Exploring Nnedi Okorafor’s Africanfuturist Universe

In 2010, Nnedi Okorafo’s Who Fears Death was released and introduced readers to a future Sudan. Who Fears Death follows Onyesonwu as she goes on a journey of discovery, loss, and renewal. She was more than powerful; she was thoughtful, flawed, strong, and remarkable. Five years later, we returned to the themes brought up in Who Fears Death through its prequel, The Book of Phoenix, about a new character, Phoenix, who like Onyesonwu, has been born into a brutal world with powers beyond her understanding. On Okorafor’s blog in 2015 she said, “Who is Phoenix to Onyesonwu and Onyesonwu to Phoenix? You’ll have to read them to find out. Don’t bother going in with expectations; you’ll probably be wrong.”

Reading more than one of Okorafor’s books cues readers into the fact that they are reading something larger than what they see on the page. There’s more being said, referenced, and examined across all of her texts, which is why The Book of Phoenix, though a prequel, felt more like another piece in a puzzle. Following the release of those two books and several others, Okorafor released the Binti series in 2015, 2017, and 2018 all charting the experiences and history of yet another woman. This time she wasn’t being forced into her circumstances; instead, Binti seizes her future before someone else has a chance to crush it. Now, four years later, Okorafor’s recent release Remote Control bridges our current world with her universe.

As readers, we can sometimes forget that the stories our favorite authors tell aren’t written for us—at least not just for us. A lot of the time the author is digging or exploring something within their work that makes the way forward more clear. These stories don’t exist trapped on the page, but instead are constantly growing and expanding within the author’s mind. We are lucky to get even a fraction of those ethereal worlds. That’s why when news like what Okorafor recently shared on her blog comes out, we find our hearts and minds racing:

Remote Control was always a prequel to a prequel. I wrote Who Fears Death. Then I wanted to know what happened to Onyesonwu’s world. So, I wrote the Book of Phoenix. Then I wanted to know about the seed for which Phoenix flew all the way to Ghana to return. This one took me the longest to write. Over eight years.

So basically, I wrote about three generations of amazing women/girls backwards. And each story got closer and closer to present day. Remote Control is the closest to us, set some decades from now. Remote Control is science fiction of the Africanfuturism strain that knows aliens exist, quietly shows how technology is influenced by culture, features a powerful yet deeply-pained female protagonist, and wonders about the role of corporations in rural Africa. This novella puts us right on the road, walking with a Ghanaian girl who quickly understands her entitlement. You can look around, smell the palm trees and dust, and like Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (one of my favorite films), Remote Control dances above the lines between young adult and adult without a care. This novel will sink into your skin like the purest shea butter.”

There’s more to the story than we realized. A new path has been illuminated. It’s like a new story has come into existence.

Though not all of the stories take place in Africa, they all speak to the same African future that Okorafor is creating and envisioning. Sometimes this future is at the nexus of American industrialism and the exploitation of Africans like in The Book of Phoenix, in which Okorafor shows the rage and anger of a child used and experimented on. Sometimes her stories show the aftermath of such greed. In Who Fears Death, Okorafor writes of the strife of Sudan and the resilience of its people through the story of Onyesonwu. Readers watch her grow from an infant to a powerful being with the ability to save and heal a whole people. Though the landscapes change, the heart of an Africanfuturist universe is being carved out within these books. Eventually in Binti, Africa reaches the stars by way of the character literally running away so she can be the first of her people to attend a top intergalactic school. Binti is the future of her people, carrying the weight of all the past struggles of them and herself—the histories both told and not.

Whether it’s through community organization, or the simple thought that things don’t have to be this hard if we try and work together, instead of fighting. Knowing now that there’s a greater, interconnected story at play makes this theme seem hard-won. Along with writing complicated characters, Okorafor seems to be exploring a future and history where Africa’s story is told by and through the experience of the people who call it home, mother, father, obi.

According to Okorafor, the chronological reading order of the books would be:

  • Remote Control
  • The Book of Phoenix
  • Who Fears Death
  • Binti
  • Binti: Home
  • Binti: The Night Masquerade

But like I’ve mentioned, loyal readers of her work will notice that there are more connections throughout all of her series. Her worlds, characters, and stories aren’t limited to one text. Like real life myths, Okorafor’s work is ever shifting and reflective of itself, showing deeper parallels and answering questions long forgotten by the characters in her books, but present in the minds of those who read her works deeply.

Whenever news like this comes out, whether for books or movies, I have the urge to go back and visit the worlds and characters. How can you not? Having a confirmation from the creator that yes, these small hints and paths that I’ve been picking up on are because everything is connected, and the story before me is a part of a much larger tale, one that may not have an ending in sight yet. But with something as nebulous as Okorafor’s universe, there isn’t really a beginning and end. They are all a part of a history, a story that is still unfolding.

The most manageable way to handle a re-reading is by doing it in the order listed above by the author. But since Okorafor’s work happens to stretch out beyond these two texts like invisible spider webs in the sun—you only see them if you’re paying attention—don’t just stop at these books. A few years back on Twitter, Okorafor noted that Lagoon and LaGuardia are set in the same universe as the Binti trilogy. Not only that, but the Akata series, Remote Control, Who Fears Death and its prequel are all in the same universe and connected to her 2005 young adult fantasy Zahrah the Windseeker.

With over 10 books in print and no doubt more work on the way, Okorafor’s universe is steadily expanding. And with it, so will our ways of viewing her work and how the politics, characters, myths, and histories interlink. Looking back, though, on the books of hers that I’ve read, I feel like I missed out on parts of a story I didn’t know were there. Like while I was using my reading and imagination brain, some connections and conversations between the texts were lost on me. Now when I hear her stories, the world within seems bigger, more expansive.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way of re-reading Okorafor’s work. While her books are connected, not seeing or knowing the connection won’t ruin or change the experience. That being said, if anyone can connect and string together all of Okorafor’s universe, I’d love to see it. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Aigner Loren Wilson is a SFWA, HWA, and Codex writer who hails from the Lenapehoking coast. She writes poetry, nonfiction, in-game stories, and fiction. Aigner is an associate editor and copy editor for the award-winning magazine Strange Horizons and horror podcast Nightlight; a writer for Oly Arts, Discover Pods, and other publications; and a judge for the international writing contest NYC Midnight. She is an Otherwise Fellowship honorable mention for 2019, and her work appears in Arsenika, Terraform, Rue Morgue, and more. Her work has been called evocative, noteworthy, and imaginative. Currently, she is writing and editing for herself and others while working on the endless submission grind for her short and long works.


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