A Tunnel in the Sky

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Remote Control
by Nnedi Okorafor

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 19, 2020

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Set in near-future Ghana, Nnedi Okorafor's Remote Control is another novella from tor.com. It will be published in one month, January 19, but I received an e-ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I haven't found any information about a possible sequel, but if there is I will want to read it. However, it's a complete enough story to stand on its own.

Fatima Okwan is a young girl living in the village of Wulugu on her father's shea tree farm. When she is four her happiest times are climbing the shea tree just behind their house, gazing at the stars. Her father teaches her the common names of the constellations, but Fatima prefers her own variations of the names. She also draws patterns in the ground around the tree which match the visions she sees in the heavens, which prompts her father to nickname her "Starwriter." When she is five her older brother yells at her to come outside and see the "meaty shower." She climbs her special tree while everyone else is on the other side of the house, so she is the only one who sees something land near the tree. She picks it up, surprised it is cool enough to do so, and also surprised when a green, oily substance comes out of the "seed" and soaks into her skin. She buries the seed, but shortly after that the tree's roots push it back to the surface, although now it is in a small wooden box. She keeps it in her room, but word gets out, prompting government agents to come looking for it. Before that happens though, Fatima notices her skin occasionally glows with a green light, especially when she is hurt or under stress. Her brother wants to test that, so he tells her to grab a wasp, let it sting her. She can't control it otherwise, at least until she is older and has had more experience. Unfortunately, the experiences she has to endure are almost too tragic to bear.

I won't provide too many details, except to say she gains another nickname, the "Adopted Daughter of the Angel of Death." She loses the memory of her own name, although she can remember her family, so her brother's wood carving of a bird provides her a new name, Sankofa. Another aspect of her condition causes her touch to nullify the power of any mechanical or electronic device, whether that be car, phone, computer, or robotic drone. She is on her own for several years, her reputation preceding her wherever she goes. Most fear her, some implore her to use her powers to ease the suffering of family members. She has both good and bad experiences when she comes to RobotTown, whose RoboCop is puzzled by a person it cannot track, since she doesn't carry any electronics or have any implants. One of the RoboCop's drones constantly follows her after that, which leads to another tragic incident. The opening chapter is set later in her life, although I am not sure if it is between the time she left RobotTown and her return to Wulugu, or after that.

A combination of science fiction and fantasy. New tech, such as "jelli tellies," televisions made from a malleable gel that can be stretched to whatever size needed; self-driving cars and freight trucks even in remote, rural Africa; robots and drones operated by AI consciousnesses. Yet amidst all the new wonders, still the traditional values of family and village solidarity, and faith in Allah. Even though she scares most people, Sankofa is still able to elicit compassion from some she encounters, who in turn help her to control and suppress her powers. One thing she feared was that Allah had forsaken her, but a friend, an imam's wife, assured her that could not possibly happen. It was just fate that caused her to be at the right (wrong?) place when the magic fell from the sky. Sankofa has to decide whether to abandon her powers or turn them toward the good. She eventually makes it back to her hometown, to her family's house that is now completely empty. Her favorite tree is still there, grown bigger over the years. She buries the seed among its roots again, hoping to divorce herself from its influence, although she has learned to control her powers somewhat. Either she's done with that part of her life, or maybe she will lead others in learning how to use the power. It is possible other seeds fell in other towns.


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Nnedi Okorafor

January 19, 2021

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