Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control mixes West African folk tales with a sci-fi mystery in a futuristic version of Ghana, as a young girl finds a meteor and gains a deadly power
20 January 2021
WHAT if you could become invincible, resistant to everything from bullets to disease? Nnedi Okorafor explores this idea in her novella Remote Control, but with a dark twist: her protagonist’s invincibility comes at the cost of other human lives.
The story follows a child in Wulugu, a town in northern Ghana, whose life takes a drastic turn after she discovers a strange, green, glowing object that falls from the sky during a meteor shower. Fatima, once a sickly child who experienced regular bouts of malaria, is transformed into Sankofa – a girl who will soon become notorious far beyond her home town for her terrifying ability to evade death and take life.
As Sankofa starts discovering her power, the story temporarily feels light and playful. We are reminded that she is just a child and has no idea what she is wielding, like Peter Parker after he is bitten by a radioactive spider in the Spider-Man films. But Sankofa is soon perceived as more of a villain than a superhero.
Her first casualties are insects, like malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Her skin glows green and they die before they can bite her. Then she kills a wasp, egged-on by her brother. Their games soon reveal the terrible consequences of her power, leading Sankofa on a journey away from Wulugu as she tries to understand her unique ability and to gain control of it.
In the process, she faces profound loneliness, because people avoid her out of fear. We see Sankofa grow up and start to use her abilities to try to help people, as well as in self-defence. “I only take life when people ask me to, when people are sick and in too much pain to live. The word is euthanasia… or when people threaten my life,” she explains.
“Remote Control is thrilling and surprising. There is definitely room for the story to continue”
Okorafor imagines a futuristic Ghana, which Sankofa travels through as she comes to terms with herself and her power. In one part of the story, she passes through RoboTown, a place where intelligent robots called “robocops” guide traffic on the roads. Announcements are made in Twi, a group of dialects that is widely spoken in parts of Ghana, and mysterious, beetle-like drones hover overhead.
Sankofa soon realises that the drones are watching her. She starts to suspect it has something to do with her power, and with a US corporation called LifeGen that recently set up in Ghana. She and the reader soon learn she is part of something larger than herself.
To me, Remote Control felt like a combination of West African folklore and a sci-fi thriller. The colourful imagery of Ghana and the somewhat cautionary tale of Sankofa reminded me of the Anansi stories – Ghanaian folk tales about a trickster that could take the shape of a spider, which I recall from my childhood – but with a tantalising sci-fi mystery woven through it.
Sankofa is a Twi word that translates as “go back and get it”, which refers to learning from the past. That idea is also symbolised by a bird with its head turned backwards. In Remote Control, Sankofa must eventually return to her home town to find out more about her power and eventually use her strength to try to save the world from destruction.
I love a good mystery and Remote Control is thrilling and surprising all the way through. Even the book’s ending comes suddenly and unexpectedly. I think there is definitely room for the story to continue and I very much hope it does.
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