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Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIn books like Who Fears Death, The Book of Phoenix, Lagoon, the Akata novels and the Binti trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor has made an illustrious career for herself through stories that often straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy, featuring African women transforming their entire societies. Okorafor is very specific in that what she writes is Africanfuturism — stories rooted in the people and places of Africa — and not Afrofuturism, which comes from a westernized, African-American perspective.

Remote Control feels both futuristic and mythic. In fact, the way in which legends and folk tales are created is one of its underlying themes. Set in the same near-future society as Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix, Remote Control takes place in an Africa where giant robots and surveillance drones coexist alongside mud houses and rowdy street markets. The story introduces us to Fatima, a little girl living on her parent’s shea tree farm in the village of Wulugu, in northeastern Ghana. Though she’s often sick with malaria, Fatima is a bright and imaginative child who enjoys gazing up at the stars and drawing the words and symbols she believes she sees into the dirt.

One fateful day, the stars appear to give her a gift… or a curse. Following a meteor shower, Fatima recovers a strange artifact from the roots of her favorite shea tree. (In fact, the tree itself has pushed the object up from its roots.) A wooden box contains a large, glowing seed that imbues Fatima with a great and terrible power. Immediately, Okorafor is playing with our expectations of SFF convention, leaving our interpretation of what the seed really is wide open. Is it magical? Is it some kind of alien tech? As Arthur C. Clarke famously pointed out, when the tech is sufficiently advanced, is there even a difference? Was Fatima chosen by some power beyond imagining, or was she simply unfortunate?

Either way, she now wields the power of death itself. Her body exudes a bright green glow, which, before she learns to control it, has the power to annihilate entire towns in a single flash. It’s a power that also permanently disables any technology she touches. The trauma of this rapid change to her body takes everything from her, including much of her memory and even her name. She adopts the name Sankofa, which has rich symbolic meaning to the culture of the Akan people of Ghana. Derived from three words in the Twi language and symbolized by the image of a bird facing forward while looking backward, it represents the idea that the lessons of the past must inform our path into the future.

The bulk of the story involves Sankofa’s quest for the seed, which was taken by a shady government official. Accompanied by a fox named Movenpick, which seems immune to Sankofa’s deadly touch, Sankofa spends the next several years on an odyssey to understand what she has become and why. Her legend precedes her, and she becomes a figure inspiring both terror and reverence. Her power can kill so quickly, people say it’s like remote control, turning off a television with a single click. Not everyone fears the girl. Terminally ill people even seek her out for a peaceful release from their suffering. But Sankofa’s attempts to fit in and live a normal life are fraught with difficulty, to say the least. Okorafor’s writing here is simply masterful. The prose is breathtakingly easy to read, giving a brisk pace to a slow-burn plot, and Okorafor conveys the tragedy and loneliness of Sankofa’s life without any recourse to simplistic pathos.

I may be alone in this, but this gentle, character-driven story sometimes reminded me of Otomo Katsuhiro’s famed manga epic Akira, though perhaps The Book of Phoenix might be more aptly compared to that. Both stories are wildly different in their narrative approach, but both can be read as coming-of-age allegories in which adolescent characters are undergoing major changes in their bodies that are frightening and powerful and often destructive and hard to comprehend. And while evil corporate entities and sinister governments seeking to weaponize mysterious otherworldly powers isn’t exactly the freshest trope in the writers’ toolkit, Okorafor uses it effectively in service of the same scathing commentary she offered in Phoenix, about the way in which Western powers think nothing of using the people of lesser developed and poorer nations as test subjects and exploitable resources without anything so picky as informed consent.

I have often criticized novellas and short novels for trying to do too much in too little space, but at 160 pages, Remote Control is exactly as long as it needs to be. There’s no fat, no clutter. Nnedi Okorafor offers a dark but ultimately hopeful near-future fable with a clear message: life does not always make sense, and the world is full of terrible dangers, but when you have the inner strength that comes from understanding, who fears death?