A Comparison: The Book of Phoenix and Who Fears Death

Here is my original review of Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010). This review includes spoilers for both Who Fears Death and its prequel, The Book of Phoenix (Okorafor; 2015).

9780756410193_TheBookof_Phoenix_JK.inddAs a prequel to Who Fears Death, it is impossible not to compare these two books. I think that Who Fears Death was much more successful than The Book of Phoenix on several levels. The Book of Phoenix tells the story of the apocalyptic event that created the far future world of Who Fears Death, instigated by a genetically engineered immortal weapon named Phoenix.

Who Fears Death sits clearly in the realm of fantasy/magical realism. This genre choice works well for the style of story, which incorporates African myth and folklore. The Book of Phoenix is more a science fiction story–or to be accurate, it employs the tropes of superhero comics with a nod to SF. Yet the style is deliberately that of oral storytelling, presumably drawn from African traditions (given the themes), with a tendency toward repetition, circling around events, and some unnecessary tangents. I didn’t think these two choices meshed at all well together. I had several unanswered questions regarding the more science fictional aspects of the plot that probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much in a more fantastic setting.

Both stories center around a female character with incredible powers who is also incredibly angry. Who Fears Death did not feel the need to justify or soften its heroine’s anger, who is reacting to the sexist and racist oppression she experiences. The Book of Phoenix focuses on racial oppression, particularly the exploitation of African peoples by the West, and this theme is very powerful. Unlike Who Fears Death, though, it has no corresponding feminist message. Toward the end, as Phoenix is wreaking her vengeance, there is a very disturbing paragraph, where Phoenix notes that as a woman, she is unable to control her anger or channel it properly. If she were a man, she would have been a better superhero, she seems to say. This observation comes out of nowhere and is difficult to explain. Are we supposed to believe that this is simply Phoenix’s naivete talking? If so, it’s clumsily handled and, I think, stands in opposition to the theme I enjoyed most in Who Fears Death, which was the power and rightness of women’s anger.

I am not very familiar with African myths beyond the basics of Yoruba, so I can’t really comment on these themes in either books, although I am certain that Okorafor has knowledgeably incorporated myth into both. However, it’s hard to miss the biblical references. If Who Fears Death can be seen as an upending of the Christ story, with an angry and vengeful Christ figure at its center, then The Book of Phoenix is clearly Old Testament, with all its falls: the fall of the tower, the fall of angels, the fall of man, culminating in a waterless flood, the scorching of the Earth with fire. Is Phoenix then a Lucifer figure, or is this another upending? She sees herself as a villain, not a heroine, and she seems to root her villainy in her femaleness (Eve in the garden). Are we supposed to condemn her then? Given the sheer evil of the forces she was up against, I don’t want to condemn her. I just don’t feel like Okorafor gives us enough to really understand what she is trying to say with this book. It’s frustrating.

That’s how I mainly felt upon finishing: frustrated. I was looking forward to having some of the unanswered questions in Who Fears Death answered. I don’t feel they really were. I still don’t understand how Phoenix’s story–which becomes the basis of the Great Book, or the religious text that everyone abides by in Who Fears Death–is twisted to justify the oppression and enslavement of black Africans by Arabic Africans. I didn’t feel a true continuity between these two stories. I think I would have been better off letting Who Fears Death stand alone.

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First Impressions: The Unit

These are my first impressions after reading The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist; 2006) in May 2009. Slight spoilers.

7182963In The Unit, Holmqvist takes us into a dystopian world that is more frightening because it seems so familiar. In this near-future or alternative society (it is never clear which), people who are deemed “dispensable” are confined to the unit, a dreamlike world where they have no wants unmet, while they are efficiently employed as subjects of dangerous experiments and their organs systematically harvested for the benefit of the “needed.” To not have children is the primary means of becoming dispensable, although they seem to be drawn from the ranks of artists, writers, and others who cannot conform to middlebrow society for one reason or another.

Dorritt is such a person. Before coming to the unit, her closest relationship was with her dog. But once there, she experiences for the first time true friendship, love, and acceptance for who she is, which makes her quiet, detached descriptions of the emotional and physical tortures that her friends and, ultimately, she suffers there all the more horrifying.

The power of The Unit is its subtlety. We never really know how a supposedly democratic society instituted this practice of harvesting their fellow citizens, or why the people tolerate it, although we are given hints. As the story progresses, we learn that there are fewer and fewer dispensable people, so that the definition of who is unneeded must be expanded to keep up the supply of organs and test subjects. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the unit seem unaccountably resigned to their fates, but as Dorritt tells her story, we almost come to understand why — which makes it all the more terrifying.

The Unit was originally published in Sweden and was translated into English by Marlaine Delargy.