Monday, August 29, 2016

The trouble with Oomza

I just read Okorafor's remarkable novella "Binti" that recently won the 2016 Hugo award (scruffy and rabid puppies of all kinds notwithstanding). The main character is a young student, on her way to the Famous University, half a galaxy across, where she's just been admitted to pursue her graduate studies in Mathematics, the first of her people ever being offered a graduate fellowship at this international (interplanetary, intergalactic) center of learning, the famous Oomza University. Her people, the Himba, are a discriminated minority treated with contempt and belittled by the dominant ethnicity of her home planet, the Khoush. The setting of Binti's home planet, sketched in colorful brush strokes, hints at both ethnic tensions between different ethnic groups in sub saharan Africa, with the never explicitly mentioned but always looming threat of genocidal war, and also, on another level, it seems to refer to the tensions between the privileged white American community and the African American, so dramatically underrepresented in the high echelon of academic prestige. The story begins with Binti leaving in the middle of the night to the spaceport where she will be boarding the starship to Oomza. She is leaving in secret, without the consent of her family, violating the expectations of her society. She is afraid and alone. She is closing a door behind her back, burning her bridges, leaving her whole world behind. She knows it is quite possible, maybe even very probable, that she will never go back. Never come home again. Home, even that may soon cease to make sense as a concept. This opening scene is dramatic and so well crafted: anyone who has been that student, leaving everything to move half the world across to some Famous University, perhaps not in secret in the dead of night, but certainly not without tension with family and environment, immediately relates fully and completely with every nuance of her many fluctuations between hesitation and boldness. Okorafor hinges on those details that relate to Binti's cherished habits of life: certain ways of dressing, certain ways of covering her hair and skin with red clay. One understands immediately how such gestures with symbolic meaning, which are largely aimed at signifying a sense of belonging to a community, a shared environment where such things indeed carry a meaning, will be the first victims of the kind of drastic uprooting she is about to embark into. None of her shared heritage will signify anything in her new environment, and perhaps that is a necessary and maybe even desirable loss, at some level, but still one that contributes to create an enormous vulnerability and dramatically increases the overall sense of alienation and isolation that inevitably accompanies this type of transition. A good part of the novella, where all the action takes place, deals with the voyage to Oomza, where the starship is attacked by a warring race of Medusas who kill every other human on board, except for Binti who is protected by an ancient artifact she found in the desert of her home planet, without knowing its meaning and origin, and that she took along with her as a talisman. The artifact not only defends her from the Medusas assaults, by emanating energy beams that hurt their tentacles when they get too close, but it also allows her to communicate with the Medusas, by acting as a translator machine. Here the story becomes quite predictable: the Medusas are not the horrible monsters they seem to be at first; they are good guys afraid of humans, whose honor has been wounded by the stealing of their chief's stinger that is kept on display in a museum on Oomza. Binti promises to help them get back their stinger and their honor, while befriending an impulsive but ultimately cool Medusa guy named Okwu, who will become her buddy by the end of the story. OK, I must admit that, while I think this is an excellent sci-fi story, I am not so terribly fond of all this "honor of the Medusa" business. The story gets quite interesting again, from my own personal point of view at least, when they finally get down to the Oomza campus, where Binti successfully carries out her promised duty to help the Medusa with their stinger quest. The structure of Oomza is only hinted at, just as the social structure of Binti's home planet was described more in allusions than in overt details, but a few interesting characteristics immediately emerge: (1) the faculty of Oomza is extremely cosmopolitan (as appropriate for a university of cosmic reputation) with representatives from many different alien races; while the members of the faculty council Binti interacts with while advocating the Medusas cause appear aloof and somewhat unsociable, they are ultimately open minded and progressive; (2) a good part of this Famous University is dedicated to carrying out weapons research, so the enlightened attitude of the faculty members does not stretch as far as rejecting their alliance to the galactic military-industrial complex; (3) Binti has changed already, physically as well as mentally, because of her direct contact with the Medusas, and it is questioned whether she could still belong to her home planet and her people and be accepted by them. Interestingly, the novel is silent on this last issue and leaves it hanging, with the final scene ending just at the moment when Binti tries to re-establish contact, remotely, with her family on her home planet. We can only imagine whether we want that attempt to lead to a reconciliation or to an ultimate uprooting and rejection. I am inclined to believe the latter is more realistic: she no longer belongs to her home planet and she never will again. Well, this is just personal experience: she is a different person, in a different world, with very different experiences. There is no going home. There is no home. What about Oomza? The novella also leaves that to the reader's imagination, although it seems that a sequel is announced to be published sometime in 2017. Well, since the sequel isn't out yet, we are still free to speculate, and to use the freedom so kindly bestowed upon the readers by the author, to keep the story going from the point where it ends, somewhat abruptly, in her narration. So how is Binti doing at Oomza? She is received with great honor, given her brilliant solution of the Medusa problem. So it appears she is valued and respected. Is that really so? Other students who have, long ago, journeyed to the Famous University half a world across had also been received with great enthusiasm, yet things soured very quickly. Binti is known in her own world as a master maker of astrolabes. The astrolabes of Okorafor's story are both beautiful art objects and functioning computer like devices, upon which a great deal of civilization evidently depends. This means that Binti has a talent that is highly respected in her home world, despite the fact that she belongs to a discriminated ethnic community. This point in the story is very interesting: Okorafor describes very well a paradox by which a minority group is considered at the same time highly talented and yet somehow despicable by a privileged and racist majority. This appears to be a clear hint to the tragic anti-semitic discrimination against Jews in European history. Once again, there is an unspoken but clearly recognizable threat of genocidal violence behind this combination of fear and loathing. Interestingly, while ethnic and racial discriminations form an important subtext throughout the novella, the galactic civilization Binti belongs to appears to be remarkably free of gender discrimination, and Binti seems to suffer no ill effect for being a woman mathematician. I guess that's some kind of progress, if one can call it so: well, one less prejudice is surely better than one more, but that's a meagre consolation when painted over a general background of racial and ethnic tensions. Coming back to the astrolabes, Binti has a highly regarded technical skill that she developed on her home planet, and that was directly influential, we are told, in her getting admitted to Oomza. One point to consider here is the implicit assumption that her mathematical skills are, in her society, closely tied up to the realization of technical objects (the astrolabes) that are highly coveted by society. It is a bit like an appreciation of mathematics, in our society, based largely on its potential of application to computer science. Well, oh right. So Binti is admitted to Oomza because of her mathematical talent and her reputation built out of her previous studies and experience on her home planet. How is this going to play out once she is actually at Oomza? I am again inclined to give a very pessimistic view here: the young student who happily travelled to the Famous University across the known world on the premise that her talent and experience will be valued and appreciated finds her experience immediately invalidated and denied upon her arrival. Why? Because of course Famous University, in order to assert and maintain its power and image, has to deny the validity of anything which is not Famous University. So whatever talent was highly appreciated a moment ago when selecting students for admission is immediately trashed as worthless as soon as the students get actually there, because whatever knowledge they have refined over the years was not coming from Famous University and therefore it is by definition worthless. I am unfortunately inclined to believe that this is what will happen, shortly after the point where the narration of the novella ends, to Binti and her astrolabes. How will she put up with that, when that denial of her entire history and knowledge happens at the same time as she is coming to terms with her no longer having a home world and a home community? At the same time while she is struggling with racial discrimination? I do not belong to a discriminated ethnic minority, but I do live in a world where being a woman mathematician carries a series of problems that do not seem to play a role in Binti's universe. I am not sure whether this constitutes in some sense a similar experience. However, I certainly know the effect of the two pronged fork of rejection of both inner and outer world being simultaneously played out. If the promised sequel to "Binti" is going to be in any way realistic in this respect, it is going to be grim. What else can we say about Oomza? The Famous University I am talking about is also founded on the history of military-industrial complex, down to the basement foundations where my graduate student office used to be, in the still radioactive rooms that housed the Fermi nuclear pile in the early days of the Manhattan project. The great enlightened, cosmopolitan faculty of the great Mathematics Department of the Famous University are not only aloof and somewhat unsociable, but their progressive vision stops at some high sounding public declarations that hide a great deal of Machiavellian double speak. Take the enlightened faculty member turned skillful administrator who recently proffered deep wisdom such as "The purpose of a university education is to provide the critical pathway by which students can fulfill their potential, change the trajectory of their families, and build healthier and more inclusive societies". Wow, who would disagree with that? And what about "Essential to this process is an environment that promotes free expression and the open exchange of ideas, ensuring that difficult questions are asked and that diverse and challenging perspectives are considered". Again, who could even for a moment consider not being on the same boat with this? Only some kind of inconsiderate authoritarian censorship prone individuals (or "groups" as they are referred to in this well crafted speech) who "assert that universities should be refuges from intellectual discomfort". Ah, here it comes: "intellectual discomfort", what kind of "discomfort" are we talking about, here and in what sense is this discomfort "intellectual"? This guy is more intelligent (he's a distinguished mathematician after all) and more articulate than his subordinate who sends letters out to incoming freshmen, so he steers clear of using buzz words loaded with all kinds of interpretations, such as "safe spaces", but his intervention comes right on the heels of much less carefully worded statements issuing from some steps down the chain of command. Is it so frightening to these enlightened intellectuals to imagine the possible existence of spaces on campus that can offer help and support to students who come from the whole world across, having left everything behind, welcomed by the most chilling denial of their whole existence (even without the help of any considerate dean's letter)? Is it a threat to free speech? How so? Is this a Machiavellian maneuver by Administration to actually undermine academic freedom and faculty initiative, while at the same time pleasing conservative donors? Most likely. The pretense of defense of a culture of intellectual openness on campus is risible: the only advice I can give to the students who wish to enjoy the Famous University's "defining characteristics", their "commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression" is to graduate as fast as they can and move on to some other place where such things exist. I am eagerly waiting for Okorafor's sequel of "Binti": I do hope that the Oomza version of Famous University will turn out to be less grim and more open than this other Famous University.

Oomza University and the Medusas... oomz, no... this is that other Famous University, my dear Alma Mater