BY NNEDI OKORAFOR

BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor, is a novella about a young woman from a desert tribe on Earth. Her people are called the Himba people and they make a vital piece of technology on Earth called an astrolabe. Binti is the name of the main character. The story, told in first person, begins with Binti climbing aboard a transporter that is taking her to a launch port, then onward to Oomza Uni. Oomza Uni is a university on a distant planet where Binti will have the opportunity to study mathematics with the best and brightest from all over the universe. She is the first of her people to be admitted, so there is the sense of her achieving a great honor. However, she and we (the reader) clearly understand how high the cost is as she leaves her tribe and family behind, potentially forever.

Binti is a 16-year-old, but this book is not a YA book according to the author. However, the back cover of the paperback calls it a “coming of age story”, which might put it in that genre for some. I believe it will appeal most to the middle grade and YA audience, with some degree of PG-13 gore (one incident).

The Novella, BINTI, won the Hugo award in 2016 and the Nebula in 2015 for best novella.

To order BINTI, click here.

What I enjoyed about BINTI.

  1. Sometimes, a novella is just right. There aren’t many around, but novellas can be a satisfying reading experience. To get through a story in one long sitting or two or three short sittings is a lovely thing. Also…light-weight, perfect for a 2-hour plane ride.
  2. The main character is unique and different than a typical caucasian protagonist. Her culture will feel different to many readers. Okorafor has ties to Nigeria and I am guessing that her place of origin impacts the writing of this world. That world is powerful in many respects in how it anchors the character’s identity. For the sci-fi reader who loves to enter into new cultures and worlds, this story will scratch an itch.
  3. Decent tension to keep the reader going.
  4. A satisfying introduction to an author’s burgeoning world. (two novellas follow this one)

It’s a bargain to order the complete trilogy. To do so, click here.

What annoyed me about BINTI and makes me hesitant to give it the highest review…

  1. Somewhat shallow character development. This is the negative of the novella format…it’s a challenge to develop the characters deeply.
  2. The conflict is resolved too easily.
  3. There are wonderful characters here, but I found the writing a bit underwhelming. My exposure to literary fiction makes me a snob sometimes…the writing won’t be a problem for most readers.
  4. The tech is more like magic in this story than science…or might as well be. I’m wondering if it will be explained in the next novella in a sciency way or not?

The art of a good question is always to draw out the thoughts and feelings of the one being questioned…(and for the most part…to avoid yes/no answers). 
Here are 20 questions to get your student chatting up a storm (of course the student must have read the book closely in order to answer them, so you’ll find that out too.)

To read a review of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, click here

To order THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, click here.

  1. What is Milo like in Chapter 1. How would you describe him?
  2. Would you want to be Milo’s friend, the Milo of Chapter 1? Why or Why not?
  3. When Milo sees the mysterious gift, he makes a pretty big effort to put it together (the tollbooth) and then decides to use it. Does this surprise you? Why or Why not? Would you go through all the trouble to put the tollbooth together and use it?
  4. In Milo’s initial travels, he gets stuck in the Doldrums. Who helps him get out? What does Milo have to do to get his car moving again?
  5. How would you describe Dictionopolis?
  6. In chapter 6, we learn about two Princesses. What are their names and how did they get banished?
  7. Milo starts thinking about the idea that he will rescue the Princesses. Where are the Princesses being held and what hardships will Milo face if he tries to rescue them?
  8. How would you describe the banquet in Dictionopolis? Did any of the foods make you laugh? Which one(s)?
  9. Chapter 9 introduces us to a boy called Alec and the idea of Point of View…How would you define “point of view” based on the discussion Alec and Milo have?
  10. In Chapter 10, the chapter that features Reality, Milo realizes “…the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember…” What was Milo’s mistake? How has he made the same mistake people in Reality made long ago?
  11. Alec tells Milo in Chapter 11: There’s a lot to see everywhere, if only you keep your eyes open. What do you think Alec means when he says this to Milo? What is Milo supposed to see?
  12. Are noises and sounds important to you? Which ones and why? What do you think it would be like to live in a place where there was no sound?
  13. Milo steals a sound from the Soundkeeper…How does he do it and what are the results?
  14. Is the Island of Conclusions a good place to jump to? Why or why not?
  15. Who helps Milo reaches Digitopolis (see Chapter 14)?
  16. How does Milo outsmart the Mathemagician?
  17. What does the Demon of Petty Tasks and Worthless Jobs, Ogre of Wasted Effort and Monster of Habit ask Milo, Humbug and Tock to do?
  18. What are the demons that protect Ignorance? Come up with a list of the demons in this book, to the best of your ability (hint…end of Chapter 16 to middle of chapter 19)
  19. Which demon scares you the most and why?
  20. Look back to your Chapter 1 answer…How has Milo learned from his adventure? How would you describe him now? Would you want to be Milo’s friend, the Milo of Chapter 20?

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is a Gateway Book for Digging into a Values Discussion with your Children or Students

To order this classic, click here.

To access 20 questions on the book, click here

This post is especially (but not only) for folks who have kids or teach kids. I loved my re-read of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. Here are four reasons why you ought to read this book with a child today (or tomorrow if the child is already asleep). And, for the record, this story does NOT fall into the category of sci-fi…more aligning with fantasy than science fiction.

  1. The story introduces ideas that unearth values we have (or need) about education and learning.
  2. The main kid character starts out flat and plain, but makes simple choices that thrust him into hero status…In many respects, he reacts to problems in a childlike way…he is very relatable…he also wants to do what is right. He discovers that doing what is right will require courage. He relies on his friends to accomplish the heroic task. These are all important values put forward by THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH.
  3. Imaginative characters, whose names reflect an aspect of their character, that you can discuss with your child, thus leading to more thorough discussions on everything from friendship to politics. This is a timely story for our kids. (No, really…you CAN talk with your kids about politics after reading this book…In fact, you should!)
  4. Lovely illustrations by Jules Feiffer scattered throughout.

Now for the longer review and musings about stories that provoke discussions…which is a very old way to teach deep lessons.

How does one discuss serious real-time issues with kids? Stories help a lot. I remember showing our children (and at a pretty young age) the Star Wars trilogy…at the time it was episode 4, 5 and 6. Star Wars is an archetypal good versus evil narrative. It features a character, Darth Vader, who though evil, still has the potential for redemption. This was an idea my husband and I wanted our 6 and 8-year-old kids to understand. The story raises the issues: What is evil? The Empire shows what evil looks like in a variety of ways. What is good? The rebellion shows us good and what it’s like when good battles evil. The force is a neutral entity in the universe, but seems to be used most powerfully (ultimately) by those who are good. Star Wars also raises this important question: Can a person be pure evil without the possibility for reform? This story tells us about Luke, Darth Vader and the deep power of love (sometimes love that costs us our lives, as it did for Anakin, Darth Vader) and how that love counters evil…(not to mention the sacrificial love of the friends, Han, Leah, R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewie.) This is a friendship story as much as it is a family story.

For me and my husband, the above ideas were important to us in particular because of our values that also have to do with our faith. We wanted to discuss the reality of evil with our kids, but also help them understand that people ALWAYS have the possibility of breaking free from the evil that grips them and as they do so, help themselves and others achieve goodness…much as (spoiler alert) Darth Vader does at the end of Return of the Jedi.

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is definitely less scary than Star Wars, but the reader still finds a good versus evil narrative. Milo, a boy, disinterested in life and education is our protagonist. This is how the reader sees him in Chapter 1.

“It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.” And since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.

Milo is given the gift of a magic tollbooth that takes him into an imaginary world, a place that will transform him. While there, he learns that words sustain life. He learns that numbers too are essential to life and he learns that the conflict between two brothers (the king of words and ruler of numbers or the Mathmagician) cannot be solved until he helps them bring back their sisters from banishment. They are the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. In the world Milo is visiting, there is currently no rhyme nor reason to anything that takes place and it that has caused much misery across both kingdoms.

Milo isn’t a bad kid…initially, he’s just bored and disengaged…In today’s world…Milo might be a tv junkie or video game addict, but in the 60s…he was simply lethargic, lying around and doing nothing because nothing seemed interesting to him. In the new world where he travels, he is confronted with an adventure that captures his passion. Milo then begins to appreciate and notice the world around him, including the importance of education and learning. Milo’s transformation is an example of a child who decides to be curious and walks toward/into an adventure. That little step opens him to a world of learning. He even gains friends along the way.

A key for Milo is that he figures out his purpose. He decides to rescue the two princesses. He persists until he achieves the goal, despite many challenges.

The evil characters (Juster calls them demons) in this story resonate with today’s evils and dare I say…some of our current events. The demons live on the Mountain of Ignorance and include monsters such as Compromise, Hopping Hindsight, the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, Overbearing Know-It-All, Gross Exaggeration and Threadbare Excuse. Each creature described on the mountain could spur a conversation about values. Parents, consider yourself primed for a discussion of politicians, ad agencies, media or news organizations and grownups, in general…We adults could all use a refresher course on the “demons” that dull our wits in postmodern society. Good lessons for all.

Milo is a relatable kid character, even for kids today.  He starts out bored and boring until he accepts the invitation to enter the tollbooth. His curiosity spurs him forward. He emerges into the new world and continues to be curious. He learns along the way that he must engage his senses and make friends. He slowly grows in appreciation of beauty around him and all the goofy characters he meets who are passionate about one thing or another. However, Milo’s own passion is not fully engaged until he decides to rescue the princesses. Then, his journey takes on a new vitality and without being fully conscious of it, he has stepped into the hero’s journey. His purpose, which has become his passion enables him to persist.

Through his determination and action, Milo is healed of his boredom…At the close of the story, Milo grieves that he (spoiler alert) no longer has access to the tollbooth, but he notices that

…the sky was a lovely shade of blue and that one cloud had the shape of a sailing ship. The tips of the trees held pale, young buds and the leaves were a rich deep green. Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch–walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day.

*For a suggested list of questions for teachers, see my post on THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, discussion questions for educators.

by Cixin Liu

Worthy of a Physics/Calculus Teacher’s Attention particularly high school and particularly for AP or IB Physics students

ALSO instructive for discussions in philosophy and ethics (see bottom paragraph)

High school physics instructors or calculus instructors…this novel would make a great summer reading assignment before your class begins in the Fall. One, the story is entertaining. Two, the story portrays historically some of the greatest physicists to walk planet Earth. Three, The Three Body Problem itself, the actual physics problem, this engages the physicist’s and the mathematician’s mind, Newtonian physics and all that jazz…Not that I understand it all, but I believe these the guys who write on the website: askamathematician.com. The excerpt below is from their website

The Three Body Problem is to exactly solve for the motions of three (or more) bodies interacting through an inverse square force (which includes gravitational and electrical attraction).

The problem with the 3-body problem is that it can’t be done, except in a very small set of frankly goofy scenarios (like identical planets following identical orbits).

The unsolvability of the 3-body problem, rather than being an embarrassing hole in physics, an obvious but unsolved problem, is actually the norm. In physics, the number of not-baby-simple, exactly solvable problems can be counted on the fingers of one hand (that’s missing some fingers), and that includes the 2-body problem.

The dynamics of one body is pretty straight forward, in as much as it travels straight forward.

The dynamics of two bodies, while not trivial, can be reduced by pretending that one body is sitting still, and then restricting all of your attention to the other body.  Using that technique, you find (or, at least, Newton found) that the motion of a body under gravity is an ellipse. The same idea can be applied to the quantum mechanics of electrons and protons to find the exact structure of the electron shells in hydrogen (1 proton + 1 electron = 2 bodies). In that case you’re not talking about actual orbits, but the idea is similar.

But, for three bodies, there doesn’t seem to be a fancy trick for finding solutions. As a result, the exact behavior of 3 or more bodies can’t be written down. The exact energy levels and orbital shell shapes in anything other than hydrogen is impossible to find.  Even deuterium (hydrogen with one extra neutron)! Can’t be done.

Despite that, we do alright, and happily, reality doesn’t concern itself with doing math, it just kinda “does”. For example, quantum field theory, despite being the most accurate theory that ever there was, never involves exactly solving anything. Once a physicist gets a hold of all the appropriate equations and a big computer, they can start approximating things. With enough computing power and time, these approximations can be made amazingly good. Computer simulation and approximation is a whole science unto itself.

The main actors in THE THREE BODY PROBLEM are almost all physicists and/or mathematicians and they’re nerdy, but not dweebs. Read chapter 5, A Game of Pool if you want a taste of what the novel offers. Then, there is the virtual reality, which unfolds as a puzzle/game and is played often by nanotechnology researcher, Wang Miao. Wang is compelled to understand the mystery introduced in the early chapters of the novel and realizes that the game is key to the revelation he seeks. In the game world, Wang walks through the history of physics with virtual characters like Confucius (our earliest physicists were primarily philosophers…a helpful connection for students to make), Newton and Einstein. Trisolara happens to be grappling with the three body problem. It is a planet in a solar system where there are three suns. The game players, along with the philosophers and physicists throughout history try again and again, in a systematic way, to solve the problem of the planet’s impending destruction. To go through each game level, Wang encounters physicists who have furthered the thinking regarding the problem. It’s like taking a course called The Intro to Physics…all this learning while the reader hurtles toward the big reveal at the end of the novel. Ah…to be entertained while learning…tis a wonderful thing. At the very least, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM ought to raise the curiosity level of your students and give them a glimpse of the relevance of physics and math to their everyday lives.

For the ethicist/philosopher, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM raises interesting issues about elites thinking they know best for all. The Cultural Revolution in China drives the narrative in the early chapters. Many elites are driven out of their positions of authority, killed or exiled by the communist party as it takes power. The author calls this a madness. (Chapter 1’s title is: The Madness Years). However, within the communist party, a new breed of elites rise to the top. Later, toward the final chapters of the novel, a group of environmental activists, along with men and women Liu specifies as elites across the globe, use their power to set in motion what they hope will be Earth’s salvation (knowing that saving the planet may come at the expense of most or all human lives). This small group of people have become judge, jury and executioner for humanity. Moreover, their hope for saving the Earth might not evolve the way they imagine. The stage is set for a discussion about power, elitism, environmental degradation and what might be ways to stem our self-destructive/planet-destroying tendencies.

To read a No-Spoiler review of this novel, click THREE BODY PROBLEM, Book Review

To buy THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, click here.

three body problem

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem
By Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu

Last month, my science fiction book group tackled THE THREE BODY PROBLEM. We used our 1.5 hours of group time discussing story-telling and physics. (We’re lucky to have a physics PhD in our midst. We’re luckier still that he makes a mean brew and brings us amazing pints of his beer creations each month.) Next time we meet, I’ll post a photo.

Short Review…

5 Reasons To Read THE THREE BODY PROBLEM

  1. Fascinating view into 20th century Chinese history
  2. Interesting and well-drawn characters
  3. A story with tension
  4. Physics, math problems, a virtual reality problem-solving game (nerd meter is tapped here!)
  5. A chance to read a Non-Western narrative

What ought I say about this epic tale? THE THREE BODY PROBLEM portrays a number of characters, most of them well-drawn. The story unfolds with tension, there is a mystery to be solved and the complicated physics concepts embedded in the tale are true science. A virtual reality in the form of a game played by one of the main characters, becomes a key to solving the mystery. The world the game introduces is imaginative and entertaining.

The characters do not look like white westerners, nor do they think like white westerners. I see that as a plus for the western reader. The characters are primarily Chinese Nationals, with a handful of others thrown into the story stew. (See the handy List of Characters page at the beginning of the book and refer to it when needed).

This novel is originally written in Mandarin Chinese, which means (unless you’re a fluent reader of Mandarin) you will read a translation of the original. Welcome to the 21st century, where story-telling centered around the English language will likely diminish, but not to our detriment. As story consumers, we’re living in the best of times.

And, in case you wonder about this tale’s place in the science fiction universe, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM won the Hugo Award in 2015. Moreover, Amazon has recently purchased the rights for adapting this novel for the screen (and the two that follow it) for 1 BILLION dollars. Yes…you heard me, 1 BILLION dollars and yes, this is the first of a trilogy (so far). Here is the link that tells the tale of the Amazon deal for those of you interested.

According to various entertainment news sites, Amazon is looking for the next Stranger Things or Game of Thrones that will add them to the mix of superior content providers. They are competing with Netflix, Hulu, HBO and now Disney Plus et al. for content. THE THREE BODY PROBLEM and its subsequent novels define superior content. Moreover, the trilogy so far (maybe it will expand as GOT did?) maintains a devoted fan following in China and across the globe, many, many millions of potential viewers who might become Amazon Prime members. You can begin to see the appeal to Amazon’s dealmakers.

So…with all that hype…what is my review of this story?

The Storytelling and Teasing out Who is the Main Character:

First, I will say that most of the members in our book group loved the novel overall. Some liked the story-telling, others did not like the style. The narrator is omniscient in a way that is sometimes disorienting, at least for the western reader. There are jump around moments when the point of view shifts somewhat abruptly from one character to another, from one time period to another, even to one solar system to another…I consumed the book on audio while on a road trip, so it’s possible I was more disoriented than if I had had the book in hand. The chapters often mark the dramatic scene/world/time changes. I was hearing them and not seeing them. There is something stark about viewing the blank page and a chapter heading. It triggers the eye, therefore the brain to prepare for the change. In the free-flow of audio, I don’t think my brain was always cluing in. I hope to write a post about audio books and their rise in our book consumption in the coming days.

Here is an example of the point of view shifts that will take place in this story. At the end of chapter 12, the reader moves from Red Coast Project site 1970s to chapter 13, where a series of selected documents are flatly divulged to the reader at a time in the future, as if the story-teller is showing us files, giving information about Red Coast Project, previously top secret…then, back to chapter 14, present day novel time, when a main character Wang Miao interacts with Professor Winjie, someone who worked for many years at Red Coast Project.

Wang Miao, a nano-tech researcher, is caught up in the mystery and trying to understand a complicated tangle of events taking place in the scientific community around him, including a number of prominent physicists committing suicide. He interfaces often with Ye Winjie throughout the novel, a retired physics professor, whose daughter is one of the physicists who has committed suicide. Ye and Miao are both primary characters. Miao is the most relatable character. He is trying to solve the mystery. I won’t call him THE main character only because from a story standpoint I understood Professor Ye Winjie to be the main character. The book begins and ends with scenes that involve her and/or her family, but Wang Miao is central to the unfurling of the mystery. He performs many acts that are crucial to the plot development, including, he plays the virtual reality game. The reader sees the game world and game characters through his eyes. So, who is the main character? It’s debatable…but between these two, I think it is Ye Winjie.

The main actors in THE THREE BODY PROBLEM are almost all physicists and/or mathematicians and they’re nerdy, but not dweebs. Read chapter 5, A Game of Pool if you want a taste of what the novel offers. The virtual reality world and the three body problem puzzle played often by Wang Miao make known the game planet of Trisolara. In the game, the reader walks through the history of physics because Trisolara has three suns and has to solve that problem or else, face destruction (which happens a number of times as Miao plays the game). The game players, along with physicists throughout history try again and again, in a systematic way, to solve the problem. Regarding the game and how it serves the story, I will leave that for your discovery.

Another aspect of storytelling that might disorient or bother the reader is the information dump that seems to happen periodically, like in chapter 13 as I mentioned above…also in chapter 25. An interrogation of professor Ye in this portion of the narrative ends up explaining a whole lot of back story. It’s not an awful dramatization, but so much information is divulged in one convenient scene, it would likely be deemed sloppy writing by many authors/literary critics…but hey, the question is…will you quit reading because of the way the information is delivered to you? I’m guessing the answer is no, you won’t quit. These info dumps happen throughout the novel and answer pieces of the mystery. The style of writing is probably not enough to stop the average reader, though one may be tempted to skim these sections.

Overall, THREE BODY PROBLEM is an entertaining and important read for the science fiction consumer, with a few new twists on an old scifi story that surprises and deepens the global tome that tries to envision humanity’s future.

For ideas on how to use this novel in class with students of math, science, philosophy or ethics, see my post: THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, For Educators or click here.

To buy THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, click here.

To buy the second book in the trilogy: THE DARK FOREST, Remembrance of Earth, click here.

To buy the third book in the trilogy: DEATH’S END, click here.

To buy the paperback boxed trilogy, click here.

To save yourself a bundle of dollars and shelf space, buy the trilogy on Kindle here.