The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor: Review

The Book of Phoenix takes place when scientific civilization was still proudly manipulating the world on a vast scale, but just before its downfall. So perhaps around now?
Who Fears Death, by the same author, is a mystical story set in Africa after a future apocalypse. Intriguing, no? The reasons for the breakdown of society are mysterious. We know that locals and invaders have been at war, though it’s not clear what their races are by today’s names. At one point, the main character finds a cave full of old broken computers, from back when people use those things more. There are also some new technologies, like machines which collect water from the air in a few moments. Who Fears Death is set in the desert, and dark magical undercurrents (juju) run through it, which I found very intriguing.
So I picked up the prequel, The Book of Phoenix. It begins around the time of Who Fears Death, but quickly goes back in time through a story told to an old man, via an audio recording on a long disused electronic device. It has a young adult science fiction feel to it, more so than Who Fears Death.
The most striking part of this book, for me, is the main character’s quest for identity.
Phoenix is an African American woman by body, but she has never been to Africa, and has hardly seen America either, though she was born there. She was ‘birthed’ and brought up within a clinical testing environment, in a high-tech skyscraper run by a massively wealthy international corporation. Phoenix learns about the world through books, which she reads rapidly. She and the other test subjects within the skyscraper possess various powers, which the corporation hopes to exploit. She can become extremely hot, and, as it turns out explode herself and everything around her, then remake herself gradually again. Hence the title, the book of Phoenix.
The author, Nnedi Okorafor, is an African-American woman living, teaching and writing in the States. Being born in America, but with cultural and genetic ties to Africa, I can see why she would write a main character like Phoenix. Through Phoenix, Miss Okorafor has given me insight into what it’s like to have been formed by a culture other than your own. The corporate scientists in the novel are Phoenix’s exploiters, but they’re also her creators. She would not exist, as she knows herself, without their immoral experiments. She was born in their test tube. Yet she hates them.
Phoenix escapes, and fights to stop her parent corporation’s projects. All the while she tries to reconcile the fact that her identity, and her amazing abilities, apparently come from her oppressors. In the course of the book, she comes to accommodate this in a spiritual way: by understanding that her deeper self comes from a higher plane. From there she came through into a creation of the scientists. Although they had a hand in forming her body and abilities, she is not dependent on them for her deeper existence.
As Phoenix comes into her powers, she kicks an improbable amount of ass. Along with her fellow escapees, she works to dismantle the corporation which spawned them.
A few thoughts about the themes. The fist African-Americans were brought to America as slaves, for the purposes of landholders, politicians and other powerful controllers. The echoes of those sins echo throughout American society today. The life of an African-American today is molded by their ancestors’ enemies. The language they speak, the place they live, the schooling they receive: they all come from the society of their oppressors. It’s true for any oppressed society. Just look at the education system which the British established in India.
At least, that’s one way to see it.
The people who owned slaves are long dead, and it’s inaccurate to generalize entire races by the actions of some. There are plenty of descendants of slave-owners who virulently oppose their ancestors’ exploitation.
Conditioning is there, but at every moment, each of us has the free will to plot our own course.
Moreover, if I can understand that I am ultimately formed by forces beyond any earthly power, I can gain knowledge of my true self.
That’s what I took away from this excellent book.

You can get it here: The Book of Phoenix

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