When I mentioned to a friend that I was starting a book review blog, her natural response was “What book are you going to review first?”
A sensible query, yet one that stopped me in my tracks. What would I start with? What would my choice say? Should I start with a beloved classic, one I know backwards and forwards? Something brand new, fresh in my brain? With the potential to spiral into a debilitating amount of indecision that would prevent this blog from ever launching, I finally opted to just go with the first book that I read this year and then follow along chronologically as I read. I’ll intersperse those with books I’ve previously read as well, but in the meantime, without further ado, the inaugural review of Worlds Between Words: Noor by Nnedi Okorafor.
Okorafor is a fantastic Naijamerican (Nigerian-American) writer. She specializes in Africanfuturism, which she deftly explains in this post of hers. (Go read it; I can wait.) I’ll review her Akata series in a later post (I just finished the third book last month); in addition to those, I’ve read Who Fears Death?, the Binti trilogy, and Remote Control. I have even more books of hers on my TBR list, which I hope to get to soon. I don’t remember how I found her books, but I’m grateful I did, as she quickly became another favorite author of mine (I can’t have just one). I love her characters, her style of writing, her evocative descriptions of Nigeria. I haven’t read comics (yet), but she’s also written several, including some for Marvel on Black Panther and Shuri.
Noor is a fast-paced book, set in Nigeria in the not-too-distant future and opening with our main character, AO, contemplating the giant sandstorm named the Red Eye, the winds of which will quickly destroy any living thing that wanders in without some kind of shield. Yet she is ready to enter. We then flash back to precipitating events, which occurred a mere 48 hours earlier.
At that point, AO was just a regular woman, attempting to adjust to life after her fiancé suddenly left her. Well, most people probably wouldn’t describe AO as a “regular woman.” AO goes by her initials, which she prefers to have stand for “Autobionic Organism” rather than the name her parents gave her, Anwuli Okwudili. (Quick note: on the dust jack of the book and in most of the online summaries/reviews I’ve seen, it says AO stands for Artificial Organism. But on page 42, AO states twice that it stands for Autobionic Organism. I’m not sure where the discrepancy comes from, but I prefer “Autobionic.” There’s nothing artificial about AO!) Born with birth defects and then later surviving a freak car accident as a child, which cause even more damage, AO is a mix of flesh and cybernetic parts. Her legs and feet can grow and grip any surface; her enhanced hands allow her to flourish as a mechanic. This is to say nothing of the new organs that allowed her to live in the first place. The headaches caused by the neural implants that help her control all her parts seems a small price to pay. Yet despite the life saving and life enhancing nature of augments, much of the population regards such treatments – and those who would embrace them – as suspicious and possibly evil. AO is confident in who she is, but also feels the disconnect from her family and her community.
Shortly after her fiancé leaves her, she is quickly and brutally confronted with the knowledge that her neighbors have only been tolerating her. She is soon forced to flee, but how do you escape a society that’s even more connected and watched than our own? AO has a few tricks up her sleeve, but it’s only going to buy her limited time. She soon runs into a Fulani herdsman who goes by his initials, DNA, who is likewise coping with the fallout of an unexpected confrontation. We’re soon back at the book’s opening, standing in front of the giant, ecological/climatological disaster that is the Red Eye. Sheltering in the storm seems to be the only feasible option to avoid surveillance drones and the coming authorities, but only if they can survive in there.
The story is incredibly fast-paced. Okorafor isn’t the type of author to spend 15 pages describing a character’s meal. Things are happening, things are moving, and we have to keep up. Occasionally, I wish for a bit more detail, but usually I’m so swept up in the story that I’m grateful we aren’t dawdling. It’s not a breezy overview though. There are plenty of themes and questions and challenges to unpack throughout. What does it mean to be a person, and more specifically for AO, a woman? How do we deal with giant corporations that we know or suspect are creating significant issues in terms of labor, privacy, environmental damage, etc., but also have become integral parts of society? How do we balance technological progress and tradition? Can nature and technology live in harmony? How do society and individuals treat the disabled? What does our ability to watch tragedy instantaneously from our phones, without context, do to us and our understanding of others, of justice?
Overall, I found this book fascinating, well-written, and thought-provoking. Generally speaking, you don’t need to have read a particular book of Okorafor’s to understand the rest (with the obvious exception of one of her series; then yeah, you should probably start with the first book), so if you haven’t read anything else by her, you can jump right in with this one. Then start reading more.
Have you read Noor? Thoughts? Other books you enjoyed by Nnedi Okorafor? Start/join a conversation in the comments!
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