JOINT REVIEW: Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor
I’ve enjoyed a few of Nnedi Okorafor’s books in the past, particularly the Akata Witch series of YA novels, which take place in Nigeria. I liked her Hugo and Nebula-winning novella, Binti, too. So, when the ARC of her new novella, Remote Control, became available, I was eager to read it. Jayne read it too and we decided to write up a joint review. — Janine
Janine: Remote Control takes place in a slightly futuristic Ghana and opens with fourteen-year-old Sankofa’s arrival at a village. Although the villagers have never met her, they know of Sankofa. Her name precedes her; she is believed to be Death’s daughter for her ability to emit a green light that kills everyone in its vicinity.
Sankofa knocks on a well-to-do family’s door and is, of course, allowed in—no one wants to offend her. She demands food and clothing and is given both. As she leaves, the family’s gateman, whose brother’s wish for a mercy killing she fulfilled, rages against her and shoots her. Her green light evaporates the bullet and leaves only one bone of the man.
Sankofa travels on foot because her touch destroys all technological inventions (why she never rides a bicycle instead is a question that goes unanswered). She is on her way to an unnamed place. There’s a lot Sankofa doesn’t know or understand about herself and how her power works. She remembers that she once had a family but she doesn’t know her own name.
The next chapter flashes back ten years and we meet Sankofa, then called Fatima, as a child of four. Her warm, loving family owns a shea tree farm. There is a shea tree next to the house that young Fatima loves to climb. She likes to look at the stars and then draw what she sees in the earth near the tree. Her designs are intricate and remarkable; they take up the entire yard. A fox whom she names Movenpick is drawn to the tree as well.
One night, when she is five, Fatima / Sankofa watches a meteor shower and something crashes to the foot of the tree. It sinks into the soil and a box emerges from the earth. The box contains a seed Fatima instantly feels a connection to. She keeps the box that contains it safely in her room.
In the year that follows, the malaria that used to plague Fatima goes away. She and her brother discover that when she’s hurt, she begins to glow green, but they don’t know what the glow can do. She still has the seed and loves it. She knows it is meant for her and when her father sells it to a rich politician, she is upset.
Another year goes by and when Fatima is seven, a day comes when she is hit by a car. Her new ability is triggered and she inadvertently kills the entire village, her own family included. That’s when she forgets her real name and becomes a vagabond, with only Movenpick to accompany her.
Sankofa’s initial goal is to follow the seed, whose movements she can sense. But the seed keeps moving away; whenever she gets close to its last location, someone takes it to another place.
Sankofa’s life is friendless but eventually, she finds hope and shelter. But will her deadly power allow her to hang on to them, or is she doomed to wander forever?
What did you think of this book, Jayne?
Jayne: The writing is good. The setting is firmly rooted in West Africa and fascinating to read.
She walked up the empty dirt road, now wearing a brand-new blue and white wrapper, matching top and headband, all made of soft, weather-treated BioSilk. She held her head up and looked into the night with the confidence of a leopard. Sankofa liked to imagine that she was a Mamprusi princess walking the moonlit road toward her long-lost queendom. If she had to guess, her mother would have been proud of the way she chose to carry herself . . . despite it all.
The main character moves through joy, happiness, anger, fear, and heartache. The ability she gains is scary, horrifying, tragic, yet also at times a gift for those who desperately want it. That it is first wielded by a seven-year-old who has no idea how to control it is terrifying. That sort of reminds me of a scene from “The Killing Fields” in which young Khmer Rouge children, with seemingly no real awareness of the reality what they’re doing, are given the power of life or death over adults. (Content Warning) The initial episode when Fatima’s power is triggered and it kills the entire village is disturbing not only because it happened and how it affects Fatima but also because of the graphic description of the corpses.
Janine: I agree with your description of the writing but my reading experience was not as emotional. The premise—that a child would survive traveling alone on foot for years and would call the shots like she did—was hard to buy from the beginning and for that reason I didn’t have a strong emotional reaction to the opener. I mostly felt sorry for Sankofa, uneasy with and put off by the aspects you mention.
Jayne: But we didn’t see her early years of traveling on her own and how she got what she needed to stay alive. By the opening of the novella, she’s learned that she has to demand what she needs and her power ensures that people will give it to her. Plus that one time she tried to be accepted, it didn’t work for her. It’s even generally known what drink she likes – orange Fanta served at room temperature. Note she only asks for basics: food, a shower, clothing, and shoes. She’s grown somewhat of a shell around her emotions but there are also hints of sadness because she knows her interactions with most people are based on their fear of her.
Janine: You’re right about the traveling, I misspoke. And yes, she only asked for basics but it still seemed off to me somehow, the way she chose to come into the house and eat with their kids, etc. She was trespassing over a boundary. That was part of the point of the story—that her power created a boundary between her and others—but at first her behavior seemed intrusive. The way she demanded clothes and adults had them immediately made me wary and I didn’t like that she announced her arrival by saying “Death has come to visit.” I’m not saying these were bad authorial choices, just that they caused me to keep part of myself aloof as I read. The horror aspects also contributed to that.
Jayne: The opening section in which we see what Fatima has become contrasts well with the view we get of Fatima’s home and family before she becomes “Death’s Daughter.” We can see all she lost and how her life has changed. In a later bittersweet scene, the aroma of coffee reminds Sankofa of her father and how he would drink a cup every morning.
Janine: That was lovely and poignant. I also liked her connection to her family through the use of shea butter as a moisturizer. She didn’t remember her parents and brother’s names or even her own, but she knew that shea butter reminded her of home.
The early chapters after the intro were a terrific portrait of a loving family. It was easy to like Fatima in this section. I’ve said before that loner characters are harder for me to connect with so this part and another section in which Sankofa forms a connection were my favorite parts of the novella.
When it comes to the intro itself, the first chapter where we see how Sankofa lives alone and survives at the age of fourteen, I think the narrative lost more than it gained. Almost the entire book is a flashback. Because we know (based on the first chapter) what Sankofa’s future holds, the chain of events that lead to that lacks suspense and stakes.
Jayne: I liked the folktale aspects mixed with Africanfuturism.
Janine: Yes, that was good. I liked the little myths that people made up about how Sankofa became Death’s daughter.
Jayne: But honestly there are many, many times when I was left wondering what the hell I just read. Even Sankofa doesn’t know where her powers came from. That aspect – where did the power come from – is never truly explained. And who or what is LifeGen? Are they a cause of or merely seeking to exploit her power?
Jayne: Okay that makes sense about LifeGen and would tie into the statements characters made that Africans shouldn’t be test subjects. As to the source of the powers, I wish there had least been some more concrete hints at possible explanations. Then the reader could mentally elaborate on them if they wanted or just accept that there is no explanation and keep reading.
Janine: There was a theory that:
I had other unanswered questions, too. How could a four-year-old draw such detailed and beautiful images in the dirt? Why does Movenpick follow her?
I don’t even understand why she and the novella were called Remote Control, do you?
Jayne: I didn’t understand the images either and just went with the fact that she had this artistic ability.
Janine: I did at first, too, but then it was implied that:
That made it harder to buy.
Jayne: As for the name Remote Control, from an article on African witchcraft that I found online, it seems to refer to how people see and feel about modern witchcraft powers. That instead of witches using old fashioned charms or spells for what people see as witchcraft or sorcery, they’ve gone high tech and now use “remote control” power over them.
Janine: I thought that too, but I also wondered if maybe
Jayne: I never understood Movenpick, either. I even looked for African folktales about foxes to see if there was some symbolism about him that I was missing.
The end was too rushed and left me totally confused. I needed more – more knowledge, more understanding. Is this the start of a series, like Binti? Because if it’s meant to be a standalone story, it really doesn’t, IMO. Is LifeGen trying to take over the world with these seeds and the deathly power they hold?
Janine: I agree the ending was rushed.
Janine:But also, to me the novella read almost like a vignette. A vignette is a slice-of-life, a pulling back of the curtain to reveal a person’s circumstances and what their emotional life is like. In a story, something changes. Here (taking the first chapter into account) only a little does.
This is another thing that makes me feel that it would have been good to start with the second chapter. Then Sankofa’s growth and experiences might have felt like they were leading somewhere. Her future wouldn’t have been a foregone conclusion and might have felt more like a story then.
I’m going to include some of my husband’s thoughts here because they are pertinent. His other main issue (besides the lack of explanation for Sankofa’s powers) was that Sankofa didn’t have a strong goal, something she wanted and pursued. At first she tried to find the seed, but this was half-hearted. It wasn’t portrayed as a strong desire and a driving force. And then that goal dissipates.
I told my husband that in my view, Sankofa’s real goal (again, all in the flashback) was to find a home, a place to belong, where she would be liked instead of hated and feared. He said—and I think this was right on the money—that if that was her true goal it could have been articulated and emphasized more. Sankofa could have pursued this desire with everything she had. That would have made him care more. I agree it would have added a lot.
Jayne: I would disagree about her initial searching for the seed.
Janine: That later turn weakened the novella some.
Jayne: Yeah, I think you’re right about that and about what was Sankofa’s final goal. The end of the story seemed to sort of rush to a conclusion that didn’t make much sense to me and left me with those unanswered questions.
Overall, even though I liked Okorafor’s writing, this novella ended up not working for me. I do like how she grounded the story in West Africa, how she had Sankofa and an older female character stand up to men who wanted them to “step back like women do so men can take like they do,” and how it depicted Fatima’s happy childhood with her loving family.
Janine: Yes, I agree. That was all great. I loved Sankofa’s memory of her father’s sister, too, and the way that sustained her at a difficult time. I also liked the light inclusion of new technologies too, like the jelly-tellies, stretchable television sets that could be adjusted in size, or the reason one town was called RoboTown (I’ll let readers discover why).
Jayne: But the ending…yeah, that was too confusing in a “what did I just read?” way. I’d give it a C+.
Janine: Maybe because I’m comparing the author to herself and the Akata books are so much better, it’s a C/C+ for me.