JANUARY 23, 2021
“IT IS ME,” she called. “Death has come to visit.”
Nnedi Okorafor’s new novella, Remote Control, opens with the itinerant 14-year-old Sankofa walking up to a strange house and announcing herself as an unwanted Christmas guest. She is known and feared, but fed and clothed as she walks around rural Ghana. Sankofa’s tale unfolds in the same future world as Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix, and it is the latest in her series of Africanfuturist books to imbue the world of tomorrow with the languages, customs, and flavors of Africa.
Okorafor’s bright stories have drawn wide acclaim and broad appeal. In the short time since finishing her popular Binti trilogy in January 2018, Okorafor has been signed to make an HBO version of her novel Who Fears Death, to co-write a screenplay for Amazon from Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, and to write a screen treatment of Binti for Hulu. In addition to her award-winning graphic novel Laguardia, she followed Ta-Nehisi Coates as a guest writer for Marvel’s Black Panther series.
Remote Control is Okorafor’s first book for an adult audience since the award-winning Binti series ended, and it takes a dark turn. In her previous work, Okorafor championed magic, science, and the ability of young African women to embrace change. Until now, her protagonists have bounced back from multiple setbacks, absorbed elements of the cultures they have met, and driven onward to change society for the better. There’s no such optimism in Remote Control, where the protagonist brings only death.
The earliest events of Remote Control take place on a shea tree farm in Wulugu — a small village in northern Ghana. A strange green “seed” falls from the sky just by Fatima’s house and burrows under the tree she loves to sit in. Through unexplained means, the seed conveys fatal power to the young girl. The power has the side effect of making her luminous like a TV remote control in the dark, giving her one of her nicknames and the book its title.
Buzzed by mosquitoes who have previously given her malaria at regular intervals, Fatima gets annoyed and glows green — emitting enough death to kill the pests. When she is merely annoyed, the glow acts like a bug zapper. But, as she gets angrier, the range of her fatal glow expands unpredictably. The power is uncontrollable: soon, in a sudden, regrettable childish rage, she kills her whole family and village.
And she destroys her name too: “Sankofa forgot her real name on the day that she lost everything. She was seven years old.” Fatima takes the new name “Sankofa” from one of her brother’s wooden birds.
On his table were the birds he liked to carve — an owl, a hawk and a Sankofa bird. She picked up the Sankofa bird and ran her finger over the long neck that looked backwards as it took an egg from behind it. She felt a prick of pain as a splinter from the wood entered her flesh and her body flashed with light. She dropped the bird and its neck snapped. Tears fell from her eyes to the floor as she knelt down and picked up the pieces. She’d broken the bird just as she’d broken her family and her entire hometown.
Although it happens casually in the narrative, the choice of assumed name is freighted. The Sankofa bird is a symbol in Ghana: with its head turned backward taking an egg from upon its back, it embodies the importance of reaching to the past for knowledge that can help shape the future. With its ability to recapture and bring the past to attention, the Sankofa also acts as a figure for storytelling. Sadly, this young Sankofa can bring few useful reminders to the people among whom she moves.
Okorafor includes Remote Control in her Africanfuturist oeuvre (as opposed to her Akata series, for example, which she calls Africanjujuism), and it is a new foray into the intersections that have served her well before. Magic and science jostle with one another; Africa is explored in an American idiom; technology and culture feature in a society a mere step or two away from ours. But, unlike Phoenix in The Book of Phoenix or Onyesonwu in Who Fears Death, Sankofa has almost no agency over her power. And, unlike Binti’s comforting Oomza University which functions as a beacon of wisdom and a home from home, the only secular institution available to Sankofa is the baleful presence of the LifeGen corporation.
In this way, Remote Control is the anti-Binti. It’s not just that the locale has changed from Namibia to Ghana. Where Binti was a “master harmonizer,” bringing individuals and cultures together, Sankofa disrupts. Where Binti both figuratively and literally absorbed the cultures she encountered — even expanding her names to include them — Sankofa is intractable, untouchable, even losing her only name. Where Binti made deliberate connections and averted disasters, Sankofa inadvertently breaks links and causes disasters.
In Binti’s galaxy, there’s an abiding sense of hope in the universe and a trust that, despite the weakness of some officers and groups, institutions and science can deliver a bright future. The natural world is resolutely protective and even the violently warring Khoush and Meduse are portrayed as childishly misguided by a too-rigid code of prejudice and honor that they will grow beyond. In Sankofa’s world there is little beyond her corner of Ghana besides the unknowable stars, LifeGen, and green “seeds.”
As the novella opens and the traumatized, but infamous Sankofa walks from terrified house to terrified house, families indulge her needs to avoid her fatal anger. Having tried to settle in different ways, she now wanders alone, save for the occasional company of a mysterious fox who has also been affected by the green “seed.” Broken herself, Sankofa has lost her name, her family, and cannot touch any technology without breaking it. She has become “Death’s Adopted Daughter.”
As that appellation suggests, there’s no escape for either Sankofa or the reader from her claustrophobic power. Unusually for Okorafor, the reader’s view is narrow. Because Sankofa is young and breaks any machine she touches, the scope of her knowledge — and thus ours — is tightly circumscribed. Our knowledge is limited to the places she can walk to — the area of Northern Ghana around the villages of Wulugu and RoboTown. Our attention is exclusively on the tattered concerns of one little girl in the process of becoming a young woman. And, latterly, on how storytellers take her story and absorb it into their own idioms and genres to make their own meaning.
It’s telling that her protagonist is a girl unready, rather than a young woman about to engage with the world. Sankofa is not Phoenix (from The Book of Phoenix), continually reborn; she is not Binti, in a constant state of evolution; and she is neither scientist Adaora nor alien chameleon Ayodele from Lagoon. Neither society nor nature can sustain her. Even the well-meaning villagers and people of the mosque cannot protect her from her powers or people’s fears. The shea trees of her home and a rudimentary bush farm she shapes cannot, in the end, shelter her from human or alien intrusion.
The shadow of betrayal stalks this macabre future folktale of Ghana. The seed that was her gift turns out to make her destroy everything she loved. The corporation that should serve the towns kills people. Even the communities that try to protect Fatima end up attracting mobs to pull her apart. As a young child, Fatima scratched her “sky words” in the earth by the shea trees, but the promise of the stars is delivered as an almost uncontrollable power to kill. The power of nature, the beneficence of the cosmos, the support of human society and its institutions, all let Fatima down. It’s a betrayal that resonates in a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and global Black Lives Matter protests, not to mention widespread End SARS protests in Okorafor’s beloved Nigeria.
As the winner of Nebula and Hugo awards, Okorafor has been embraced by the field, and in Remote Control she takes the acclaim and uses it — in an assured manner — to radically undermine the stories that the world tells to manifest its power. What is it that this Sankofa can tell us? That the stories that they tell are not true? Not quite.
Sankofa sees a spider as the tale begins and wonders “what story it would weave about her and how far the story would carry.” As we are carried through, we see how the mode of her story is reshaped by some storytellers into a myth: “They tell a story about Sankofa in many of the villages, towns and cities. They say there once was a living child who was born to dead parents.” And her agency is stolen as even her meaning is rewritten.
By the end of Okorafor’s story, Sankofa hears her own story being told and resents what she hears, both the lies and the powerful truth: “Now, in her fourteenth year on earth, if there was one rule she lived by it was the fact that Stories were soothsayers, truth-tellers and liars.” Instead of stories helping the Sankofa retrieve meaning and help from the past, storytellers steal both truth and lies from the adventures of “Death’s Adopted Daughter” to fuel their own preexisting agendas.
As the novella moves to a close, Sankofa displays a greater self-consciousness. But she finds no solace in her growing maturity. Her awareness of herself as a living myth leads to a further nihilistic recognition that her story will be used to sow fear and discord. Unlike Binti or Phoenix, whose homecomings may be horrific but at least lead to rebirth, Sankofa comes home and inflicts death — “And this time, she did it on purpose.”
Whereas when the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote about Okorafor in 2016 she was part of an “expanding group of black women writers,” she’s now an award-winning writer and a major science fiction voice, and her prominence is especially powerful for young women and people of color. That she has broken away from her enthralling empowered young heroines to write about a shattered victim of a girl who staggers around Northeast Ghana dealing death should worry us about either her or the state of the world. And, judging from the coiled, knowing style of Okorafor’s writing, we need not worry about her.