Book Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

24 Mar

Lagos.

It’s one of the most populous cities in the world and yet it is a city that is relatively mysterious to most Western audiences. Its geography, its nature, and even the languages spoken there (did you know the first language for many in Lagos is a Pidgin language and not English?) do not readily come to mind. But why would aliens, if they would come, necessarily park their ship above London, or crash into New York Harbor outside the U.N., or send troops into Los Angeles? Why wouldn’t they pick, instead, say, Lagos? What would a first contact be like if shapeshifting aliens who decided to come to stay on Earth for a while decided to skip the usual suspects and land in the lagoon outside the city of Lagos?

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor explores that exact first contact scenario.

lagoon

There are many stories contained within Lagoon, a spectrum of short point of views, but the main threads run through three characters. Adaora is a biologist with a turbulent domestic home life. Anthony (De Craze) is from Ghana, and a famous rapper with a large following. Agu is a disillusioned soldier. All three are crucial in their own spheres when they meet Ayodele, the first alien Ambassador from the alien craft that has parked at the bottom of the harbor. They make for a diverse and complicated set of protagonists, providing a variety of perspectives and reactions to a shape-changing alien in their midst. The even more clever thing that Okorafor does is the fractal and outward expanding web of relationships and characters that she introduces based on these initial three characters. We get a full sense of the city, at the precipice of, and head over heels into the changes that the arrival of the aliens bring to it, by means of this network of characters, hopes, dreams, schemes, and actions.

Throughout, the writing is engaging, bright, and enthusiastic. It’s clear that the author has a love of the city, warts and all, and it comes through in her writing. To me, before reading this novel, Lagos wasn’t terribly more than a name and a reference in my mind. I left the novel having been fully immersed into the city as through the aforementioned network of characters. The novel captures its energy, its chaos, its intensity and its shape. In many ways, Lagos as a city is a character as much as any of the human and nonhuman sapient characters, with a real soul and spirit to it.

In many ways, I see Lagoon as a reflection of Karen Lord’s equally stunning Redemption in Indigo. Both novels engage with a sense of place and the Roman idea of genius loci. Okorafor sets this tone from the beginning in Lagoon, as the novel’s dedication is “TO THE DIVERSE AND DYNAMIC PEOPLE OF LAGOS, NIGERIA—ANIMALS, PLANT, AND SPIRIT.” The genius loci of Lagos and those of the world that Lord’s characters inhabit are interested in humans but are most definitely nonhuman in outlook, but there is a sort of alien contact at work. In Lagoon that alien contact between humans and those genius loci, those gods of place, is a counterpoint to the contact with the aliens who have landed in Lagos harbor, whereas in Lord’s novel, it is an unpaired theme. But what really strikes me is the convergence. Redemption in Indigo is a straight-up fantasy novel, at least on the surface, but there are notes and intimations of science fiction and hard science that draw it toward the polder, the borderland that overlaps science fiction and fantasy.

Conversely, Lagoon is a science fiction novel of one of the oldest topics in SF, the first contact novel. And yet, those genius loci, and the worldbuilding that the author has to give us to understand a world city that, despite its prominence, is relatively mysterious to Western audiences (myself included), are definitely the work of fantasy. The decoding of language, Nigerian Pidgin, whose words and phrases are layered into this novel, feels much more like reading and understanding terms from a fantasy context than a science fictional one, since it is just the everyday words and terms for everyday things and concepts, not for high and strange technology. And then there are the brief and unexpected nonhuman point of view scenes that provide contrast to the human perspectives with unusual points of view of their own. In fact, the first scene in the novel, the first point of view is a brief, marine, nonhuman one. And then there are the supernatural (for lack of a better word) talents that all three of the protagonists all learn to embrace in the chaos and confusion of the alien arrival. To be clear: these talents were and are always within them but the aliens’ arrival, like a catalyst, brings them to full light.

All of this draws Lagoon from the polar reaches of science fiction, right down toward that borderland, facing Redemption in Indigo and facing fantasy even while undeniably grounded in science fiction.

Lagoon is a remarkable, layered, fresh book that shows the power, skill, and ultimately, the enthusiastic readability of the author.

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