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.

First Impressions: Who Fears Death

These are my first impressions after reading Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010) in March 2016. Many spoilers.

220px-WhoFearsDeathbookOnyesonwu is the mixed-race daughter of a rape with hair and skin the color of sand, despised by both her mother’s and father’s people, who discovers that she possesses great magical powers: shapeshifting, resurrection of the dead, and the ability to transport herself into an alternate reality.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, so far in the future that the people have forgotten their history and only know what is written in the Great Book, a religious text all children have to study. Only a few vestiges of modern civilization remain–some computers and handheld electronic devices, as well as water capture stations that enable people to live in the desert. (At one point, Onyesonwu and her companions take shelter from a storm in a cave where they discover a mound of dead computers and other electronics, which frightens them for unspecified reasons, hinting at an ingrained fear of the trappings of our modern civilization.)

Onyesonwu’s mother’s people, black Africans called the Okeke, have been murdered, subjugated, and enslaved by Arabic Africans called the Nuru, with the blessing of the Great Book. White people seem completely unknown to either race–perhaps mostly killed off in whatever apocalypse happened?–and Onyesonwu only meets one white character, a sorcerer-mentor whose skin color completely mystifies her. Another race of nomadic red people live in the desert in the center of a gigantic sandstorm; they practice magic routinely and seem to have no modern counterparts.

Onyesonwu’s mother was brutally raped and impregnated by a Nuru soldier. Onyesonwu discovers later that her biological father is a sorcerer who will lead a genocide of the Okeke. She undergoes female genital circumcision at the age of 11, believing that this will make her family more accepted in her village. This causes her to involuntarily transport into an alternate plane, where she attracts her father’s attention. Onyesonwu undergoes training in the magic arts so that she can protect herself from him, and eventually learns that she is prophesied to defeat the genocide.

Sidenote from Wikipedia: The novel was inspired in part by Emily Wax’s 2004 Washington Post article “We Want to Make a Light Baby,” which discussed the use of weaponized rape by Arab militiamen against Black African women in the Darfur conflict. According to Wax: “The victims and others said the rapes seemed to be a systematic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.” Okorafor wrote that this article “created the passageway through which Onyesonwu slipped through my world.”

Onyesonwu is an angry young woman. She is angry at the enslavement of the Okeke based solely on their race, and angry at the Okeke for subjugating themselves to slavery. She is angry at the treatment she and her lover Mwita receive because they are mixed-race outcasts, or Ewu. She is angry at the treatment of women by everyone–rape, prostitution, enforced celibacy of unmarried women via the FGC rite, the refusal of the village sorcerer Aro to take her on as a student at first just because she is female.

Onyesonwu’s story is a subversion of the Christ story. She is prophesied to free her people from enslavement, and she knows that she will have to sacrifice herself as a result. She embarks on her own hero’s journey to confront her father, taking her lover and best friends with her as traveling companions. She enacts several miracles along the way, but these are miracles of vengeance and wrath, not healing and teaching. She blinds an entire village. In another village, she makes all the men disappear and impregnates all the women. She is stoned to death as she has foreseen, but once her body is dug up and reburied, she is able to avoid her execution and escapes from the desert land to a distant paradise.

Because of her anger, Onyesonwu is not an easy savior to admire or like. Not only does she lose her temper frequently and unleash her great powers on everyone around her, but she also is impatient and snappish with her friends and often elects to run away instead of confront conflict. While she comes to regret some of her decisions, such as undergoing the circumcision rite, she doesn’t show remorse for many of her deeds. Her anger is part of her, and justified. Probably she would be unable to accomplish what she does without it.

But Onyesonwu’s anger–women’s anger–often makes us uncomfortable, and we are unused to seeing it as the focus of literature. That, and many other things, can make this a difficult book to read. Onyesonwu turns her critical eye on everyone around her. No one is an innocent in this world–except perhaps the mysterious red tribe, where Onyesonwu experiences a period of learning, growth, and relative tranquility. This book is steeped in magic, unfamiliar cultural references, and an ambiguous history. Sometimes we have to read between the lines; other times, we have to let events flow without questioning the logic too closely. Opening ourselves up to this story may be difficult, but the experience is powerful and rewarding.

First Impressions: China Mountain Zhang

These are my first impressions after reading China Mountain Zhang (Maureen F. McHugh, 1992) in June 2014.

836964In the 22nd century, when China is the dominant superpower and the US has had a socialist revolution, Zhang is trying to figure out what to do with his life.

Whenever I read futuristic science fiction written during the Cold War that assumes the Soviet Union continued as a superpower, I find myself mentally substituting “China” for Soviet Union, just to keep the story believable for me. Now here’s a book written in the ’90s that actually does posit China as the dominant superpower, and of course, it’s a lot different and more realistic than those Soviet-era books. For one thing, the United States has declined quite a lot, as well as having undergone its own socialist revolution. This version of the near future also brings in questions of race — people of Chinese ethnicity have privilege here — sexuality, and gender as well as politics.

This future is not dystopian, not really (although I’m sure many Americans would consider a socialist USA the worst thing that could ever happen). It’s far too realistic for that. The characters are all ordinary people with ordinary concerns about work, success, love, and community. I think that’s why I enjoyed this book so much–the story is told by real people with the minor concerns of real life, but it maintains a broad scope. The story begins and ends in New York City, but it travels to an Arctic research station, a rich and glittering Shanghai, even Mars.

The characters, however, are all people who don’t quite fit into this new normal. The protagonist, Zhang, is gay and half Latino (which has been obscured by genetic manipulation), who must keep both these aspects of himself secret in order to get ahead. He chafes against these restrictions and longs for community, finally choosing to do something very American: he starts his own business. Other sections of the book are told from the points of view of characters that Zhang meets peripherally. One is a Chinese woman with a medical condition that has rendered her “ugly”; once she has that corrected, she unexpectedly faces the possibly worse problems of pretty girls. Another is a loner who has finally moved to a commune on Mars in order to be left alone, but yet finds herself reluctantly helping to build her new community.

These are quiet stories, and the events that take place are not big ones. Without the technological enhancements, all of these stories could take place today. Through her speculative premise, McHugh shines a light on the persistent tensions that characterize the human species: the tension between conformity and individuality, and the desire we all have to make our own lives and to truly be ourselves.

China Mountain Zhang won the James Tiptree Award, Locus Award for best first novel, and Lambda Literary Award.