The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

Next up in this season’s exploration of transhumanist narratives, we turn to a dystopian future imagined by Nnedi Okorafor.

Series note: The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Who Fears Death, which I haven’t read, and I found it works just fine as a standalone.

The Book of Phoenix

I’d never known any other place. The 28th floor of Tower 7 was my home. Yesterday, I realized it was a prison, too. I probably should have suspected something. The two-hundred-year-old marble skyscraper had many dark sides to its existence and I knew most of them. There were 39 floors, and on almost every one was an abomination. I was an abomination. I’d read many books and this was clear to me. However, the building was still my home.

Home: a. One’s place of residence. Yes, it was my home.

They gave me all the 3D movies I could watch, but it was the plethora of books that did it for me. A year ago, they gave me an e-reader packed with 700,000 books of all kinds. No matter the topic, I consumed those books voraciously, working my way through over half of them. When it came to information, I was given access to anything I requested. That was part of their research. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

Phoenix is only two years old, but accelerated growth means she has the physical form of a forty-year-old African woman. One of a number of genetically enhanced speciMen, she’s a product of a lengthy and secretive research program into human genetics. As the story begins she’s lived her whole (brief) life in Tower 7, one of a set of such towers distributed across the United States, in which a shady research corporation seems to obey no laws but its own.

The Book of Phoenix is a story of genetic manipulation with an extremely sinister edge. Phoenix and the other speciMen in the Towers are created not to exist as people in their own right, but for the benefits they are expected to provide their creator-owners. For some, that’s by providing body parts and biological samples; in Phoenix’s case, she’s been designed to act as a devastating weapon. Okorafor doesn’t shy away from examining the implications of this new form of slavery, both its amoral corporate roots and its dependence on the deliberate ignorance of the population at large.

But despite the best efforts of her creators, Phoenix has friends, and she cares, and she isn’t going down without a fight. And a weapon with free will and self-determination can cause a great deal of death and destruction when she decides to fight back.

I loved this book from beginning to end. There’s an intriguing framing device which sets things off with a prologue and epilogue that (I infer) link this story into the world of Who Fears Death, which situates the Phoenix’s story in a wider context. In a story that spans continents, and sees Phoenix gradually understanding herself and growing into her powers, The Book of Phoenix shows us the fury and consequent vengeance of an oppressed woman who finds the power to fight back. Fantastically executed and utterly compelling.

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