I've been a fan of Nnedi Okorafor's fiction ever since I picked up her novel Lagoon a handful of years ago, and I've been following her work ever since. The book follows an instance of first contact between aliens and humans arrive off the shores of Lagos, and it's a weird, interesting read (you can read my original review of it over on io9). It's a feeling that I get with some of her latest works, like her Binti novellas and Remote Control: a blend of science fiction that's feels vivid and alive.
Her latest novel is Noor, a vivid and vibrant blend of technological optimism, climate change, and social outrage that traces its course across a near-future Africa. At the heart of the story is a young woman originally named Anwuli Okwudili. Born with a series of birth defects and suffering from a horrific autonomous car accident when she was a teenager, she's opted to augment her body with various cybernetic replacement parts: her legs, an arm, her organs, and neural implants. She renamed herself AO (Artificial Organism), and has found work as a mechanic and technician in Northern Nigeria.
It's here where the story kicks off. Nigeria is gripped with violence: there are attacks against people like herself, and as she makes her way through a market, she's set upon by a mob. She doesn't fully understand what happens, but the rest fo the country sees a cybernetic woman killing five of them before fleeing. As she runs, she encounters another outcast: a nomadic Fulani herdsman named Dangote Nuhu Adamu (who calls himself DNA) and his two cows who're also on the run: his people have been labeled terrorists, and he was identified as such after a recent attack. Together, they make for an unlikely pair as they flee for somewhere safe.
Safety is a community that hides away in the middle of a massive desert storm that's been artificially generated by a major a major company called Ultimate Corp. Along the way, AO and DNA come to realize that the heart of their issue is that conglomerate, and as they're pressed into the desert, they realize that they have all the tools that they need to take them on — in AO herself. Okorafor neatly plots out this story, and AO's augmentations come right back to the roots of the conflict that's been started with Ultimate Corp.
This is a short, quick read, but it's packed to the brim with details about her futuristic Nigeria. It's a book about things that seemingly contradict one another: a cybernetic woman fleeing with a nomadic herdsman; a society that's benefited from the high tech advances brought by Ultimate Corp turning on them; and a technological revolution that brings about horrific damage to those around it, high tech existing alongside low-tech.
I'm increasingly attracted to this dynamic, because that's the way the world works: the future isn't neatly or evenly distributed, as William Gibson once noted. That central contradiction feels like a key component of understanding how the world works: that the introduction of better technology or knowledge spread doesn't mean that we've suddenly ushered our way into a new era of prosperity. The internet certainly helps the world function now, but you still have billions of people without access to clean water or money all over the globe. Better scientific knowledge doesn't mean that you won't have entire swathes of a population that're skeptical of a new vaccine because they've been brainwashed.
That's one reason why I've been drawn to Okorafor's stories and why her stories are worth paying attention to: she keenly understands that the future is messy and that culture and society are institutions that don't move at the same pace as technology, even as people adopt and integrate things into their lives. Noor is a good read that helps drive those points home, and it's a story that feels true to life in the way few science fiction novels do.