A book that has stayed with me years after I read it is called Who Fears Death. Published in 2010, it was written by Nnedi Okorafor, a multiple award-winning author born in the United States to Igbo Nigerian parents. It’s an amazing work of what she describes as Africanfuturism. In an essay Dr Okorafor penned in 2019, she defined the term as a sub-category of science-fiction that is “rooted in African culture, history, mythology, and point of view that does not centre on the West or Western privilege.” It is an essay worth reading in its entirety, because it offers a unique and profound insight into the works of this brilliant author, who not only writes for adults, but for younger readers, too.
Who Fears Death is set in post-apocalyptic Sudan. Dr Okorafor’s Binti trilogy has as its main character a girl who’s part of Himba ethnic group in Namibia. In Remote Control, Fatima is Ghanaian. She lives with her parents on a farm in the village of Wulugu. Despite being plagued by malaria for much of her young life, Fatima is happy. Her grandmother encourages her to look to the stars, and she develops a language all of her own, one she calls “sky words”, which she uses to draw pictures on the ground beneath her favourite shea tree. One night, after a meteor storm, a wooden box appears from under the ground. In it is a seed that, to Fatima, looks like an egg. This seed has unexplained mystical properties, and following an unannounced visit by a local politician, the box is taken away from her. This event unleashes a lethal force from within Fatima, which kills not only her parents, but everyone in the village. The force is so great that it makes Fatima forget her own name, so she adopts a new one. She is now Sankova, and along with a fox she christens Movenpick (after a hotel chain), she goes in seach of that which was taken away from her.
Sankova’s power makes her infamous. Both feared and respected, this young girl, not even in her teens when the incident happened, is clothed, fed, and allowed to rest on every stage of her journey. Occasionally she helps those who come to her aid, using her power to kill to end the suffering of people who are terminally ill. But her power forbids her to touch or use anything electrical or mechanical. She is forced to walk wherever she goes. Along the way she meets people who genuinely want to help her settle, as well as those who want to kill her. It ends badly for the latter, it has to be said. Sankova learns to control her glow, earning the nickname of “Remote Control.” Her fox is always nearby.
Events in the village of RoboTown, and an encounter with an automated traffic control system, called robocop, forms the main thrust of a novella that is essentially episodic in nature. Knowing that she is being monitored by an American corporation, LifeGen, Sankova makes the decision to return home, to where it all began.
Dr Okorafor’s writing is as evocative as ever, and Remote Control hit me with the same punch as her other books. But there’s a difference. In Who Fears Death and Binti, Nnedi’s characters have agency when it comes to their powers and gifts. They knew where it came from and knew, largely, what to do with them. Here, Sankova hasn’t the same advantage for much of the story. She’s lost her identity; she’s lost her family; and she has a power that’s pretty much a curse if you were to look at it closely. And there are those who wish to use Sankova for their own agenda. It’s this last part that brings the novella to a close. What is Sankova to do? You will have to read Remote Control to find out. Published in January of this year, by Tor, I politely request that you visit the world and work of Dr Nnedi Okorafor.