IN AN ESSAY on Afro- and Africanfuturism published by the LARB, poet/critic Hope Wabuke analyzes and admires the work of storyteller Nnedi Okorafor. This focus is not surprising; Okorafor, of course, coined the term “africanfuturism”, and his blog post defining the subgenre and its cousin Africanjujuism has sent waves through the creative and academic spheres. Okorafor is as prolific as she is loved, having published nearly 30 works over the past 16 years – from comics to novels to picture books – and with over 15 awards and accolades adorning her bibliography. In 2021 alone, she published two long-form prose pieces: Remote controlwho was widely acclaimed and dubbed “the anti-binti” by Dan Friedman, as well as the latest addition to his catalog, nour.
Like many of his earlier futuristic African works, Okorafor bases this novel on “African culture, history, mythology and point of view”. nour presents a version of Nigeria a few generations removed from our present moment. In this future, a massive endless sandstorm known as the Red Eye swirls endlessly for “miles and miles of northern Nigeria”, and massive machines called Noors collect energy from the natural disaster.
In terms of layout, nour provides a fairly standard and usable speculative fiction novel. As readers, we navigate the future landscape through the eyes of nourThe cybernetically augmented protagonist, AO Oju. AO stands for “Autobionic Organism”, a name the protagonist chose in her twenties that nods to her technologically augmented body. Born with “withered” limbs and disfigured internal organs that were further damaged in a rare “autonomous vehicle” accident at the age of 14, the AO readers encountered have extendable metal legs, a powerful cybernetic left arm, and a neural implant to help him deal with it. pain. Although Okorafor never calls AO a cyborg directly in the text, there is narrative parity with the broader speculative fiction conventions, especially in the vitriol AO receives for seeming “Following machine than human” in the eyes of those around him. The narrative takes off after a group of men with anti-robot sentiments corner AO in a market, sneering at a question Okorafor returns to throughout the novel: “What kind of woman are you?” Although they violently attack AO, their assault does not go as planned; AO kills them all in self-defense and flees into the desert, their blood still fresh on his clothes.
Okorafor moves the story briskly past the murder and subsequent escape. AO’s fellow traveler and eventual love interest, Dangote Nuhu Adamu (aka DNA), a Fulani shepherd steeped in tradition, enters the story on the first morning after AO’s abrupt departure. After telling his personal story of murder in self-defense – also in response to an attack motivated by hate and fear – the two embark on an adventure together. They travel the desert in search of safety and answers, visiting the nomadic village of DNA; consult a weed-smoking magician; and finally drive inside the Terrorist Storm to locate the Hourglass, a city of outcasts in the heart of the Red Eye. During this trip, thanks to some severe headaches and a break in her brain, AO realizes that she can communicate telepathically with a vast network of AIs that she dubs the Grenade. Unlocking and publicly displaying this ability to control the AI makes its number one priority for Ultimate Corp, the nour replacing our current mega-corporations with a name that screams evil corporate empire.
Longtime speculative fiction fans may be able to foresee the steps Okorafor will take to reach nourThe endgame of, filled with AI soldiers, dramatic revelations, the rescue of captured friends, and a final showdown with agents of the novel’s big bad. However, the way she constructs her futuristic world — and engages in larger conversations around the creation and study of speculative fiction — adds some interesting wrinkles to the more orthodox narrative.
Okorafor creates an intriguing hero in AO, drawing on his own experiences with disability and pain to shape AO’s mindset and outlook. In an interview with KW Colyard published by Restlessness, Okorafor discusses spinal surgery that “locked” metal to her spine and forced her to learn to walk again while recovering. Although the process was arduous and complex, she reaffirms that the surgery is her choice and “necessary”. Okorafor echoes these linked ideas of choice and necessity in nour. AO’s story of recovery and navigation through surgery and chronic pain is central to his heroic journey. Okorafor further notes, “I identify with this idea of thinking of you as a cyborg. Many of these ideas are what motivate [Noor], the idea of accepting and knowing who you are and choosing to move about the world on your own terms. Readers can see these concepts reflected in AO’s decision to undergo a raise, even against the wishes of her parents and former lovers, as well as her steely contempt when others reject the way she defines herself.
As an augmented human, AO raises arguments around the possibilities and limits of various strains of posthumanist thought. She frequently asserts that she is human and female, while simultaneously breaking the limits of humanity through the powers her augmentations unlock. As Wabuke notes, “For Okorafor, centering blackness also means centering black women.” It’s no surprise, then, that even as an autobionic organism, Okorafor emphatically reinforces AO’s femininity in reaction to the chorus of secondary characters claiming otherwise. Academics around the world have studied how black women are often dehumanized and somehow simultaneously objectified in our present time. The fact that AO remains firm in her femininity and her humanity goes against these prevalent attitudes – not to mention disgusting. That said, I can’t help but wonder what possibilities might be opened up by an AO (or interactions with other autobionic organisms) less concerned with a limited human/organic gender binary.
Another of the novel’s critical investments considers and reflects on the current inextricability of nature (or the ideal of “naturalness”) and technology. Okorafor uses AO as the most obvious example of this entanglement. However, she further questions this idea early in the novel through the story in a story about the inventor and world changer Zagora.
In a fun departure from the novel’s limited first-person perspective, an opening chapter “transcribes” episode #8953 of the worldwide podcast. The African Futurist. In the year since his car accident, AO listened to the episode nonstop, using the story as a “shining star to cling to”. Zagora, a “sun-born” desert nomad girl, develops a revolutionary technology known as Sahara Solaris, which converts solar energy into a fluffy cloud of energy that travels wirelessly from its initial gathering place to a remote receiver. Zagora agrees to sell her invention to a solar farm company if she agrees to its terms, which she directs toward creating lasting positive effects for the desert and its people. (It is still unclear if the solar farm company is a subsidiary of Ultimate Corp or if it becomes one over time, as the novel indicates that the solar farms are owned by Ultimate Corp elsewhere in the novel.) Okorafor no longer mentions Zagora after this chapter, energy plumes appear frequently. Okorafor portrays the inventor’s legacy with optimism, presenting her as an example of how technology can come from a love of the environment and its application can do little harm. and be immensely beneficial. It’s no mistake that AO, on the verge of a dramatic cybernetic surge, sees Zagora as a beacon. In this way Okorafor highlights how humans will continue to innovate and subsequently impact the world around us. However, nour asks if we will continue in the path of Zagora, who “loved the desert so much”, and the Sahara Solaris or in the path of Ultimate Corp and the great Noors who are looming.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also touch on two of my favorite characters in the book: the cows from DNA, Carpe Diem and GPS. GPS, named for her impeccable sense of direction, and Carpe Diem, chosen because she’s an early riser, appear first in Chapter Two and then consistently thereafter. (Okorafor shuffles them off-page once the cast settles in the city inside the Red Eye, much to my dismay.) They are the only members of their herd to survive the massacre. DNA is Also lucky to have survived before meeting AO. Okorafor draws on recent conflicts between Fulani herders and other groups in Nigeria to build DNA’s storyline, adding a futuristic twist to ask questions about the importance and significance of tradition. Carpe Diem and GPS play the role of the last cows of one of the last active shepherds. Okorafor makes a point of highlighting the changing moods and reactions of cows, from vocal protests against wearing sand-repellent gear to always knowing the right time to sit down. Carpe Diem and GPS, by their very existence, speak of human interference with “nature”. However, by casting non-human animals as important actors and considering slaughtered cattle as notable victims of the massacre, Okorafor addresses posthuman questions about who deserves narrative importance and shows another AO-like human/non-human connection with the AI.
Granted, GPS and Carpe Diem have a stronger characterization than the AI Grenade. Although said to be sensitive, “digital” and “ubiquitous”, the pomegranate remains an enigma. Readers don’t know the personalities, opinions, etc. grenade beyond his still staring red eyes and willingness to follow AO’s instructions. In practice, it works more like an extension of abilities and increases to AO. While not strictly a problem, learning more about AI – as individuals or collectives – could have provided another interesting opportunity to play with the expected human-centered narrative, as Okorafor put it. done with cattle.
nour excels at incorporating interesting philosophical considerations into a familiar narrative setting. As her story unfolds, Okorafor invites readers to contemplate a range of topics, including questions of self-definition, societal impact, and community constructions. Plus, his world-building expertise helps bring these concepts to the forefront, while igniting a sense of wonder for his audience. Ultimately, Okorafor leans toward an optimistic outlook in the novel’s conclusion. Although nour begins with misplaced hatred and death, it ends with ascension, giving our heroes dramatic victory and the rest they deserve. Using the journey of AO and DNA, Okorafor portrays the desert as a place of “endless potential and hope”, as long as we make the effort to treat it and each other with care and respect.
Ayanni CH Cooper is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Florida studying contemporary print/visual media. She also produces and co-hosts the podcast Sex. To like. Literature.which takes a semi-scholarly look at why the “sex thing” in the media matters.