Science fiction isn’t my favorite genre (2018 Book Challenge). Star Trek the Next Generation and Black Mirror aside, I just don’t dig the genre.
Dystopian bleakness, intrusive governments and removed humanity—none of it really appeals to me, partly because in the United States we’re living it. The worlds portrayed in sci-fi are never ones I want to inhabit and the stories leave me with an uneasiness that makes me want to go outside and take deep breaths.
The Book of Phoenix ticks off all the sci-fi tropes:
Dystopian future. Check.
Corrupt government. Check
Technology run amuck. Check
What sets The Book of Phoenix apart from the other sci-fi I’ve read (and admittedly, that’s not many) is the blatant inclusion of social messages. In other books, the issue is disguised in metaphor—such as Vonnegut’s Ice Nine as a stand in for nuclear weapons. In The Book of Phoenix the issue–the misuse and abuse of black bodies for medical advancement and war—is the entire point of the book. Okorafor uses the United States’ own history by referencing the Tuskegee Syphilis trials by name. A character named HeLa is the actual embodiment of Henrietta Lacks’ pilfered undying cells. Most of the SpeciMen are Black Americans or taken from countries in Africa, a colonizing of the human body rather than natural resources.
The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Okorafor’s award-winning Who Fears Death. The actions of main character Phoenix set up the world for heroine Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ogundimu. (I haven’t read Who Fears Death, so I don’t know if there’s a stronger link between the books).
The story begins when an elderly Okeke man, Sunuteel, stumbles upon ancient technology hidden away in a cave. He uses his portable device to access The Book of Phoenix, like an audio book.
Told in her own worlds, the book chronicles the life of Phoenix, an “accelerated” woman. Even though she functions as an adult and appears to be about forty-years-old, she is only two. For her entire life, she’s lived in Tower 7 alongside other creations and mutants called SpeciMen created by The Big Eye, an ominous organization separate from the government yet just as powerful and far-reaching. The SpeciMen’s purposes are kept secret, sometimes even to them. To prevent curiosity about her own existence, she’s allowed to read any book she wants, a pastime that gives her great joy. She’s also allowed to have close, though structured, relationships with a few of the others.
An emotional and traumatic loss triggers a physical reaction in her and she realizes her purpose. She was born to be a weapon of mass destruction. True to her name, she can combust on command, destroying everything around her. She can rise from her own ashes to be used over and over again.
With nothing to lose Phoenix becomes a one-woman uprising, bent on destroying The Big Eye. For much of the book, Phoenix seeks revenge. Freeing, or in some cases unleashing, other SpeciMen is more of a bonus than an objective. She’ll stop at nothing to annihilate the oppressor even if it means forever changing the landscape of the earth and its future.
Then we go back to Sunuteel. I’m not going to give away his role because the end of the book is like a punch to the gut. I will say it is jaw-droppingly, eye-rollingly, painfully infuriating in a very intentional way. His actions may even have more to do with shaping the world of Who Fears Death than Phoenix’s. And despite the exasperation I felt, I couldn’t help but pity Sunuteel, a victim of generations of self-loathing, as he did what he thought was best.
This book is definitely sci-fi, but transcends the genre as I know it. Like all good stories, it uses the tropes to get to the humanity of the characters. It isn’t about the technology or magic. It’s about one woman, using the powers forced on her, to right the wrongs by any means necessary. Phoenix is a wonderful character, raw and human. I found myself drawn to her and I love the fact that she is the one telling her story as opposed to a narrator or other character.
Okorafor’s storytelling and narrative voice is compelling. Ghana and it’s culture play a large part in the book as does the entire continent of Africa. But it doesn’t feel exploitative like an author looking for a foreign landscape to set the mood. It feels organic and necessary, as if the story could only take place with these elements. The entire story has that feeling, as if everything that happens must happen the way it does. Not that it feels predictable or trite, but that this is the history of the universe that Okorafor created.