Lagoon: Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon-imageCan fall be for science fiction? It appears to be turning out that way for me, so maybe we can just make it official, and everyone can dig into some seriously fine sci-fi. There’s this whole thing in Japanese where you say fall is for art, or fall is for food, or fall is for whatever you feel like doing, it seems. So I feel like we should jump on this bandwagon and declare fall for science fiction. Then we can get all cozy in our suddenly (in Toronto, at least) chilly homes and devour all the great SFF books hitting the shelves these days, like the latest from Ann Leckie. (If you haven’t already, you should seriously be reading all her books, by the way.)

Or this little number for Nnedi Okorafor, another author you should all already be reading. I fell in love with her a while back when I happened upon Who Fears Death, an incredible story about apocalypse and magic and Africa. So now she’s one of those authors I will pick up whenever I happen upon her, secure in the knowledge that she will give me things to really think about while entertaining the hell out of me. But even if she wasn’t on that list of favoured authors, I probably still would have grabbed Lagoon on the basis of the cover alone. I’ve said it more than once, I judge books by their covers, and this is a cover that screams, “Read me! You won’t regret it!”. So high fives to Joey Hi-Fi for some seriously evocative imagery. Incidentally, he also did the amazing UK (?) cover for Zoo City, another book I totally loved. I guess the lesson here is check out what other books he’s designed and read them too?Because if you loved Zoo City (and you did), then you will probably be pretty delighted by Lagoon and its twists and turns. It’s maybe the first book I’ve read where a city feels like an active character, and it weirdly made me want to go to Lagos and see the place myself. Weirdly, because a large part of the book has the city in total chaos, with rioting and looting and fisticuffs, thanks to the arrival of a bunch of shapeshifting aliens who decide to settle in Nigeria. Which, sure, why not? The one thing that’s always bugged me about fantastical stories in Japanese is that everything happens in Tokyo, so I’m pretty into getting to see a new place from so many different angles through the eyes of someone who loves it (and Okorafor clearly loves Lagos) (and hates it too, which makes for an interesting push-pull tension in the narrative).

The cast of Lagoon is pretty large, so although the story tends to centre on the trio who are the first humans the aliens speak to—Adaora, a marine biologist; Anthony, a rap star; and Agu, a solider—we also get glimpses of the action through other eyes, thanks to the kind of vignette structure Okorafor adopts. The book is made up of three larger acts and many short chapters in each act. This framework allows the narrative to keep moving at a brisk pace, without getting bogged down in transitions from one setting to another. So first we’re in the ocean with a swordfish when the “New People” arrive and bestow gifts on the inhabitants of the ocean, turning the swordfish into the monster she wants to be. And then we’re on Bar Beach as the trio gets pulled into the ocean, chosen to guide the alien ambassador Ayodele to the president of Nigeria, who is secretly busy dying in Saudi Arabia. And then we are at the home of a wealthy Christian evangelist preacher, who is more interested in protecting his Beamer from scratches than he is in helping one of his parishioners.

The aliens aren’t evil, hell-bent on destroying humanity. They mostly want a new place to live and to shake things up in Nigeria. But of course, humans being what they are and Lagos being what it is, things devolve into rioting before we’re even halfway into the book, and first contact almost turns into last contact. The mix of standard science fiction ideas, like first contact and advanced technology, collides with Nigerian folklore, superstition, and culture to shed new light on both sides of that equation. Okorafor mixes human perspectives with animals and aliens and objects, in a way that feels casually animistic, so you get to read the thoughts of the murderous highway, the Bone Collector, alongside the inner turmoil of closeted cross-dresser and would-be alien kidnapper, Jacobs. We don’t always get enough time with all the characters she gives us, though, so sometimes, they feel a little one-note or there to serve the plot.

But she does give us Nigerian dialect! No holds barred! And you know I am a sucker for all kinds of Englishes. More books need to use more dialects and satisfy my curiosity about the way everyone in this world changes language to fit into their own lives and thinking better. Writers, if you’re afraid non-dialect-speaking readers will have trouble understanding conversations, just do what Okorafor kindly does here, and provide a glossary. Sure, some readers will be scared off. But many more will I’m sure do what I did, and try to read the dialect parts out loud to themselves to really hear it and get deeper into the world and the rhythm of the story. A fun game when the story has such a rhythm and world as this one does.

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