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Remote Control


Remote Control

Fantasy takes us to new worlds that contain something of the old. It fuses tradition and imagination. And, at its best, it gives us someone brave and vulnerable and true to root for. REMOTE CONTROL, the stunning new novella from Nigerian American author Nnedi Okorafor, introduced me to the genre she calls Africanfuturism. It transported me.

Okorafor, a Hugo and Nebula award winner for the Binti Trilogy, sets her story in a future Ghana where time-honored customs find themselves in uneasy coexistence with high-tech tools: 3D TVs called “jelli tellies,” personal windows, magnetic earbuds, newsfeeds, drone deliveries. Privileged individuals known as “been-tos” (those who return to Africa after living or working in a foreign country) strut around in Westernized clothing, sporting “flashbleached” skin.

This tension between old and new, indigenous and imported, is embodied in the girl whose journey is chronicled in REMOTE CONTROL. Capable of killing without touch (hence, “remote control”) when her body takes on an eerie glow, she brings death wherever she goes. Her story, though not a YA title, is definitely a coming-of-age tale: a meditation on female power, its risks and possibilities.

As a child, the girl had an abiding fascination with myths and stars, and after a dazzling meteor shower, she found an incandescent green seed in a box near the shea tree in her family’s backyard. Her older brother wasn’t interested: “It was a thing that you didn’t plug in, a thing that couldn’t connect to the internet.” The seed, along with a shy red fox that’s a zoo escapee, became her companions.

"I loved so many things about Okorafor’s book. The futuristic details have wit, energy and brilliance, but there is also genuine depth to the narrative: a serene, folktale-ish cadence that feels timeless."

A few years later, she is mysteriously transformed into a creature who burns with her own green fire. Unable to control her destructive force at first, she kills everyone in her hometown. The orphaned girl can no longer remember the name she was born with, so she dubs herself Sankofa, evoking a Ghanaian bird symbol with a turned-backward head. The implication is that progress depends on looking to the past as well as the present. Thus, when Sankofa takes to the road, she dresses herself in the traditional style favored by her late mother and eats foods native to Ghana: goat meat, jollof rice, fried plantain. Significantly, her presence is fatal to any kind of modern technology: cars, phones, computers.

Over the years, Sankofa learns to use her power sparingly, for self-defense, or to put terminally ill people out of their misery. She asks for what she needs from strangers on her travels: clothes, food, respect. Some revile her with misogynistic rants (“Witch!”); others revere her. Her trajectory is, in a way, that of any young person growing up without parents --- forced to be self-reliant while feeling the lack of unconditional love --- but in this book it takes place on levels both mythic and real.

Sankofa seems to draw courage equally from the traditional and the modern. She never wanted a husband; she wished to travel and see the world like her auntie Nana, a physicist. Although Nana could be mean, reviling “sad bush women” like Sankofa’s mother, now the memory of her boldness inspires the girl to keep going. And she is not the only independent woman to influence Sankofa. When she arrives in Robotown (named after the artificially intelligent nine-foot steel figure that monitors the place), the girl finds quasi-maternal love in the unlikely form of Alhaja, a tattooed, weed-smoking high-tech entrepreneur. Alhaja uses Sankofa for protection against armed bandits who steal shipments of the latest devices. But she also kind of adopts her, as does Sister Kumi, the Imam’s wife, originally an electrical engineer who programmed the Robocop. When Kumi urges her to fight her “death light,” Sankofa starts wearing a hijab like any good Muslim girl and plans to return to school. She stifles her inner fierceness --- but not for long.

Sankofa has been in Robotown for nearly a year when things fall apart. The townspeople turn on her; she barely survives the attack by deploying the radiant energy she’d suppressed. She also discovers that the Robocop is sending reports on her to LifeGen, an American Big Pharma company whose interests go way beyond stocking your local drugstore (one former employee describes it as a “corporation that’s probably going to eventually destroy the world”). “LifeGen studies you,” the steel man tells Sankofa. “Then it will find a use for you.”

Ominous indeed! It isn’t clear what that use might be. What is clear: This isn’t the end of Sankofa’s story.

I loved so many things about Okorafor’s book. The futuristic details have wit, energy and brilliance, but there is also genuine depth to the narrative: a serene, folktale-ish cadence that feels timeless. Moreover, Sankofa isn’t just a symbol; she’s a heartbreakingly real character who must conquer loneliness and fear, and gradually learn to control her gifts. I especially liked her tender friendship with the fox who has followed her all these years, and I cried a little at the scene where, at age 14, she gets her first period, with no mother to help. A sympathetic stranger gives her sanitary pads and fresh clothing.

Who is Sankofa? To teenagers in Robotown, she is a “superhero” because her anti-tech ethos renders her resistant to being spied on and controlled by the Robocop. Or maybe a goddess: “I’m strong like Artemis,” she tells herself, citing her favorite from a beloved childhood book, World Mythology. Whether Marvel superhero, Greek deity or “Death’s Adopted Daughter,” as she is known in the legends that travel through Ghana, Sankofa is, first and foremost, a young woman who embraces her power. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on January 22, 2021

Remote Control
by Nnedi Okorafor

  • Publication Date: January 19, 2021
  • Genres: Adventure, Fiction, Science Fiction
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Tordotcom
  • ISBN-10: 125077280X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250772800