Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor
Let’s face it, Africa is a topic that a lot of SF writers really don’t handle too well – particularly those of a Slushy Puppy inclination. So this is one of the reasons why Lagoon is such a welcome breath of fresh air.
Lagoon is a novel of alien contact, taking place against the backdrop provided by the city of Lagos, Nigeria. But it’s much more than that. It’s also a novel about contemporary Africa, and the challenges and choices faced by the people who live there.
The novel opens when something strange falls out of the sky, entering the waters off of Bar Beach on Lagos’s coast. Three strangers – biologist Adaora, rapper Anthony Dey Craze and soldier Agu – find themselves washed into the sea by a wave from the impact. Whilst under the water, they find themselves communing with the alien intelligences whose ship just landed in the titular lagoon; after an exchange that is by parts baffling and awe-inspiring, they find themselves returned to land.
But they aren’t alone.
Along with them is the mysterious Ayodele. Though Ayodele wears a human form, she is quite definitely something else, and she is here for reasons all of her own. And it isn’t just the humans of Lagos who will be changed by the aliens’ arrival.
Whatever the results of the contact, nothing will be the same in Lagos again.
What I Liked
In a real sense, this is as much a novel about Lagos as it is one about aliens. It has a powerful sense of place; Lagos really comes alive here. Whilst the city is a chaotic mess, it’s also a vibrant chaotic mess. It feels real, like a human place populated by human beings. A lot of SF suffers from weak settings and shallow descriptions, so I found this vividness quite welcome.
Also, the book is quite honest. Lagos isn’t depicted as any kind of perfect place; it’s definitely shown warts and all.
The aliens are dealt with in an interesting manner too. Whilst they’re – quite literally – here in person, and you can have a halfway-sensible conversation with one, they retain a faintly-creepy sense of otherness. And it’s not just the humans who have learning experiences during the contact – the aliens themselves have a lot to learn too.
In-book, Adaora speculates that the aliens picked Nigeria deliberately, on account of the relative weakness of the state. This way their arrival couldn’t be shushed up as easily as perhaps it could in somewhere with a stronger government. (I disagree with the book’s London comparison to an extent; have you seen how many smartphones there are in Zone 1? And getting Londoners to do what they’re told is an exercise in futility that ranks up there with herding cats – however this argument is something of a sideshow.)
This also makes some sense from a biological point of view. After all, Africa is where humanity evolved. The continent has the longest history of any of them, and its population has the highest genetic diversity of any. From an anthropological standpoint, you can argue a case that Europe and America are something of a sideshow. The aliens are clearly interested by humanity, so perhaps it makes sense that they’d start there first.
Technology is handled in an unexpected way in this book. Oil is fingered as the causative culprit for a lot of Nigeria’s troubles, essentially the Resource Curse written large. Given the problems Nigeria suffers, this is a plausible argument. What I’ve come to expect from SF is that an argument like this will promptly be followed by a banal Interstellar-style imprecation to ‘return to the land’, or some such tripe. (By which is meant, of course, a shallow and insipid imitation of the American rural interior, and particularly a version of it that never really existed in reality. This also comes weighted with annoying party-political baggage – can you have a more socially-conservative vision of society?)
Mercifully, wonderfully, delightfully, that doesn’t happen here. Seriously, that noise you hear? It’s not the aliens’ sonic boom, it’s me breathing a sigh of relief.
While oil may be the underlying cause of Nigeria’s endemic corruption, knowledge and civilisation aren’t considered symptoms here. In fact, the aliens offer to share their own science, and there is a chance that after the end of the book, Lagos may well eventually become the world’s wealthiest and most advanced city.
Also, Lagoon does have a basic tone of optimism. Whilst there’s plenty that’s wrong, and bad things do happen, nonetheless people are ultimately able to come together in spite of their differences. Surprisingly, the President turns out to be a basically-decent man who’s doing the best he can under impossible circumstances. The schemes of the various corrupt agents who want to use the aliens for their own ends, ultimately come to nothing. Whilst the city endures two days of panic and lawlessness, nonetheless the community survives and is implied to recover.
The book is also good on equalities grounds. There are female characters with agency, the Bechdel Test is passed and one of the sole few LGBT student societies in Nigeria plays a notable role in the plot. (Given the widespread prejudice against gay and transgender people, their bravery is quite impressive here.) SF can have a bit of a weakness on all of these points, so this is definitely a selling-point for the novel.
What I Found Problematic
Whilst Lagoon is ultimately an upbeat novel, nonetheless, bad things happen along the way. Things break and people die. Given the unannounced nature of the aliens’ arrival, it’s greeted with widespread chaos in Lagos. There’s looting, violence and sectarianism. Not everyone has pure intentions toward the aliens, and a lot of people are just there to dig out what momentary profit they can from the situation.
The government is pretty much absent for most of the plot, more so than one would expect. The National Assembly of Nigeria apparently has absolutely nothing to say about the chaos that has engulfed the country’s largest city. None of the municipalities within Greater Lagos apparently take any action during the novel’s events, although in fairness, the weakness of the country’s administration is a plot-point, so perhaps this fits. Still, I did find it a bit odd that there weren’t any political opportunists taking to the airwaves to declare statements on behalf of their faction.
One thing that some readers may find awkward is that this novel doesn’t follow binary genre lines. Whilst predominately SF, there are also elements from urban fantasy and magical realism. Adaora, Agu and Anthony all possess unusual powers. The origin of these powers is never really explained – the characters don’t know either – but is implied to be separate from the aliens. Also, traditional beliefs play a role, and deities such as Ijele turn up in person. (In fairness, though, this does make a degree of sense – if aliens abruptly arrived amongst your faithful, it seems plausible that the local deities might take an interest.)
Also, we don’t really find out that much about the aliens themselves. Whilst they’re treated as aliens by the characters, to be honest, you could also interpret them as some sort of supernatural manifestation. They never tell us where they’re from, and it’s somewhat enigmatic what their eventual intentions toward Earth are. They don’t seem to be any more inherently-hostile than human beings are, but, that’s not necessarily reassuring, is it?
If you would like an SFnal vision of contemporary Africa, then read this novel. If you’d like an alternative view of alien contact, read this novel. However, if you need strict genre-lines and have a low tolerance for depictions of social disorder, then this book may have awkward sections.