The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor

dl.jpgI really like what The Book of Phoenix is trying to do in a big picture kind of way. The most successful element of the novel is how it conflates science with myth, cleaving them together and apart, converging and substituting their signs and symbols until what’s left is a Gordian knot of science that could be mythology, and mythology that could be science. It rejects the linear Western cultural historicism in which myth is followed by religion, superseded by philosophical enlightenment and, finally, scientific process. It rejects a reductionist (materialism vs spiritualism) view of the world, and so revels in a beautiful maximalism that I find very appealing. It’s also exceptionally expressive in its representation of both anger and love. It examines heritage in numerous ways; from the genetic, to the historical, to the empirical, and it ends by looking at those aspects of identity that we choose for ourselves. Finally, The Book of Phoenix rages over the ways humans exploit one another, particularly with regards to slavery.

All of which is great in abstraction. Unfortunately, however, there’s a huge chasm between this book’s ideas, and their execution. On a sentence-by-sentence level the writing is very poor, I think. The Book of Phoenix feels both rushed and repetitive. Reminders that the protagonist, Phoenix, is two years old but has the body of a forty-year-old are repeated almost every 5 pages. Adverbs are everywhere, (“Thankfully, I knew where the exit was, generally.”), and much of the book’s imagery is plain baffling, “You look like a sleeping bolt of lightning”. I have no idea what sort of visual I’m supposed to take from that. There are numerous phrasings that are just odd “The driver, whose name was Endurance, was driving”. Outside of the protagonist, the characterisation is also pretty thin; the majority of the book’s cast are basic types employed to either propel the action forward, or to make easy moral points about Phoenix’s situation (this is especially true of the villainous LifeGen Corporation). All of which is frustrating, given that TBOP deals with so many important issues. These aren’t unmitigated flaws, and, indeed, the book does some things quite well, but taken as a whole, this is a wearisome experience.

***

It’s the near-future(ish), and the narrator is the titular Phoenix, a genetically-engineered African woman who begins the novel trapped in Tower 7, a research facility in New York in which she was “born”. Phoenix is a weapon, a “reoccurring small nuclear bomb”; she can burn, levelling cities to the ground, only to be reborn from the ashes with all her memories intact. But that’s not all Phoenix can do.  She can fly, too. And she can read incredibly fast. She’s got an eidetic memory. And some kind of titanium skeleton. She can massively accelerate the growth of nearby plants and trees.  Also (and this is where the book really jumps the shark) she can “slip”, which is a combination of teleportation and time travel. Basically, the novel imbues Phoenix with a new super power whenever it’s convenient to the narrative for her to have that power.

It’s not long before Phoenix breaks out of Tower 7 and teams up with a small, X-men-like band of fellow super-powered escapees. What follows is a pretty wacky series of events as the story, with very little structure or sense of overall arc, follows Phoenix from one adventure to the next, during which we learn about the climate-changed world of the book’s setting, and the deeper mechanisations of the group that created Phoenix in the first place. There’s a calmer mid-section in which she travels to Ghana, finding a measure of peace before the LifeGen Corporation inevitably catches up with her, but then the disarray begins anew.

It’s a tumbling-down-the-stairs kind of chaos; it’s always changing direction. Ideas are thrown around, then immediately abandoned, replaced by others, which are themselves abandoned, etc. and etc. It’s pacy, but my God is it erratic. Many of the book’s SFnal concepts are very creative, but almost none of them are explored with any kind of rigour or consequence. There are off-the-cuff references to contagious cancers and trees that can stop time. There’s a short passage told from the p.o.v of an interstellar seed, and, near the end, we’re casually informed that humans have settled on Mars, and that a red dust-monster we encountered 200 pages ago was, in fact, an alien from that colony. But it’s all very throwaway; a manic outpouring of stuff that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, let’s look at Phoenix’s speed reading. We’re told that, while imprisoned in Tower 7, she has access to “700,000 books of all kinds”, and that she has read “over half of them”. Let’s round that up conservatively and say that Phoenix has read 400,000 books. Now, she’s not a computer, these books aren’t instantaneously downloaded into her brain, she has to spend time reading them one after another. Apparently she can “read a 500-page book in two minutes”, which is a reading speed of about 4 pages a second. According to a couple of surveys I found online, the average length of a book is 320 pages. So Phoenix could polish off most books in 80 seconds. Reading 400,000 books at a speed of one book per 80 seconds would take Phoenix 370 days. That’s non-stop reading. No eating, no sleeping; nothing but reading.

But Phoenix has only had access to this library for one year. And we know that she eats and sleeps and gets experimented upon, etc. So there’s no way she could have read that many books (and as a brief aside, Phoenix later demonstrates an unnerving naivety about the world for someone who’s supposedly read so much). This is, of course, an overly pedantic thing for me to pick apart, but it’s symptomatic of The Book of Phoenix’s entire narrative praxis, which throws around big numbers and florid ideas, but isn’t at all interested in how these concepts relate to one another.

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Many of Phoenix’s interpersonal relationships are likewise under developed. The emotional crux of the novel’s opening chapters is the death of Phoenix’s lover, Saeed, a fellow research specimen trapped in Tower 7. Her emotional reaction to Saeed’s death is profound, and the language that surrounds this sequence is clearly engineered to inspire feelings of sympathy and sadness in the reader. But other than some retroactive descriptions of their first conversation, we’re barely given a glimpse of this important relationship. Saeed dies too soon for the novel to establish his character, and what little information we have regarding their bond is paltry at best. We’re told how significant this relationship is, but we’re not shown. This means that any attempts the language makes to inspire sadness in the reader inevitably falls short; the book doesn’t give us sufficient context for that sadness. In brief: the novel doesn’t earn it.

This is further complicated by a mid-novel revelation that Saeed isn’t dead after all. This twist is a sort of double-edged sword. I like the fact that Saeed’s “death” and re-appearance mirrors the death and rebirth that is Phoenix’s power, but the fact that he’s been alive the whole time has the potential to bathetically undermine the book’s earlier emotional tone, simultaneously putting at hazard the idea that any of the novel’s events can have serious consequences.

A similar disappearing-then-reappearing character is “Seven”, a giant, winged man whose primary narrative role seems to be appearing when Phoenix most needs him, only to inform her that he’s not going to help. He’s a baffling character. Why he lets himself be captured by LifeGen prior to the beginning of the novel is anybody’s guess, as is his overall roll in the plot. He seems, to me, to hold some symbolic significance for Phoenix, who views him as a mentor and representation of freedom and possibility, but when I tried to find significant textual evidence in support of this, I came up short. It’s just a bit clumsy

***

Okay, we’ve strayed quite far from what was a relatively positive opening paragraph, so let’s talk about the things that The Book of Phoenix does do well. One of the aspects of the book I really liked is the running joke that nobody knows how to react to a black super hero. This is true on both an immediate, physical level, and a grander, mythological one:

They kept my hair shaved low because neither they nor I knew what to do with it when it grew out. (p. 15)

“He saw you and attacked you because you could not possibly be an angel from God. You are African” (p. 80)

This not only establishes the novel’s sociological setting as being identical with our own, but it also works as a wry metaphor for genre fiction’s much-publicised problem with representing non-white characters. These confused and often hostile reactions to Phoenix as a super hero offer an intertextual reflection of the current state of Science Fiction culture, in which the relative invisibility of women and non-white characters remains a problem.

Nnedi Okorafor also uses her characters’ identity as super-powered to examine and articulate her anger at the Western exploitation of native African cultures. This is extremely powerful stuff. When Phoenix spends time in Ghana, for example, she is slowly exposed to the extent of colonialist abuse; LifeGen views Africa as nothing more than a seam of natural resources to be mined, be that the mining of minerals, people, or, in Phoenix’s case, of power:

[They] had taken him, too. Just as they’d taken Saeed. They were always taking from me. Always taking the best. Of my people. Of my world. Take take TAKE! (p. 82)

The manipulation of Phoenix by LifeGen – their attempts to take ownership of her, and to use her for their own (warmongering) ends – becomes an extended metaphor for colonialism and exploitation. The most emotionally hard-hitting passages of the novel, for me, occur when Phoenix refuses to board a trans-Atlantic vessel, framing it as a symbolic manifestation of the white men’s ships that transported slaves to America.

This anger builds in both scale and eloquence until the novel’s apocalyptic denouement, in which Phoenix transcends her previously bipartite identity. When she’s in America, Phoenix is the product of science; when in Africa, she is spirituality and heritage. Thankfully, The Book of Phoenix doesn’t privilege either one of these interpretations over the other. At the novel’s end (which transpires in a far-future setting, used as a framing device to bookend the story), Phoenix is both of these things. She is science and myth; story and history; anger and love. What I like about this is how it successfully fuses so many disparate traditions of genre fiction, allowing for an interpretation of Phoenix that neither has to be purely science fictional, nor purely fantastic. (Though I did feel that things got a little on-the-nose when the book starts referring to Barthes’ post-structuralist theory). Part of this book’s argument, then, is against genre essentialism.

It’s frustrating that the actual experience of reading The Book of Phoenix doesn’t match up to the novel’s thematic and narrative ambition. There’s a lot to like about it, definitely, but the gaps in its worldbuilding, the serendipitous nature of so many of its major plots events, and the overall awkward quality of writing perpetually pulled me out of the moment. It’s an important novel in so many ways, I just wish it was more robust.

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6 responses to “The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor

  1. Pingback: Reviewing The 2016 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist | Everything Is Nice

  2. How on earth does a character in an SF novel survive a nuclear blast at ground zero?

    Anyway, that aside, it sounds a bit silly which is potentially fatal. The laundry list of random super-powers; the walk-on oh-so significant characters who don’t do anything.

    All of which could be survived, but execution is everything. The world is full of great ideas, but a well executed prosaic idea is better than a poorly executed great one (though obviously not as good as a well executed great idea, but that’s by definition exceptional).

    • The surviving a nuclear blast thing is just something you have to take at face value. It’s less Science Fiction and more magical realism / fantasy in this regard.

      And yeah, it’s kinda silly, manic, rushed and contradictory. I would say “it’s heart is in the right place”, but that sounds really patronising.

      It’s an odd one; the bad writing is often counter-balanced by (rare) moments of more sensitive prose, this is especially true when the narrator is discussing her feelings. Overall, though, the poor execution smothers the promise of the book’s premise.

      This… this isn’t turning out to be the best Clarke shortlist I’ve ever read, tbh. I can think of several books from 2015/2016 that should have had a place ahead of this one. Still, 3 more to go, maybe things’ll get better….?

      Many thanks for reading and commenting, as always. 🙂

      • I’d noticed it seems to be a patchy year. At the moment Small Angry Planet is the only one I plan to read, and that more for light relief/entertainment than because I think it sounds like it does something particularly interesting.

        Not that I’m knocking well executed light entertainment, which is a valuable thing.

  3. Pingback: Everything I read in 2016 | tomcat in the red room

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