Review: Lagoon

“”You might have liked the United States more,” she said. “They’ve got more stuff.””

Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon is a story of first contact.

Or, if you want to be precise, second contact.

An alien spacecraft crashes into the sea off Lagos, Nigeria. A strange, shapeshifting woman walks out of the sea and into the lives of three Africans: Adaora, a marine biologist whose recently born-again husband is becoming increasingly abusive and controlling; Agu, a soldier beaten up for trying to stop his unit from raping a woman; Anthony, a rapper from neighbouring Ghana. The plot moves these three, and the alien ambassador Ayodele, around in various ways (much of the novel concerns them trying to get Ayodele to the Nigerian president); but, to quote T.S. Miller in his Strange Horizons review of Lagoon, “much of what is original, exciting and important about Nnedi Okorafor’s new version of the old alien invasion narrative is a function of its setting,” and not of its fairly by-the-numbers main plot.

Which is to say: Lagoon is a daring novel, and I use that word in a highly deliberate and rather specific sense. Miller is correct to locate its daring as stemming, fundamentally, from its setting: Lagoon is fully aware of its own daring, in its Western-science-fictional context, in locating its alien apocalypse in Lagos, Nigeria – instead of, e.g., Los Angeles or New York or London. Nigeria, the novel mutters, is four times as big as the UK; why wouldn’t the aliens land there? It focuses us upon that daring by extending it as only science fiction can do: the aliens’ first contact is with sea creatures, and humanity remains very much a secondary consideration for them. The Earth is over 70% water; why wouldn’t the aliens land there?

In other words, the novel is engaged in pushing at our core assumptions. It is, essentially, a polyphonic text, straightforward third-person human narration woven together with chapters from the point of view of an enlightened bat, a vengeful swordfish, a storytelling god, a shape-shifting alien, random passers-by. Several scenes feature Nigerian pidgin English. The result is a multitextured novel, a daring and defiant portrait of a country and a city often overlooked in Western media. Okorafor’s Lagos is volatile and dangerous; but the chaos to be found on its streets in the aftermath of alien invasion (chaos, it should be added, engendered by humanity, not by the aliens themselves) is rendered as potential, as a sign of change. It’s particularly interesting that Okorafor chooses (fictionally) to return Nigeria’s (actually) absent president to the country to declare a new age of progress in the wake of its alien visitors: again, we see the novel daring to imagine a positive future in a cultural context that so often sidelines the country, figuring it only as poverty and corruption.

Lagoon is, like many alien apocalypse stories, a violent novel: at one point I simply had to put the book down, take a break from the gore and the casual atrocity. But it also (bizarrely) feels like a very positive novel, a celebration of all the richness of experience and the giddiness of change. It is, in other words, a deeply satisfying novel, the kind you only get once in a while. I’m going to be looking out for Binti, a novella of Okorafor’s which came out in September; if it’s anything like Lagoon, it should be splendid.

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