Nobody really knows who wrote the Great Book.
Oh, the religious always have answers to explain the unexplainable. Some of them like to say that the goddess Ani wrote the Great Book and made it so that ten men and women who loved stories would find copies of it at the same time. Some of them say a mere woman with ten children transcribed Ani’s words over ten years. Others say some illiterate half-witted farmer wrote it in one night after Ani blessed him. Most believe that the Great Book’s author was a mad yet holy, always always holy, prophet who’d taken refuge in a cave.
What I can tell you is that two hundred years after it all went wrong an old man named Sunuteel was out in the desert. This man was one of those who enjoyed being out there for weeks on end, close to the sun, sand, and desert creatures. The time away from his wife made their time together sweeter. Sunuteel and his wife agreed on this. They were old. They had wisdom.
“Go on,” his wife said with a smile. She took his old rough hand into her equally rough old hand. She was a beautiful woman, and Sunuteel found it easy to look into her eyes. “It is good,” she said. “I need the solitude.”
There had been an especially powerful Ungwa storm and the old nomadic couple had barely survived the dry thundery night of lightning. A bolt had struck near their sturdy tent, setting on fire one of the three stunted palm trees they’d camped beside. His wife had been peeking out of the tent when it happened. Thankfully, she’d blinked at precisely the right moment. She said the tree looked like a woman dancing in flames. Even as Sunuteel dragged her to the center of the tent where they huddled and prayed, his wife felt a presence. She was sure it was a premonition.
The old man was used to his superstitious wife and her odd intuitions. Therefore, he knew his wife would want to be alone to think and ponder and fret. When the storm passed and she gently encouraged him to take a few days to go and see what was out there, he didn’t argue. He took the rolled up goatskin tent and satchel of supplies she handed him and kissed her on the cheek. He didn’t say goodbye because in his tribe “goodbyes” were a curse.
“I leave my chi to keep you company,” he said. Each night he was away, along with her meals, she’d prepare a small plate of food for his personal god until Sunuteel returned. He clipped his portable to his hip, facing the tiny device inside his pocket. After one last, far more prolonged kiss, he walked away from his wife. Did she think an angel was coming to visit her? His wife’s descendants were from the Islamic portion of Old Naija. She said that her father used to tell her all sorts of stories about angels and djinn. She’d passed these magical stories on to their own children as they grew up.
Minutes after leaving, Sunuteel brought out his portable and laughing to himself, called up the virtual screen and typed, “Hussaina, greet her for me when you see her, whether she’s an angel or djinni.” Moments later, his wife Hussaina’s reply popped up on the screen saying what she always said when Sunuteel went off, “And you make sure you bring me back a good story.”
• • •
Two days later, Sunuteel came upon a cave full of computers. A tomb of old old technology from the Black Days, the Times of the Dark People, the Era of the Okeke. This was one of those caves into which panicked Okeke packed thousands of computers just before Ani turned her attention back to the earth. These computers were supposedly used to store huge amounts of information separate from digital repositories called virtual spaces. Little good this did; virtual or physical, it was all dead, forgotten, rotten.
“What am I seeing?” he whispered. “Can this be?”
He pressed a shaky hand to his chest, feeling the strong heartbeat of his strong heart. Standing here, he didn’t feel so old. No, not old at all. This place made him feel young as a babe. Sunuteel, who was Okeke and therefore a descendant of the evil that caused the goddess Ani to bring the deserts, knew of the poisonous Black Days and their most poisonous genius gadgetry. However, he had always wanted to see these ancient computers with his own eyes.
So, he went in.
The cave was cool and it smelled of dust, mineral oil, plastic, wires, and metal. There were ghosts here and Sunuteel shivered from the thought of them. Still, he approached these old machines. This was a story to tell his wife. The third computer that he touched sparked with life. Terrified, he snatched his hand from the “on” pad he’d accidently brushed against and stumbled back. The grey hand-sized box, softly hummed. Then it spoke to the portable clipped inside the pocket of his dusty pants. The portable pinged softly as it wirelessly received a large file from the computer. Sunuteel blinked and then fled from the cave, sure a ghost had touched him.
When he made it back to his small goatskin tent beside a baobab tree, only then did he dare look at his portable. He held the coin-sized device in his palm and brought it to his face, for his eyesight was poor. He squinted at the tiny screen. Next to the file that contained messages from his wife was a black icon in the shape of a bird that seemed to be looking over its shoulder. He tapped it with the tip of his finger and a deep male voice began to speak in . . . English!
It was an audio file. Sunuteel sat back in his tent, grinning with delight. My goodness, he thought. How strange. What are the chances?! He knew this dead language, albeit the accent was very odd, indeed. He brought up the virtual screen. The visual words that appeared as the audio file played were tinted red instead of the usual green. He put the portable on the blanket before him. Then he watched and listened.
The voice read a table of contents as it digitally projected the words on the virtual screen in front of him:
“Section one, mythology. Section two, legend. Section three, mechanics. Section four, news . . .”
He frowned as it read on and on. After a while, he decided to click on “Section thirty-eight, memory extracts” because the phrase rung a distant bell from when he was a child. In school, the teacher had spoken about the dark times hundreds of years ago, when human beings were obsessed with the pursuit of immortality. They had even found a way to pull out and capture people’s memories right from their minds so they could preserve them forever. “Just like a capture station sucking condensation from the sky to make drinking water,” his schoolteacher had said.
Sunuteel had been fascinated and quietly proud of just how far human beings had gotten in their technological pursuit. Nevertheless, his schoolteacher had discouraged him from further research. “Sunuteel,” she said. “This was what led us to receiving Ani’s wrath.”
And so the young Sunuteel turned away from the past and looked mostly toward the future. He loved language, words and stories. He’d gone on to become one of his village’s most valued recorders and reciters. He could recite the most beautiful poetry in five different dialects of flawless Okeke, but also in the language and various dialects of the majestic and mighty Nuru people and the common language of Sipo. And most amazingly, one of the prominent village elders had been able to teach him English, too.
As far as Sunuteel knew, this elder, an old-timer in Sunuteel’s village who’d always been called The Seed, was the only person who knew the language. The Seed was also the only light-skinned person in his village who was not albino. This man refused to call himself Nuru, insisting that he was “Arab,” a term that had long become more an insult than an ethnic description of the Nuru people. The Seed preferred to live amongst the Okeke, the dark-skinned woolly-haired people. He’d built a house in front of one of the pyramids because it reminded him of home. When Sunuteel was a teen, The Seed looked no older than fifty, but Sunuteel’s mother said he was actually much older.
“He looked the exact same when I was a little girl,” she’d told him. She was right. Even now that Sunuteel was an old old man, The Seed still looked no older than fifty. Sunuteel was of a people who understood that the world was full of mystery. Thus, a seemingly immortal man living in the village didn’t bother anyone. The Seed had an amazing command of the English language and though he was moody and reclusive at times, he turned out to be a wonderful teacher.
Sunuteel went on to read the only two English texts in the entire region, both of which were owned by the Seed. One was an anthropology book titled Virulent Diseases of the Mars Colonies, the other a book about igneous rock sediments. Despite the dryness of the subjects, Sunuteel loved the rhythm of English. It was a liquid sounding language, due to the way the words ran together.
“Memory Extracts,” the voice announced in English. But then it began speaking another list and each item on it was in a different language, none of which he understood. Annoyed, Sunuteel listened for a while and was about to go back to the main menu when the male voice clearly said, “Extract number 5, The Book of Phoenix” in English.
He clicked on it.
At first there was a long pause and the bird icon popped on the screen. It rotated counter-clockwise. He counted thirteen rotations and when it kept going, he looked up at the sky. Blue. Clear. A large hawk-like bird flew overhead, soaring high in the sky, probably seeing him perfectly with its sharp eyes. I will return to Hussaina in two days, he thought. That’s enough alone time for her to stop thinking about premonitions and angels. He smiled to himself. She would excitedly cook him a spicy meal of doro wat when he told her he had “a big big tale to tell.” She loved a good story, and good stories were best told on a full stomach.
“Memory Extract Number 5,” the male voice suddenly announced, making Sunuteel jump. “Title: The Book of Phoenix. Location Number 578.”
And then a woman began feverishly speaking. Her soft breathy voice was like a powerful incantation, for as she spoke, it seemed that the old man’s eyesight, which dimmed more and more every year, began to brighten. His wife would have recognized what was happening. However, Sunuteel was a man less open to such things.
Still, as he sat in his tent, gazing through the red virtual words before him and the open tent flap just beyond the words, outside into the desert, he realized he could see for miles and miles. Sweat prickled on his forehead and between the coarse hairs of his armpits. He listened. And the very first person to hear one of the many many entries from The Great Book was awed by the story he heard.
“There is no book about me,” the voice said. “Well, not yet. No matter. I shall create it myself; it’s better that way. To tell my tale, I will use the old African tools of story: Spoken words. They are worthier of my trust and they’ll last longer. And during shadowy times, spoken words carry farther than words typed, imaged, or written. My beginnings were in the dark. We all dwelled in the dark, mad scientist and speciMen, alike. A dear friend of mine would say that this time was when ‘the goddess Ani still slept’. I call my story The Book of Phoenix. It is reliable and short, because it was accelerated . . .”
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, this 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.
Research. This was what all The Towers were about. There were seven, all in American cities, yet they were not part of the American government. Not technically. If you dug for information, you would not find one governmental connection on file.
I had access to information about all the towers, and I read extensively. However, Tower 7 was where I lived, so I studied this tower the most. They gave me many “top-secret” files on Tower 7. As I said, I was always given what I asked for; this was part of the research. But also, they did not see me as a threat, not to them. I was a perfectly contained classified “speciMen.” And for a speciMen, knowledge wasn’t power.
Tower 7 was located in Times Square on the island of Manhattan, United States of America. Much of Manhattan was underwater, but geologists were sure this part of it was stable enough for Tower 7. It was in the perfect position for top surveillance and security. I’d read about each floor and some of the types of abominations found on them. I’d listened to audios of the spiritual tellings of long-dead African and Native American shamans, sorcerers and wizards. I’d read the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Koran. I studied the Buddha and meditated until I saw Krishna. And I read countless books on the sciences of the world. Carrying all this in my head, I understood abomination. I understood the purpose of Tower 7. Until yesterday.
Each tower had . . . specializations. In Tower 7, it was advanced and aggressive genetic manipulation and cloning. In Tower 7, people and creatures were invented, altered, or both. Some were deformed, some were mentally ill, some were just plain dangerous, and none were flawless. Yes, some of us were dangerous. I was dangerous.
Then there was the tower’s lobby on the ground floor that projected a completely different picture. I’d never been down there but my books described it as an earthly wonderland, full of creeping vines covering the walls and small trees growing from artistically crafted holes in the floor. In the center was the main attraction. Here grew the thing that brought people from all over the world to see the famous Tower 7 Lobby (only the lobby; there were no tours of the rest of the building).
A hundred years ago, one of the landscapers planted a new tree in the lobby’s center. On a lark, some Tower 4 scientists who were there to visit the greenhouse on the ninth floor emptied an experimental solution into the tree’s pot of soil. The substance was for enhancing and speeding up arboreal growth. The tree grew and grew. In a place where people thought like normal human beings, they would have uprooted the amazing tree and placed it outdoors.
However, this was Tower 7 where boundaries were both contained and pushed. The tree grew ravenously and in a matter of weeks it reached the lobby’s high ceiling. Tower 7 carpenters constructed a large hole so that it could grow through the second floor. They did the same for the third, fourth, fifth. The great tree eventually earned the name of “The Backbone” because it grew through all thirty-nine of Tower 7’s floors.
• • •
My name is Phoenix. I was mixed, grown and finally birthed here on the 28th floor. One of my doctors said my name came from the birthplace of my egg’s donor. I’ve looked that up; Phoenix, Arizona is the full name of the place. There’s no tower there, so that’s good.
However, from what I’ve read about the way they did things there, even the scientists who forced my existence don’t know the names of donors. So, I doubt this. I think they named me Phoenix because of something else.
“Okorafor triumphs over the perils of the prequel by making the inevitable feel newly dreadful. Blending poetic passages with sharp observation and the occasional cadence of a story told by firelight, The Book of Phoenix is an assured introduction not just to her world's myths, but to the process of mythmaking.” —The New York Times
“A gripping examination of the power of myth and of who is allowed to write and preserve history.... Okorafor’s fantastical The Book of Phoenix has that ring of truth, a superlative adventure that addresses all-too-harsh realities.” —The San Francisco Chronicle
“Okorafor's inventiveness is as stunning as ever, and the ending is nothing short of spectacular.” —The Chicago Tribune
“Phoenix and her story exist in that shimmering space that marks where science fiction and magical realism overlap.... The Book of Phoenix hit all of my emotional checkboxes.”—BookRiot
“The Book of Phoenix isn’t just well written, and it isn’t just smart as hell; it’s also a damn good story, and it kept me reading almost nonstop all the way through.”—Tor.com
“The book is grounded by its unflinching exposure of the brutalities of colonialism, racism, and greed, and exalted by the beauty of Okorafor’s prose.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“This is a story of vengeance, a fantastic epic battle between good and evil; written as a fable for the future.” —Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog
“While the grim logic of the plot makes it very clear early on how the plot must play out, the process is as entrancing as watching an avalanche sweep toward you, and Okorafor’s prose is as ever, enthralling.”—RT Reviews