Math and science guide life in Binti’s technology-rich world. Binti’s father is a skilled maker of astrolabes which, in the world of the novel, are handheld communication devices that also store a person’s entire life history. Binti herself ultimately travels to study math at Oomza Uni, far across the galaxy, on a spaceship that is a genetically engineered living creature. For Binti and for many of her future classmates that she meets on her journey, math and science are almost their own form of spirituality, and in this sense, these fields are overwhelmingly positive. However, once the alien Meduse hijack the ship, killing everyone but Binti and the pilot, Binti gradually discovers that in a university setting, science and math sometimes have a dark and predatory underbelly. While the novella overwhelmingly positions science and math as forces capable of bridging all manner of divides, it also makes it abundantly clear that in order for this to happen, science must be backed with ethics and sensitivity—especially when the subjects of scientific research are living beings.
For Binti, math and science are almost spiritual pursuits. Binti is a “master harmonizer,” which is why she and the Himba are known for their astrolabes—they can connect different currents of energy and channel them into a single device. Though the how and why of this isn’t a major feature of the novella, the way that Binti describes creating new technology and studying math nevertheless shows that for her and her people, math and science are their pride and joy. Fortunately for Binti, this isn’t a quality that’s inherent only to the Himba. Though her future classmates on the ship—all of whom are Khoush, the lighter-skinned, powerful ethnic group in Binti’s world—initially greet her with suspicion and disdain for being Himba, they’re all able to put this aside when they learn just how talented of a mathematician Binti is. Binti and her future classmates spend hours treeing—doing mental math exercises with complex equations. This time spent together, focusing on math, is a positive experience and makes the case that math and education have the ability to bring people together despite their differences. Indeed, a shared love of science or technology is what makes Binti human, not just Himba, in the eyes of her classmates.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that Binti and her new friends are interested primarily in math and creating inanimate technology. Astrolabes and the “transporters” that Binti uses to ferry her suitcases to the station are, within the world of the novel, neutral pursuits, if not positive: they help people perform tasks and connect with each other. Though Binti is well aware that Oomza Uni is the epicenter of weapons research in the galaxy, she still doesn’t fully grasp that it’s possible to harness science and technology—the very things that give her life and keep her connected to her home and culture—for questionably unethical purposes. As far as she’s concerned, Oomza Uni is going to be a utopia where she can connect with others like her and receive an education that will allow her to give back to her community. It’s therefore shocking for Binti when, in the days after the Meduse hijack her ship, she finally learns why the Meduse are headed for Oomza Uni in the first place: researchers at Oomza Uni severed and stole the chief Meduse’s stinger and are using it for weapons research, and the chief understandably wants this important part of his body back.
The fact that researchers would steal the chief Meduse’s stinger drives home for Binti that while the Meduse may be seen as powerful antagonists in the galaxy, they’re still seen as fundamentally not human. Their lives, their customs, and even their bodies are, to researchers at Oomza Uni, not worth respecting—instead, various aspects of Meduse culture and Meduse bodies are seemingly there for the taking. Through this, Binti begins to see that while Oomza Uni represents a utopia for her, for marginalized races like the Meduse, the entire university system likely looks like an oppressive and nefarious method of choosing who is worthy of being a student—and who, alternatively, is just a subject of scientific curiosity. Through this, it’s possible to read Binti as an allegory for the way in which Western cultures have colonized native peoples and seized their artifacts, sciences, and even their bodies under the auspices of anthropological or scientific research. Research, the novel suggests, isn’t an appropriate excuse for theft, bodily harm, and dehumanization—the subjects of this “research” deserve the same respect and kindness as anyone else.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the Meduse agree to trust Binti and allow her to advocate for them to the heads of the different Oomza Uni departments rather than simply turning to violence. And the result sets an example of what the novel suggests should happen to remedy years of unethical research: the university quickly and willingly hands over the chief’s stinger with an apology and an invitation for Okwu, a young Meduse, to attend the university as a gesture of friendship and goodwill. By opening the university to a Meduse, Oomza Uni makes way for Okwu to take control of how the Meduse are thought of by the rest of the galaxy. Even more importantly, admitting Okwu to Oomza Uni makes it clear that the university now wants to recognize the humanity and dignity of all beings in the galaxy. Through this, the novella makes the point that while science, math, and the education system can connect people and forge important alliances, it’s also essential to crack down on unethical and dehumanizing research practices. It’s also important to pay attention to who is left out of the system, bring those individuals in, and set the precedent for treating them like fellow beings worthy of respect and empathy.
Science, Humanity, and the Ethics of Research ThemeTracker
Science, Humanity, and the Ethics of Research Quotes in Binti
We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otjize is red land. Here in the launch port, most were Khoush and a few other non-Himba. Here, I was an outsider; I was outside. “What was I thinking?” I whispered.
“There is a reason why our people do not go to that university. Oomza Uni wants you for its own gain, Binti. You go to that school and you become its slave.” I couldn’t help but contemplate the possible truth in her words. I hadn’t even gotten there yet and already I’d given them my life.
Inside, I smiled. Government security guards were only educated up to age ten, yet because of their jobs, they were used to ordering people around. And they especially looked down on people like me. Apparently, they were the same everywhere, no matter the tribe. He had no idea what a “computative apparatus” was, but he didn’t want to show that I, a poor Himba girl, was more educated than he. Not in front of all these people.
The people on the ship weren’t Himba, but I soon understood that they were still my people. I stood out as Himba, but the commonalities shined brighter. I made friends quickly. And by the second week in space, they were good friends.
“I couldn’t help it,” he said, his fingertips reddish with my otjize.
“You can’t control yourself?” I snapped.
“You have exactly twenty-one,” he said. “And they’re braided in tessellating triangles. Is it some sort of code?”
I wanted to tell him that there was a code, that the pattern spoke my family’s bloodline, culture, and history. That my father had designed the code and my mother and aunties had shown me how to braid it into my hair.
We’d all been taught this Meduse form of killing in history class. The Khoush built the lessons into history, literature, and culture classes across several regions. Even my people were required to learn about it, despite the fact that it wasn’t our fight. The Khoush expected everyone to remember their greatest enemy and injustice. They even worked Meduse anatomy and rudimentary technology into mathematics and science classes.
My brothers had all just laughed and dismissed the idea. My parents said nothing, not even congratulations. Their silence was answer enough. Even my best friend Dele. He congratulated and told me that I was smarter than everyone at Oomza Uni, but then he’d laughed, too. “You cannot go,” he simply said. “We’re Himba. God has already chosen our paths.”
“Evil thing,” I heard the one called Okwu say. Of all the voices, that one I could recognize. It was the angriest and scariest. The voice sounded spoken, not transmitted in my mind. I could hear the vibration of the “v” in “evil” and the hard breathy “th” in “thing.” Did they have mouths?
“In your university, in one of its museums, placed on display like a piece of rare meat is the stinger of our chief,” it said. I wrinkled my face, but said nothing. “Our chief is...” it paused. “We know of the attack and mutilation of our chief, but we do not know how it got there. We do not care. We will land on Oomza Uni and take it back.”
Several of the human professors looked at each other and chuckled. One of the large insectile people clicked its mandibles. I frowned, flaring my nostrils. It was the first time I’d received treatment similar to the way my people were treated on Earth by the Khoush. In a way, this set me at ease. People were people, everywhere. These professors were just like anyone else.
“You’ve never seen the Meduse, either. Only studied them...from afar. I know. I have read about them too.” I stepped forward. “Or maybe some of you or your students have studied the stinger you have in the weapons museum up close.”
The spiderlike Haras raised two front legs and spoke in the language of the Meduse and said, “On behalf of all the people of Oomza Uni and on behalf of Oomza University, I apologize for the actions of a group of our own in taking the stinger from you, Chief Meduse. The scholars who did this will be found, expelled, and exiled. Museum specimen of such prestige are highly prized at our university, however such things must only be acquired with permission from the people to whom they belong. [...] We will return it to you immediately.”
I’ll never forget the way the chief’s body went from blue to clear the moment the stinger became a part of it again. Only a blue line remained at the point of demarcation where it had reattached—a scar that would always remind it of what human beings of Oomza Uni had done to it for the sake of research and academics.