Science fiction novella, written by Nnedi Okorafor in 2015. The tale is set in the future and stars a teenager named Binti, a member of the (somewhat fictionalized) Himba people of Southern Africa. The Himba traditionally cover their skin and hair with otjize, a mixture of butterfat, ochre pigments, and aromatic plants, as a combination of sunscreen, insect repellent, and cleansing agent. Binti's people consider otjize an almost religious sacrament, preferring to wear it at all times. The Himba also prefer to stay close to home -- in the novella, no Himba have ever left Earth at all, despite space travel being fairly commonplace.
Binti is a mathematical genius and is expected to take over her father's business creating electronic astrolabes -- but she's secretly accepted admission to the prestigious Oomza University, located on a distant planet. She sneaks away from home, boards her flight off-world, and starts making friends, slowly, with her future classmates. It's not an entirely smooth process -- even among other African tribes, the Himba are considered unusually standoffish and weird, thanks to all the otjize, but Binti slowly begins getting acquainted with people.
And that's when the Meduse attack.
The Meduse are jellyfish-like aliens, hostile to almost everyone, and they tend to prefer to shoot first and ask questions never. Binti must somehow figure out a way to survive the Meduse attack, learn to communicate with them, and convince them to embrace peace before her ship arrives at Oomza University.
This was a pretty short novella -- just around 100 pages -- but I had a lot of fun with it. It reads quickly, the action is sparse, but well-done, and the concepts Okorafor is playing with -- mathematics, Afrofuturism, communication, and some level of mysticism -- are excellently done. Binti is a glorious character, both traditional and conservative, and forward-thinking and radical at the same time.
Binti's interactions with the Meduse aliens, particularly the one called Okwu, are also very well-done. These scenes are very tense, with both sides slowly coming to understand each other -- although whether any reconciliation between the two sides is possible is hard to say.
I thought it was particularly cool that Okorafor was able to use a science fiction novella set in the far future to respectfully bring attention to the real-world Himba people. Binti is treated like an alien by almost every Earthling she meets because of the Himba's isolation and customs, so perhaps she's the perfect person to make friends with cultures even more alien.
"Binti" won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella. A sequel, "Binti: Home," focusing on Binti's homecoming to Earth, was released in 2017. The third part of her story, "Binti: The Night Masquerade," will be released in September 2017.