"We were so colonized we built our own shackles," notes the titular heroine of The Book of Phoenix, perhaps the angriest SFF novel to broadside the genre since Joanna Russ's The Female Man. Whereas in Lagoon, Afrofuturist Nnedi Okorafor seemed to kick up her heels and cast a satirical eye on the fraught political relationships between Africa and the west, The Book of Phoenix hits America's bloody history of oppression, slavery and colonialism with all the incendiary rage it's earned. This will make some readers distinctly uncomfortable. These will be the readers perhaps most in need of self-reflection.
A prequel to Okorafor's World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death, The Book of Phoenix is radically different in tone, hewing more closely to SFnal motifs in contrast to the other novel's epic mythicism and magical realism. Told as an oral history in a brief but electrifying 230 pages, it's the story of an "accelerated woman" who's been genetically engineered in a New York lab ominously named Tower 7, by a institute called LifeGen that's informally known (mostly by those it victimizes) as Big Eye. Phoenix Okore, whose physical appearance is that of a normal 40-ish woman despite being only two actual years old, has no particular reason at first to dread her existence in a prison facility for similarly modified "non-human persons" like herself. But when her lover and fellow "speciMen" Saeed is killed under dubious circumstances while exploring an off-limits part of the lab, Phoenix learns that all is not what it seems and engineers an escape with the aid of another inmate, Mmuo, who can pass through solid matter.
Phoenix's breakout demolishes the entire building save for a massive and alien tree, the Backbone, growing from the rubble of its lobby. (A similarly magical tree figured in Who Fears Death.) Her developing powers involve the growth of massive wings and the ability to make short teleport jumps through time and space. She can also, most fittingly considering her name, self-resurrect from actual death as a being of fiery vengeance. It's essentially a superhero origin story, only one that takes a dark turn. For once Phoenix accepts that she was created solely to be a tool, a mega-weapon, she vows to turn her powers against her diabolical creators. "I am villain," she says, and means it.
Lagoon was as close to a romp as Okorafor may ever write. The Book of Phoenix, despite an even more breathless pace, is the opposite of a romp. Escaping at first to Ghana, Phoenix witnesses firsthand the exploitation of native people and cultures by Western colonialist powers (represented here by Big Eye), who have always seen Africa as nothing but a fount of natural resources to be taken by force without a thought given to the well-being of its peoples and their way of life. She is sickened by the resignation of the natives themselves, some of whom do whatever they must to placate their oppressors in the vain hope of lessening their own mistreatment. To protect them, Phoenix agrees to return to America (though she insists upon flying, steadfastly and symbolically refusing to travel aboard the white man's ships), but she has made her decision. Reuniting with Mmuo and others from Tower 7, including another mysterious winged man who calls himself Seven, she orchestrates terrorist raids upon every Big Eye facility, with results that turn increasingly apocalyptic. Big Eye, in turn, has so thoroughly dehumanized the SpeciMen they've created that, in their complacency, they can't even conceive of the possibility a revolt could occur.
Yes, there is a lot of rage in this book, though it's hardly unearned, coming out at a time when African-Americans are unlikely to survive being pulled over by a cop for a minor traffic violation. But there is also love, and terrible beauty. In its more contemplative and hopeful moments, Okorafor is capable of producing some of the most breathtaking and lyrical prose in the genre. Phoenix's voice is so powerful in narrating her own tale that not only the anger but the dignity and determination of an entire oppressed people comes through.
Readers may find themselves divided over the novel's framing story, in which an African nomad named Sunateel discovers Phoenix's tale housed deep within the memory banks of a cache of forgotten old-world computers. Despite serving the purpose of tying the two books together, it opens up distracting technical questions, such as the implicit writers' convenience in the way Sunateel's personal device somehow links up with perfect compatibility to an ancient dead hard-drive, let alone how the data could possibly be extracted from the old brick. But these are minor quibbles in light of the clarity of the story's warning to us all: that we have to change the world and change ourselves, that we have to look at one another and see not the differences that divide us but the humanity we share. Action is needed. Platitudes are useless. It does no good to say "It takes a village" when it becomes necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.