti (see my review here).   I've become a big fan of Okorafor recently (see my review of her first contact novel Lagoon).

In Binti: Home, Binti is homesick after a little while at the interstellar university where she's studying mathematics, not to mention the ordeal she endured en route there from Earth (detailed in the first one).  So she returns home, now part alien, with an alien companion.  As if this isn't weird enough for the folks back home, she discovers that home is far more complicated than she thought, which is a nice reminder that, galactic politics aside, Earth is a pretty complicated place in itself.  

I particularly like that Okorafor details three very different cultures in Namibia (one of which, the Himba, are based on a real present-day cultural group).  Namibia is just one country on a continent many Americans erroneously think of as a uniform place.  And Okorafor adds some nice futuristic, science fictional touches, too.  

I admit that, as a space opera fan, I got a little disappointed in the middle of the book when it became apparent that little of the novella takes place at Oomza University and that we weren't going to see much more of the galactic civilizations, but the idea that home has secrets of its own that go deeper than our idealized comfy conceptions of it is an interesting theme.  I still hold out hope that a future entry in the series will return to Oomza and the galactic stage.  This one ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I'll be excited to see what happens next.

Rating: 90/100

I read this as part of my quest to better understand the history of science fiction and, with it being Women's History Month and all, I thought I'd check out one of the better known women writers from the Golden Age of SF.  I discussed Brackett a bit in my Women's History Month post last year, but this is the first novel of hers I've read.

This is a very pulpy early work from Brackett (her first novel, I think).  Rick is a random guy who shows up on Mars and ends up being mystically ordained as the savior of Mars (no joke).  Numerous hijinks ensue that include everything from women instantly falling in love with him to accidentally taking a drug trip to stumbling on ruins of an ancient civilization.  There's also a complex political situation involving a nefarious mining company and several political factions.  And some giant tunneling worms.

The plot felt sort of haphazard, nothing is explained thoroughly, and the characters are pretty thin, but there are some interesting ideas.  This is definitely Brackett's early stuff (this edition was published in 1961 but it was originally written in the 1940's under the title Shadow Over Mars).  I won't take this as definitive of her work, especially considering her place in history for co-writing the screenplay for a minor little film called The Empire Strikes Back!

Rating: 71/100

Planet of Exile (1966) is one of Le Guin's early Hainish novels.  I read it as part of an omnibus edition (pictured above) along with Rocannon's World and City of Illusions.  The Hainish universe is better known from Le Guin's classics (and some of my all-time favorite novels) The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.  Another relatively famous Hainish novel is The Word For World Is Forest (see my review).

The Hainish novels and stories are set in the same universe, but they don't constitute a series in any conventional sense.  Some of them have minor plot connections, but they can all be read as stand-alones.  The basic idea is that the Hainish are a type of human who visit, colonize, and eventually form a League of All Worlds (sometimes called the Ekumen).  The novels and stories take place on various planets and at various points of time within the history of this universe, often on planets where some of the inhabitants know little or nothing about larger galactic matters.

In Planet of Exile we meet two groups of people: the farborns (who descend from Hainish colonists who arrived hundred of years earlier) and the people of Tevar who are native to the planet.  A young woman of Tevar, Rolery, sneaks into the farborn area where she meets several farborn including a young man named Agat.  Eventually they fall in love and there are numerous tumultuous cross-cultural incidents.  

It turns out a third group, the Gaal, have assembled an army to attack both the Tevarans and the farborn.  The most interesting part of the book for me is the idea that the farborn have been bound by the laws of their ancestors, one of which is somewhat like Star Trek's Prime Directive, although it also requires them to give up some of their own technology (like air cars).  They retain a lot of basic scientific knowledge.  A biochemical explanation for why they don't get local diseases is a big plot point, but could it be that they are finally adapting biologically to their planet?  

Is their planet of exile becoming home?  If Buddhists are right that everything is impermanent, is it folly to try to keep traditions unchanging or to wish that external influence won't change us?  Do relationships inevitably change both partners in the relationship?

These are just some of the deeper questions that the novel provokes, reminding me of why Le Guin remains one of my favorites who has well earned her place among the pantheon of SF/F's greatest authors.

Rating: 92/100


  1. Slight correction: the farborn are descendants of Earth colonists. Both they and the Tevarans are descendants of the Hainish, like all humans in the setting.

    1. My mistake! I forgot that they came from Earth, but I did realize all humans ultimately descend from the Hainish. Thanks for the correction!