Binti and Mental Trajectories
In Nnedi Okorafor's novella, Binti, a teenage girl leaves her planet for the first time. It's science fiction and imagines new technology, culture, and ways of thinking. I'm interested in how Okorafor makes us comprehend what is necessarily "beyond" the mental grasp of a contemporary reader.
First, it's not a matter of dumbing down the ideas or making them seem simple. Because if that happened, we would necessarily lose the wonder of it—it would become easy. When the unfathomable is fathomed, it's sort of not unfathomable any more, right?
Instead, Okorafor uses mental trajectories and, well, math to stretch the reader's comprehension, making us almost understand a thing, making us sense it without quite seeing it. In this way a concept that is otherwise beyond understanding can be experienced without destroying the impossibility of it.
Yet they were girls who knew what I meant when I spoke of "treeing." We sat in my room (because, having so few travel items, mine was the emptiest) and challenged each other to look out at the stars and imagine the most complex equation and then split it in half and then in half again and again. When you do math fractals long enough, you kick yourself into treeing just enough to get lost in the shallows of the mathematical sea. None of us would have made it into university if we couldn't tree, but it's not easy. We were the best and we pushed each other to get closer to "God."
Creating a trajectory is a great way to engage the reader's brain. Inertia keeps us moving in a particular direction even after the written words have stopped describing it. This is why we don't need absolutely every detail to understand a plot or a character—our brains follow the patterns established and fill in the gaps appropriately. As writers, we often use this knowledge of how brains work to tell stories more efficiently, using fewer words, and also as a way to increase the reader's investment in the tale.
But what about using trajectories to examine what can't otherwise be described? That's what's happening here.
Consider the relatively easy trajectory created by the mention of "shallows." When we encounter that word, we dip our toe into something, shallowly, but we can't help imagining, if only vaguely, the depths beneath the shallows. That's a mental trajectory.
A trajectory is also evoked in that mention of the stars. They're supposed to be far, far away, yet in this instance we feel that they are near the girls. (The scene takes place in a spaceship.) The trajectory creates a sense, in the reader, of that middle ground—we intuit the journey and its vastness.
And then, of course, there is the progression of nature to science and science to magic (or science fiction, i.e. technology that we can't yet believe). The reminder that science starts in nature (trees, stars, seas) makes our brain follow that trajectory to expand beyond science, to wonder what's next—the discoveries that don't yet exist in our world.
But the trajectory I find most profound, the one that creates a state of real wonder in my brain, is encapsulated in the concept of "treeing."
First, look at the stage Okorafor sets for the treeing. We have a group of teenagers, hanging out in a dorm-like setting, bored, and "challenging" (daring?) each other to do this thing. What does that evoke? Perhaps drugs of some sort? The subtext makes it pretty clear that these girls are getting high.
So we know something about how the experience feels. But that's not the same as being able to picture the thing they are doing. How can we visualize or know the sensation of a process too advanced for our brains?
Even if we can't experience "treeing"—or reach a complete understanding of it—a particular trajectory takes us very close to the experience.
Math is such a great conduit to this trippy meditative state. Okorafor leads me there with "the most complex equation"—I can start with whatever equation seems most complex to me—"and then split it in half and then in half again and again." So my brain inches, bit by bit, past what I know, into what I don't.
And this is likely to work no matter the reader's relationship with math because almost every reader can understand it enough to not understand it. There's a point in mathematics where what was easy becomes less so, where it starts to overwhelm. That point is different—long division, calculus, the seriously advanced stuff I can't even name—but it exists for everyone. This means that just about any brain, no matter its mathematical competency, can first imagine the type of math that is understandable to it, follow that graspable math to the last possible place it gets it and then continue the trajectory beyond what is understood. We don't fully understand that "beyond," but we can sort of feel the shape of it. Thus it is still unimaginable and also held in our brains.
It might be tempting to give a very specific equation—some jumble of letters and numbers, superscripts and radicals—and for another purpose I'd probably like that. But I think in this case, letting me grab hold at whatever spot seems "most complex" to me works really well. The specificity of splitting that equation then takes over so each mind reaches the same place regardless of where it started.
I also love the decision to call it "treeing" because it gives us such a concrete image or shape—the tree, the branching, the splitting off again and again—fractals. We get this picture even if we don't understand the process. It's visual and tactile and creates a solid something to hold onto as our brains follow a trajectory to the wild ideas of what "treeing" means. Even if we can't quite grasp "treeing," we have a shape—a sort of mold—to put the ungraspable bits into. As our brain moves into this space or shape, the image of the tree becomes the shadow of what we can't quite understand.
So we can see it and not see it simultaneously—the unfathomed is fathomed without become fathomable. That's where wonder is located—according to my theory, at least.
It's likely that those versed in science fiction are already familiar with this technique. However, it's a brilliant one for all kinds of writers. It's not just in the case of science fiction that we want to create a sense of wonder. Many characters experience phenomena—completely realistic phenomena—that is strange to the reader and must remain so. Starting with a known entry point and stretching the brain into new territory is a great way to create and maintain this sensation.
Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this summer: Writing the Apocalypse, The Ins and Outs of Publishing in Literary Journals, Beneath the Surface: Exploring Subtext, and the Online Summer Sampler. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.