Nnedi Okorafor
Lagoon Cover

Nnedi Okorafor - Lagoon (2014)


"We are change."

"Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It's your greatest flaw."

Nnedi Okorafor's 'Lagoon' is a first contact novel, in which the aliens land in Lagos. It is a fresh and original take on the subject, not least for its setting, which is vividly and powerfully evoked by Okorafor. However as well as providing a welcome antidote to all the British and American-centred stories in which the aliens land in New York or London, the aliens in 'Lagoon' have not just come for the President and the protagonists; their arrival is a cataclysmic event with enormous implications for everyone living on Earth. 'Lagoon' portrays the reactions of a diverse cross-section of all the various walks of life and perspectives in Lagos, as well as the effects it has on fish and animals - human beings aren't Earth's only inhabitants after all. The end result is an ambitious, powerful and complex story, in which the city of Lagos plays as central a role as Okorafor's characters.

Okorafor portrays Lagos with passion and in great depth. She clearly has a great love for and fascination with the place, its energy and bustling vitality, but also has a canny understanding of its many and complex problems, the poverty, corruption and religious tensions. This allows her to portray the good and the bad about Lagos as it reacts to alien visitors, with considerable nuance. This is aided by the fact that Okorafor is interested in everybody's response. Her narrative takes in not just her main characters, but expands to follow 419 scammers, the students' LGBT society, the military, gangs, prostitutes, manipulative religious leaders and differently abled street kids. So many depictions of anywhere in Africa by Western media portray the entire continent as one homogenized culture, so it is both refreshing and necessary as a British SF reader to engage with a work that portrays Lagos in all its complexity. Okorafor understands the value and importance of giving all of these different, and frequently marginalised characters, a voice. Everyone reacts to the news differently, coming as they do from different backgrounds and with different perspectives, and the cumulative effect of this is that it allows Okorafor to portray first contact as the cataclysmic, perspective altering event it would not doubt be.

'Lagoon' also subverts the standard human arrogance which assumes that we would be the only species on Earth that the aliens would be interested in interacting with. Okorafor's aliens land in the sea, and their first interaction is with fish. Throughout the book they are just as interested in interacting with animals as they are humans, offering them the same help. The uplifted animals provide us with the first hint of what the aliens are doing; they don't see their job as being to add anything, but to act as a catalyst for the animal or person's desire. In this way they act as instigators of social change. One of the results of the aliens landing is that the sea life now has the weapons to fight off humans polluting their environment. The new world that the aliens will create will have to be fairer not just for people but for animals as well.

As well as interacting with Lagos' people and wildlife, the aliens also interact with the spiritual forces that have been living in Nigeria along with the humans. Ijele, the Igbo Chief of Masquerades, Legba, the spirit of the crossroads, and the Bone Collector, a road monster that consumes human victims of road accidents, all manifest and interact with the aliens, and it is revealed at the end that the entire story has been spun by Udide Okwanka, a giant story weaving spider who lives in a cave underneath the city, and who has been inspired by the aliens to stop weaving and take part in the story. These are all forces that have been in Nigeria before the arrival of the aliens, forces which give the country the strength of character and history to react to something as big as alien visitors. This is also shown in the supernatural powers of the three main characters, who were specially selected to be ambassadors. Adaora, a marine biologist, was born with webbed hands and feet, and has a natural affinity with the water. Anthony, a famous rapper, is able to tap into the cosmic rhythm and use its power. Agu, a soldier, has super strength. These characteristics have put them on the edge of human society and the spiritual world, and allows them to interact with the aliens on more equal footing and as ambassadors of both.

Part of what gives the book its unique flavour is its dialogue, much of which is written in Nigerian Pidgin English. Okorafor has a great ear for dialogue, and the different registers, how much slang the characters pepper their speech with, gives the reader more information about their background and their personality, as well as greatly contributing to the sense of place. The book's structure is interesting as well, moving from the third person present for much of the book to sections related by minor characters in the first person when the aliens are mingling with the humans and chaos has broken out. These sections help to deliberately disorientate the reader in the midst of all this chaos, creating a sense of disorder and speed as the reader is rushed around different places and viewpoints. There are also more poetic sections, as rendered directly by Udide Okwanka the spider, harking back to the oral tradition and linking this thoroughly modern work of SF to the traditional. The book ends on an appropriately ambiguous note; the aliens have arrived, Ayodele's sacrifice has made humanity open to interacting and sharing with their alien visitors, all possibilities are open for a new dawn for Lagos. What happens next is left to the characters, and to the reader's imagination.