At the outset of Nnedi Okorafor’s new novel, three strangers meet on Bar Beach, “a place of mixing” which provides “a perfect sample of Nigerian society.” But this evening the sea is uneasy, for from the Gulf of Guinea comes a booming sound so deep that it rattles the teeth of the few who hear it.
Agu is a military man who’s been attacked by his ahoa after refusing to stand silently by while his superior officer sexually assaulted a civilian. He’s come to the beach to take stock of his situation—as has Adaora, a marine biologist and mother of two whose “loving perfect husband of ten years had hit her. Slapped her really hard. All because of a hip-hop concert and a priest. At first, she’d stood there stunned and hurt, cupping her cheek, praying the children hadn’t heard. Then she’d brought her hand up and slapped him right back.”
The third of our three is the renowned rapper Anthony Dey Craze, who’s apparently popped “out for a post-concert stroll.” He and Adaora and Agu have been drawn, inexorably, to the same spot, where they spend a few seconds exchanging pleasantries before being sucked into the sea... and summarily spat out. But the roiling waters have disgorged something far stranger than they—namely an alien.
You have named me Ayodele. You people will call me an alien because I am from space, your outer heavens, beyond. I am what you all call and ambassador, the first to come and communicate with you people. I was sent. We landed in your waters and have been communicating with other people there and they’ve been good to us. Now we want your help.
Adaora doesn’t take much convincing, but she knows the world will, so she transports Ayodele to her lab and studies a skin sample which confirms her feelings. Enter her husband, Chris: a born again born again who insists Ayodele is a witch and runs screaming to his preacher when Adaora tells him to take a hike.
Their housekeeper Philo can’t keep a secret either. She shoots some footage on her phone and shows it to her boyfriend Moziz, a scam artist who sees in this situation an opportunity to turn a proper profit. He and his friends plan to capture and ransom Ayodele. But one of them is a member of the Black Nexus, a secretive LGBT body whose members imagine Ayodele—who can shapeshift from man to woman at will—will almost certainly accept them, spurring on the world to do so too.
In this way word gets out that there’s an alien about, and soon, chaos reigns in Lagos... especially outside Adoara’s door. It was all coming to pass, apparently:
Whatever “it” was, only they knew. They announced that the ocean would soon swallow them all up for the sins of these marine witches and warlocks, nonbelievers in Christ who’d taken over the country. Some blamed the Muslims of the north. Others blamed the Americans. Al-Qaeda. Sickness. The British. Bad luck. Devils. Poverty. Women. Fate. 419. Biafra. The bad roads. The Military Corruption.“
Predictably, things go from bad to worse quite quickly when, in an attempt to lessen the mounting tensions, Ayodele introduces herself to the world. That’s when the shooting starts—and though “these aliens had come in peace,” this means war. A war that begins and ends on Bar Beach, “where the ocean mixed with the land and the wealthy mixed with the poor.”
Given how prolific she has been in recent years, it’s strange to think that this is only Nnedi Okorafor’s second novel for adult audiences; strange but true, to be sure. Since Who Fears Death? in 2010, we’ve seen the release of Akata Witch for younger readers, an impeccable collection of short stories called Kabu-Kabu, and all the while the World Fantasy Award-winning author has been working on a number of other, smaller projects. In each of these Okorafor has done a great deal to challenge the predominant picture of English-language literature as white, middle-class and male; to reject the according “colonisation of the imagination,” as our own Liz Bourke put it on her blog Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
Okorafor is far from the only author about this business, but she is among the most visible and vibrant proponents of a future in which fantastic fiction has so much more to say than it does today—an imperative point of view she doubles down on in her new book, Lagoon. What we have here is a nightmarish first contact fable that just so happens to take place in Lagos. And why in the world wouldn’t it?
Herein, Okorafor mines many of the ideas she’s explored before to equally excellent effect, including domestic violence, folklorish frames—naturally, our narrator is Spider the Artist—as well as what stories do in the world; in this instance the tale of aliens invading Lagos, told via social media by amateurs carrying camera phones.
Speaking of amateurs, the characters... most of whom, I’m sorry to say, are half-baked at best. There’s not much more to Anthony than the fact that he’s a rapper; Agu is simply a soldier with a heart of gold; and though many others come and go over the course of the story, precious few make their presence felt. Father Oke, for instance, is an overfamiliar figure of villainy. Only Adaora is rendered with enough depth and complexity so as to seem like a real human being—alongside Ayodele the alien, oddly.
Lagoon, it follows, is not Nnedi Okorafor’s best book, but its setting is superlative and its themes so pristine that it’s well worth reading regardless. With a nod in the acknowledgements to “the South African science fiction film District 9 for both intriguing and pissing me off so much that I started daydreaming about what aliens would do in Nigeria,” Lagoon is an almost awesome novel let down at the last by a fundamentally flat cast.
Lagoon is available April 10th from Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.