The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor. ★★★
The Book of Phoenix is the prequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which I haven’t read. It’s possible that this was a mistake, but there were enough oddities regarding the ending that I think it may be more to do with the book itself. It’s science fiction with a very low emphasis on the word “science.” Are you familiar with some of the bizarre, loosely science based speculations of comic books? Well, The Book of Phoenix is most closely related to that comic book science fiction. The X-Men movies are the best comparison I can think of.
The Book of Phoenix starts at some unspecified time in the future, after the fall of the apocalypse. An old man finds a cave of digital technology which contains a data file – The Book of Phoenix. He begins to listen.
The Book of Phoenix is the tale of Phoenix, a woman genetically engineered by the American government and kept in Tower Seven in New York with other modified people. She lives a constrained life within the tower but never considers escaping until her love, Saeed, dies. When Phoenix rebels, everything changes.
The majority of the experimental prisoners in the towers are descended from Africans. In this way, The Book of Phoneix recalls American’s long history of ethically corrupt experiments on black people, from the Tuskegee experiments to the use of Henrietta Lack’s cells (which is actually mentioned in the book itself). Fittingly, the tone of The Book of Phoenix is unabashedly angry.
However, the treatment of race is the high point in what’s otherwise a mess of a book. The plot line felt muddled, and the line to the world being destroyed felt unclear and contrived. The plot is littered with slight holes and inconsistencies. For instance, why did Big Eye (the organization which created her) give Phoenix whatever information she wanted, even on the Towers themselves? Phoenix’s explanations of “they didn’t care” and “they underestimated us” make little sense. Why would she of all people be exempt from security clearances? I’ve heard that The Book of Phoenix was originally a novella. Perhaps it was clearer in that format.
At some point, something about the way The Book of Phoenix was depicting gender started to niggle at me. All of her principal allies were male, and the only reoccurring female characters besides Phoenix were an evil scientist and a teenage girl who has two scenes, one of which is so Phoenix can save her from being raped. Then one of the male leads makes a slut shaming comment about some other women, although he has sex with Phoenix something like twenty pages later. However, it was at the very end where the books problems with gender moved from subtle to outright.
“If she had been a male, she’d have controlled her anger, channeled it into righting the world’s wrongs, and probably not sprouted troublesome wings.”
The line above is part of an entire paragraph about women’s emotions. Remember when I said the line to the world being destroyed was unclear? According to this paragraph, it’s because women can’t control their emotions.
Even setting aside the gender fail, there were still issues with the ending. For one, the man from the post-apocalyptic future starts literally quoting from Barthes’s Death of the Author. If her goal was to comment on how stories can be shaped and changed, it can be done without actually quoting Barthes.
Going into The Book of Phoenix, I was vaguely planning on reading Who Fears Death at some point in the future. By the ending, I was reconsidering. However, other reviews say that the two books are very different, so… who knows? Maybe I should still try Who Fears Death. The Book of Phoenix, on the other hand, is not one I’ll ever be revisiting. While I do appreciate how it drew upon America’s racial history, I’m not sure it’s a book I’d recommend.