Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Remote Control

Author: Nnedi Okorafor

Genre: Science Fiction

Year: 2021

In Sankofa’s years on the road, she’d learned that people were complicated. They wore masks and guises to protect or hide their real selves. They reinvented themselves. They destroyed themselves. They built on themselves.

The day Fatima forgot her name, everyone in her town died a mysterious death. Since then she’s been known with the name Sankofa, a name that doesn’t mean anything to anyone but her.
Everywhere she goes, death follows; it’s not by chance that rumours say death adopted her. Followed by her fox companion, she walks on, searching for the one thing that started it all, in the hopes of understanding what happened to her and all the people she loved.

A closer look

Remote Control is a strange creature of a book. While the concept and the writing are top-notch, the resolution itself left me wanting.

We begin the story with Sankofa entering a village. People hide from her and pray they’ll be left alone, but the moment she chooses a house, she’s treated with the utmost respect. Food, drinks, and new clothes are laid out for her. We also learn that she can glow green at will, but right now we still don’t know what that means. It’s interesting that the novel starts in the middle of something, and then takes us back a few years to find out how it all began.

We then learn that Fatima was a sickly child, that she loved to climb the tree in her courtyard, and that one day, after a meteor shower, the tree gifted her with a small wooden box containing a smooth seed. When the seed is taken away from her, the story really starts.

Fast forward a few years, Sankofa doesn’t even remember her old name, but she can feel the presence of the seed and is looking for it. All the while, we keep getting a few snippets of her past and we learn what really happened to the people of her city, what are her powers, and how she learns to use them. We learn how the legends start, and how she moulds herself into them.

The story takes a sharp U-turn toward the middle, and that was the moment it lost a bit of steam for me. The main objective had been very clear until then; now what? I couldn’t figure out what else was there to do for the protagonist, so I kept following her gingerly, waiting for something else to happen. I won’t spoil anything, but it was a bit underwhelming in my opinion. It also feels a bit unfinished, but I guess that was the point?

Let’s talk about Sankofa’s world for a moment. It took me a while to understand that the story is set in the future – actually, it was thanks to a reference to an unnamed viral infection “back in 2020”, which made me snicker a little.
Still, the world itself feels a bit barebone. Aside from some new technology that is mentioned almost in passing, there in no sense of wonder on that side. The world is pretty similar to what it looks like now, so the story could have been set pretty much in the present times, or even 20-30 years ago, and I don’t think it would have made a big difference.

Sankofa/Fatima is also the only character we really interact with for more than five pages straight. While she’s really well developed and explored, it feels a bit sad that all of her relationships with other people are so brief and surface-level. And even though she has some kind of arc as a protagonist, by the end of the book we still have no idea of what really happened to her, or why. I didn’t want a full-fledged explanation, but I would have liked just a little more information.

Overall, I really enjoyed the reading experience, but when I think back on it I’m not a hundred percent sure why. A lot of the story and setting is nebulous, a lot of things are left completely unexplained, and we don’t even get close to understanding what Sankofa really is. I did like the way she became a kind of myth, but why?

I was also somehow expecting this to be a little more on the fantasy side, what with the protagonist supposedly being the adopted daughter of Death and all that. I still think it’s worth a read, and I’m sure a lot of people are going to love it; for me, it was missing something.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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