TW: childhood trauma, violence toward children, grief, animal abuse, violence and death, colonialism
Nnedi Okorafor is here and she is not here to play. Remote Control is the African futurist story of Sankofa, a young girl in Ghana in the near future who wanders from town to town in search of a lost treasure from the skies, accompanied by a fox and a cat. People call her the Adopted Daughter of Death for her ability to cause the death of anyone in her vicinity through seemingly supernatural powers. But where do these powers really come from, and what is her purpose?
It’s difficult to get farther into the plot of this book because first, it’s mostly a character study with some great social commentary thrown in, and second, what plot does happen falls firmly in spoiler territory.
At the beginning of the book Sankofa is visiting a village where all the adults and most of the children are scared of her powers, each telling competing myths about Sankofa’s supposedly mystical background. The book follows her attempts to make friends, right past wrongs, and figure out her purpose. Along the way, her past life is slowly revealed to us, and it’s a life filled with magical realism in a country with disturbingly powerful corporations and corrupt politicians.
Sankofa developed the power to cause death at a very young age when she found a seed that fell from the sky. The seed was taken from her, but her power remains, endangering everyone she loves. For several years she wanders the countryside, sometimes alone and sometimes with company, as she learns to control her power and as she seeks to be reunited with its source and understand it. In many ways, it’s a classic fantasy quest in a futuristic setting. (It’s certainly not a romance. There’s no romantic storyline, and some people die.)
Carrie: I loved how this book set up a world in which the very traditional, the very modern (in the sense of our present day) and the very futuristic exist literally side by side.
Shana: The worldbuilding in this quiet little book really sucked me in. Sankofa travels through powerful cities, wealthy villages, and sleepy rural communities. I love Ghana, and every place she visits felt vaguely familiar, at least until the giant robots show up. I can always count on Okorafor’s books to present a realistic and complex African setting, and Remote Control hits that out of the park.
Carrie: And the robots etc feel like very natural, probable extensions of what we already have, that make sense for the communities in which they exist. I thought the traffic robot in one village was especially interesting because the story begins with a traffic accident that could have been prevented by such a robot, so I can see why its existence would be such a big deal. I can also see how the attractiveness of these technologies keeps people in a kind of dependence on colonialist mega-corporations, so the more far-out aspects of the world and the plot are already grounded in a realistic context. I also enjoyed how the worldbuilding both honored traditional ways of life and challenged any ideas of life in Ghana as a singular, monolithic experience.
I also appreciated how Sankofa dealt with her trauma and developed a sense of entitlement alongside her alienation. Her sense of loneliness mingled with a certain pride in being alone.
Shana: Yep, and I liked the way the story talked about fear. At the start of the book, we don’t know how Sankofa got her powers, where she comes from, and why she’s traveling. But we do see pretty quickly that people are terrified of her. And she confidently revels in her power. Sankofa’s a young person, but she’s also a legend. I guess being able to kill people on command will do that.
I thought it was very interesting to have a main character who is both an innocent child, and inured to making good people afraid. There are times that Sankofa seemed to enjoy the terror of adults, and other moments where her loneliness and moral code shone through. I think readers who like mysterious and morally ambiguous heroines might enjoy this.
Carrie: Right? Her power gives her a sense of autonomy and purpose but also a lot of internal contradictions. She’s hungry for peer friendship and for parenting, but revels in being in charge. She has spent so much time alone that she doesn’t know how to relate to others and of course most others can’t relate to her because of their own fear. She is always grieving but also protects herself with some mental barriers that keep her numb most of the time. She’s a kid with both too much power and too little.
Shana: I did wish that we got to spend more time with the other characters in the story. Sankofa would have these really poignant conversations with the people she meets on her quest, and then poof! We’d never see those suckers again. At one point she builds a close relationship with an older woman who stands up to organized criminals, and I really wanted to learn more about that woman’s backstory. It reminded me a bit of This is How You Lose the Time War, another book with slowly unfurling worldbuilding where you really only get to know the main character(s).
Carrie: My sense of this book is that it’s a good story to read multiple times. On this first reading, I was consumed with finding out what happens next, but in reading for plot I think I missed a lot of the book’s actual content.
Shana: The book has many intersecting mysteries. I think I read the whole thing in one day. It’s a smart novella that made me think, and left me feeling cautiously hopeful after following the heroine through loss and redemption. Even though it’s a story about a girl who kills people—sometimes accidentally, and sometimes on purpose—I didn’t find it to be overwhelmingly depressing.
Carrie: Same! It firmly placed me in the Bad Decisions Book Club – but now I want to read it again and see not just what happens but just what everything means. I didn’t fully realize how kickass the ending is until just now when I re-read it.
Readers should be prepared for some ambiguity with regard to what happens in the end. It’s a short but haunting story, like a brief but vivid dream that sticks with you after you wake up, and you’ll probably want to start over and experience it all again.