It’s no secret that we here at Gizmodo are huge fans of Nigerian American author Nnedi Okorafor—a Nebula and Hugo winner who pens sci-fi and fantasy tales for both YA and adult readers. We’re thrilled to present the cover reveal and an exclusive excerpt for her upcoming novella, Remote Control.
Here’s a brief summary of Remote Control—a vivid slice of Okorafor’s vivid “Africanfuturism” storytelling—followed by the reveal of the full cover and the thrilling excerpt!
“She’s the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death. Beware of her. Mind her. Death guards her like one of its own.”
The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From now on she would be known as Sankofa—a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.
Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks—alone, except for her fox companion—searching for the object that came from the sky when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.
But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?
“Come at the king, you best not miss.”
– Omar Little, The Wire
The moon was just rising when Sankofa came up the dirt road. Her leather sandals slapped her heels softly as she walked. Small swift steps made with small swift feet. When she passed by, the crickets did not stop singing, the owls did not stop hooting and the aardvark in the bushes beside the road did not stop foraging for termites. Yards behind her, in the darkness, trotted the small red-furred fox rumoured to follow her wherever she went. This type of creature wasn’t known to live in Ghana, but stranger things were always afoot when Sankofa was around.
Sankofa was fourteen years old, but her petite frame and chubby cheeks made her look closer to ten. Her outfit was a miniature version of what the older more affluent Mamprusi women of northern Ghana wore– a hand-dyed long yellow skirt, a matching top embroidered with expensive lace and a purple and yellow headband made of twisted cloth. She wore the gold hoop earrings, too. She’d done the head wrap exactly as her mother used to when her mother visited friends. Beneath the head wrap, Sankofa covered her bald head with a shorthaired black wig. She’d slathered her scalp with two extra coats of the thick shea butter she’d recently bought, so the wig wasn’t itchy at all. She also applied a thin layer to her face, taking care to massage it into where her eyebrows used to be. Despite the night’s cloying heat, the shea butter and her elaborate heavy outfit, she felt quite cool…at the moment.
A young man leaned against a mud hut smoking a cigarette in the dark. As he blew out smoke, he spotted her. Choking on the last puff, he cupped his hand over his mouth. “Sankofa is coming,” he hollered in Ewe, grabbing the doorknob and shoving the door open. “Sankofa is coming!”
People peeked out windows, doorways, from around corners and over their shoulders. Nostrils flared, eyes were wide, mouths opened and healthy hearts pounded like crazy.
“Sankofa come, ooooo!” someone shouted in Pidgin English.
“Shia! Sankofa a ba!”
“Sankofa, Sankofa, ooo!
“Here she comes! Aaa ba ei!”
“Beware of remote control, o! The most powerful of all witchcraft!”
“Sankofa bird landing!”
Women scooped up toddlers playing in the dirt and ushered their older children inside. Doors shut. Steps quickened. Car doors slammed and those cars sped off.
The girl called Sankofa walked up the quiet deserted road of the town that was pretending to be full of ghosts. Her face was dark and sweet and her jaw was set. The only item she carried was the amulet bag a juju man had given her five years ago, not long after she left home. It softly bounced against her hip. Its contents were simple: a role of money that she rarely needed, a wind-up watch, a jar of shea butter bigger than a grown man’s fist, a hand drawn map of Accra and a tightly rolled up book. For the last week, her book had been an old old copy of No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a paper novel she barely understood yet enjoyed reading. Before that, a crumbling copy of Gulliver’s Travels.
The town was clearly not poor. There were a few huts, but they were well built and well kept. This night, though dark as a cave, Sankofa could see hints of bright light coming from within. People feared her but they still wanted to watch television. These mud huts had electricity. Beside them were modern homes, which equally feigned vacancy. Sankofa felt the town staring at her as she walked. It was hoping, wishing, praying that she would pass through, a wraith in the darkness.
She set her eye on the largest most modern-looking home in the neighbourhood. The huge hulking white mansion with a red roof surrounded by a large white concrete gate topped with broken green bottle glass was easy to see. As she approached the white gate, she noticed a large black spider walking up the side. Its long strong legs and hairy robust body looked like the hand of a wraith.
“Good evening,” Sankofa said in Mampruli, as she stepped up to the gate’s door. The spider paused, seeming to acknowledge and greet her back. Then it continued on its way up, into the forest of broken glass on top of the gate. Sankofa smiled. Spiders always had better things to do. She wondered what story it would weave about her and how far the story would carry. She lifted her chin, raised a small fist and knocked on the gate’s door. “Excuse me, I would like to come in,” she called in Twi. She wasn’t sure how far she’d come. Better to stick to the language most understood. Then she thought better of it and switched to English. “Gate man, I have come to call on the family that lives here.”
When there was no response, she turned the knob. As expected, it was unlocked. The gateman stood on the other side of the large driveway, near the garage. He wore navy blue pants, a crisp white shirt and a blank look on his face. He carried prayer beads, counting them along with shaking fingers. There was a light on over the garage and she could see his face clearly. Then he turned and spat to the side, making no move to escort her to the house.
“Thank you, sir,” Sankofa said, walking to the large front door. The doorway light was off. “I will show myself in.”
Up close, the house looked less elegant, the white walls were stained at the bottom with red soil, splashed there as mud during rainy season. There were large dirty spider webs in the upper corners where the roof met the walls. A shiny silver Mercedes, a black BMW and a blue Honda sat in the driveway. The garage was closed. The house was dark. However, Sankofa knew people were home.
Something flew onto her shoulder as she stepped up to the front door. She stifled the instinct to crush it dead and instead, grabbed it and then opened her hand. It was a large green grasshopper. She’d seen this creature in one of the books she’d read. These were called katydids. She giggled, watching it creep up her hand with its long delicate green legs.
She softly glowed a vibrant leaf green. Not enough to kill, but enough to bathe the grasshopper in a shade of its own lovely greenness. If a grasshopper could smile this one did. She was sure of it. Then it hop-flew off. “Safe journey,” she whispered.
She knocked on the door. “It is me,” she called. “Death has come to visit.”
After a moment, the front door lights came on. She looked up at the round ball of glass lit by the light bulb. Within minutes, insects would people the light. But not yet. A haggard-looking tall man in a black suit and tie slowly opened the door. The lights turned on behind him and she could see ten well-dressed adults, some in traditional clothing, others in stiff Western attire, all pressed together, wide-eyed and afraid. Cooled air wafted from the opened door and it smelled like wine, champagne, goat meat and jollof rice. The air-conditioner and the house cooks were working hard tonight. The hallway was decorated with shiny red and green trimming and fake poinsettia flowers, a plastic ornamented Christmas tree at the far end.
“I hope I am not interrupting your Christmas party,” Sankofa said in English. She blinked. Was it Christmas? Or maybe still Christmas Eve? She felt a muffled yearning deep in her chest. She pushed the feeling away as she always did, thinking, We never celebrated Christmas, anyway. Though some in her hometown had. She remembered.
“No, no,” the man jabbered, smiling sheepishly. “Chalé, p-please. Come in, my dear. Happy Christmas, o.” He wore a silver chain with a crucifix around his neck. The crucifix rested on his shoulder. He’d just put it on, probably as he rushed to the door. Sankofa chuckled.
“Happy Christmas, to you all, too,” she said. “I won’t stay long. I am going to get something of mine that I’ve been searching for for years.”
The solid marble floors were cool beneath her bare feet. The walls were covered with European style oil paintings of European rustic landscapes. Sankofa wondered what trouble these people went through to get these paintings all the way out to this small suburb of Accra. And she wondered if it was worth it; the paintings were quite ugly. A large family photo hung on the wall, too. It was of a tall fat man, a fat woman with one fat son and two fat daughters. Happy healthy content people and definitely “been-tos”. If she had to guess, she’d say from America.
In the dining room, Sankofa was asked to sit at a large table laden with more food than she’d glimpsed in weeks. It was nearly obscene. And what a surprise. She’d never imagined that been-tos ate so many native dishes. Kele-wele, aponchi-krakra and fufu, kenkey, waakye, red red, jollof rice, fried chicken, akrantie and goat meat, too much food to get her eyes around. “Oh chalé,” she muttered to herself. Behind her, the house party came in and stood around her.
A young woman set an empty plate before her. She wore a uniform similar to the gate man’s- a white blouse and navy-blue pants. “Do you…” The woman trailed off, her eyes watering with tears. She paused, looking into Sankofa’s eyes. Sankofa gazed right back.
“I would also like a change of clothes,” Sankofa said. “I have been wearing these garments for a week.”
The woman smiled gratefully and nodded. Sankofa guessed the woman was about ten years her senior, maybe even fifteen. “Something like what you are wearing now?” the woman asked.
Sankofa grinned at this. “Yes, if possible,” she said. “I like to wear our people’s style.”
The woman seemed to relax. “I know. We all know.”
“My name is known here?” Sankofa asked, the answer being obvious.
“Very well,” the woman said. The woman looked at the silent party. “Can someone call the seamstress?”
“It’s already done,” a fat woman said stepping forward as she closed a mobile phone. Sankofa recognised her quickly. She looked a little fatter than she had in the family photo in the hallway. Life was good for her. “Miss Sankofa,” the lady of the house said. “You’ll have whatever garments you like within the hour.” She paused. “The community has always anticipated a visit from you.”
Sankofa smiled again. “That’s good.”
“You want orange Fanta, right?” the young woman in the uniform asked her. “Room temperature, not chilled.”
Sankofa nodded. These were good people.
The Christmas party watched Sankofa eat. They were unable to sit down. Unable to even look at each other. Paralysed. Sankofa was ravenous. She’d been walking all day.
She gnawed on a goat bone’s remaining bits of meat and then dropped the bone on her plate. Then with greasy hands, she took her bottle of room temperature Fanta and guzzled the last of it. She belched as another was placed before her. The young woman popped the cap and stepped back.
“Thank you,” Sankofa said, taking a gulp. She picked up another piece of spicy goat meat, paused, then turned to the silent party. “Are there any children in the house?” she asked. “I would like some company.”
She nibbled on her piece of goat meat as the adults fearfully whispered amongst themselves. It was the same wherever she visited. They always whispered. Sometimes they cried. Sometimes they shouted. Always amongst each other. Away from her. Then they finally went and got the children. They knew they had no choice. This time was no different.
A plump boy of about ten and an older taller girl about Sankofa’s age, shuffled in. The girl’s mother, the lady of the house, had to shove the girl in. They wore their nightclothes and looked like they’d been dragged out of bed. They plopped themselves across from her at the table. The boy eyed the plate of fried plantain.
“So what are your names?” Sankofa asked. When they both just stared at her, she spoke in English. “So what are your names?” she asked again.
“Edgar,” the boy said. Sankofa blinked. He spoke like an American, so she’d been right in her assessment. Americans were always so well-fed.
The girl muttered something Sankofa couldn’t catch. “What?” Sankofa asked.
“Ye,” the girl whispered. She spoke like an American, too.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Sankofa said. “Do you know who I am?”
“You’re Sankofa, the one who sleeps at death’s door,” Edgar said. He eyed her as he slowly took a slice of fried plantain. Sankofa took another few of the oily slices, too. They were sweet and tangy. Edgar seemed to relax when he saw that she enjoyed the same food as he did. Ye didn’t move.
“You should get a plate,” Sankofa said. Before Edgar could look around, the young woman placed a plate before each of them. The girl took all of two plantain slices and the boy loaded his plate with plantain and roasted goat meat. Sankofa liked the boy.
“You don’t look as ugly as they say you look,” he said.
Sankofa laughed. “Really?”
“No,” he said, biting into some goat meat. “Your outfit reminds me of my mum.”
“Reminds me of mine, too,” Sankofa said. “That’s why I wear it.”
They ate for a moment.
“So what’d you get for Christmas?” she asked.
“We haven’t opened presents yet,” he said, laughing. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Oh.” She fixed her eye on the girl. “Ye,” she said.
The girl jumped at the sound of her name.
“I’m not going to kill you,” Sankofa said.
“How do I know that?”
Sankofa rolled her eyes, annoyed. “You’re not very good company.”
After a pause, Edgar asked, “Don’t mind my sister. She never likes coming to Ghana. She’d rather just be a boring American and stay in boring America.” When Ye hissed at him, he hissed back. Sankofa laughed with glee.
“Where is your famous fox, The Movenpick?” Edgar asked. “Is it outside?”
“Probably,” she said. “Yes.”
“Was he someone’s pet? In your village?”
“No. Just an animal who wanted to be free.” Sankofa frowned and looked away.
“S-sorry,” Edgar quickly said. “I didn’t mean to bring up your…”
“It’s fine. That was a long time ago now.”
Edgar nodded and then leaned forward. “We only hear about you from our cousins,” he said. His eyes narrowed and he lowered his voice. “So is it true? Can you…”
“Can I what?” Sankofa asked, cocking her head.
He glanced at his sister. She’d stopped eating and was frowning deeply at him.
“I can,” Sankofa said. “You want to see?”
The party adults moaned. “This boy is a real idiot,” she heard one of them grumble. “You don’t tempt the devil!”
“Chalé, make him shut up!” someone else whispered. “He’s going to get us all killed.”
Sankofa glanced at the adults and then looked piercingly at the kids before her. She smirked. “Turn off the lights then.” The boy jumped up, ran and shut the lights off. She smiled when she heard him snatch his arm from his protesting mother and retake his seat across from her. In the past, it had been difficult to control and there had been terrible consequences. However, this was not the case any longer. These days, it was like flexing a muscle.
Right there in the darkness, she glowed her dim green. Ye, tears freely rolling down her cheeks. The boy’s eyes were wide and he had an enormous grin on his face. “Real life ‘remote control’!” he whispered. “Wowolo!”
“Shush,” a woman hiss from the group of adults. “No ghetto talk.”
“Oh come on, mum,” Edgar said, rolling his eyes. “First I can’t say ‘chalé’, now this? Why even bring us to Ghana?”
Sankofa relaxed herself and her glow faded and then winked out. Someone immediately flipped the lights on.
“What is this town called?” she asked getting up.
“Tah, tamale …sorry, I can barely pronounce it. There’s an American food with the same name. T-a-m-a-l-e,” Edgar said.
“Relax, Ye,” Sankofa said. “You won’t see me here again.”
Ye wiped the tears from her face. “I hate this country,” she said. Then she got up and ran out of the room. Sankofa and Edgar looked at each other.
“So where are you going next?” Edgar asked.
“To a place I’m not even sure exists anymore,” she said. Sankofa smiled, glad that he had not run like his sister. She hated when that happened. It always made her feel that ache she worked so hard to mute.
She shrugged. “It’s time.”
“So, you really can’t ride in cars?”
She shook her head.
“That’s so cool,” he whispered.
“Are you a child of the dev…”
“No,” she snapped. The conversation ended there.
Sankofa left the house an hour later having eaten her fill, taken some leftovers, and showered. She’d traded No Orchids for Miss Blandish for another paper novel Edgar insisted she read, titled Mouse Guard. He said he’d gotten it from the trip his family recently took to the UK and though it was one of the only paper books he owned, she could have it. She hadn’t wanted to take such a precious item from him, but he insisted.
She walked up the empty dirt road, now wearing a brand-new blue and white wrapper, matching top and headband. She held her head up and looked into the night with the confidence of a leopard. Sankofa liked to imagine that she was a Mamprusi princess walking the moonlit road toward her long lost queendom. If she had to guess, her mother would have been proud of the way she chose to carry herself…despite it all.
“I’m almost there, mama,” she muttered, clenching her fists. A twinge of anxiety about the incident in the road days ago. Then the feeling was gone. Onward. It had been way too long.
She stopped, hearing footsteps behind her. She whirled around. It was the gateman from the house she’d just left. The one who had looked at her as if she were a smear of faeces on some child’s underwear.
“Anyén!” he cried. He switched to English “Evil witch!” He was sweating and weeping. “Kwaku Agya. Do you know this name? Do you remember my brother’s name? Does the child of the devil remember the names of those it kills?”
“I know the name,” she said. Sankofa remembered all the names of those she took as a kindness.
Surprise and then rage rippled across his face. He raised something black in his hand. Bang!
Time always slowed for her during these kinds of moments. The misty white smoke plumed from the gun’s muzzle. Then the bullet, this one golden, short and dented. It flew out of the gun’s muzzle followed by a larger plume of white smoke. The bullet rotated counter-clockwise as it travelled toward her. She watched this as the heat bloomed from her like a round mushroom. In times like this, it was near involuntary. From somewhere deep within her soul, a primal part of her gave permission to her unearthly power. That part of her had been on the earth, walking the soils of the lands now known as Ghana for millennia.
The night lit up.
The empty road.
The houses and huts nearby.
The eyes of the silent witnesses.
The gnats, mosquitoes, flies, grasshoppers, beetles, some in flight, some not. The hiding, always observing spiders. The birds in the trees. The lizards on the walls. And the grasscutter crossing the road a few feet away. Movenpick the fox standing nearby, never far from Sankofa’s heels. Washed in light that did not come from the moon.
The corona of soft green light domed out from Sankofa. To her, it felt like the shiver of a fever. It left a coppery smell in her nose. The bullet exploded feet from her with a gentle pop! The molten pieces flew into the flesh of a palm tree beside the road.
Sankofa shined like a moon who knew it was a sun. The light came from her, from her skin. It poured from her, strong and controlled. It washed over everything, but it was only hungry for the man who’d shot at her. It hadn’t always been this way. In the past, her light’s appetite had been all-consuming.
The man stumbled back. The gun in his hand dropped to the ground. Then he dropped, too.
Sankofa walked up to him, still glowing strongly. She knelt down, looking into the gateman’s dying eyes. She spoke to the man in their native language of Twi, “Your brother’s name was Kwaku Samuel Agya and his cancer was so advanced that it had eaten away most of his internal organs. I did not cause this cancer, gateman. I happened to walk into his village when he was ready to die. He asked me to take him. His wife asked me to take him. His son asked me to take him. His best friend asked me to take him.” Tears fell from her eyes as she spoke. Then she pushed away the pain in her chest. She muted it as she’d learned to do over the years. Her tears dried into trails of salt as her skin heated. She stood up. “When was the last time you spoke to your brother, gateman?”
His skin crackled and peeled as it burned orange. It blackened, flaking off into dust. His entrails spilled out in a hot steaming mass when his skin and abdominal flesh burned away. Then that burned, too. The muscle and fat from his limbs flared up and then fell to ash, as well. There was little smoke but the air began to smell like burning meat. A mysterious wind came and swept away the ash and soon all that was left was one bone.
“I will never know or understand what that is,” she whispered. “But at least it’s clean”
The bone dried, its surface snapped in several places, splintered and then cooled. Someone would find it.
“Now you will talk to your brother,” Sankofa said. She turned away, opened her bag and brought out the jar of thick yellow shea butter. She scooped out a dollop. She rubbed it in her hands until it softened then melted. Then she rubbed it on her arms, legs, neck, face and belly. She sighed as her dry skin absorbed the natural moisturizer. She glanced at Movenpick who stood in the bushes to her right. The fox walked up the road, leading the way. Sankofa followed the fox into the night as if she were her own moon.
Excerpt from Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control reprinted by permission. Copyright Tor.com.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control will go on sale January 19, 2021. You can pre-order a copy here.