A lifetime of nerdy movie-watching has taught me that Africa and Africans are not appropriate subjects for science fiction hijinks. Sure, Africa is a fine place to dig up magical artifacts, invoke Egyptian curses, or perhaps test your white manliness by crossing an un-crossable desert in pursuit of gold. And Africans themselves make very suitable cannibals, witch doctors, evil dictators, or impoverished victims in need of rescue. But, really, the continent in all its diversity and glory is just not suitable for the center-stage (Africa doesn’t even get a three-second shot in Armageddon, when they’re showing how the Fate of the World rests on Bruce Willis’s shoulders). If aliens invade, they’ll intuitively understand that New York City, Los Angeles, London, and maybe Tokyo are the only cities worth blowing up.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is roughly what would happen if invading aliens chose to spare America’s beloved monuments and instead focus their considerable technological and biological might on Lagos, Nigeria. And then semi-accidentally wake up a few slumbering West African deities. Which is to say: Lagoon is chaotic and a great deal of fun, and makes a little more elbow-room for Africa and Africans in science fiction.
Instead of hovering over the city and asking to be taken to any nearby leaders, like any polite alien would, Okorafor’s aliens crash spectacularly into the ocean off the coast of Lagos. Then they suck three people into the sea with them: Adaora, a marine biologist with a moron for a husband, Agu, an honorable soldier, and Anthony, a Ghanaian rapper. United by their A-names and some suspiciously magical abilities, our main characters spend the next several chapters doing standard alien-invasion stuff. They examine their new alien-friend, Ayodele, and stare at each other in disbelief, and eventually somebody says something like, “We have to get to the president.” Don’t they always.
But Okorafor’s narrative lens is much wider than Adaora and her friends. Through a dizzying series of side stories and alternate characters, we also get an image of a city run mad under the combined threats of religious extremism, governmental incompetence and, oh yeah, aliens. My favorites were Fisayo, the prostitute with a heart of gold who totally flips at the sight of a few shape-shifting critters from outer space, and Father Oke, the Christian preacher who manipulates the fearful and faithful out of their money. Both of them come to deserved, typically Okorafor-ish ends.
First, for anyone who read Who Fears Death and wants more of the same — this isn’t it. Lagoon doesn’t have nearly the punch-you-in-the-gut, raise-the-hair-on-your-arms emotional power of Who Fears Death. But precious few books grapple simultaneously with weaponized rape, ethnic warfare, racial discrimination, genital mutilation, and patriarchal religious traditions in a post-apocalyptic vision of Sudan. In contrast, Lagoon is just a fun, socially-intelligent version of an alien movie (it was originally inspired by the author’s distaste for District 9). Arm yourself with a bowl of popcorn, and enjoy the mischievous fun of it.
Lagoon is also not the place to find breathtaking, singular characters like Onyesonwu. The heroine of Who Fears Death was so powerful — a fierce witch woman boiling over with hate and vengeance and magic — that she forced the rest of the novel to circle her, vulture-like. But the alien invasion has no such lightning-rod figure at its center, and Lagoon occasionally felt like a series of short stories stitched into a chaotic whole.
And sometimes, the short-story-effect was awesome. There’s a precarious tipping point in the middle of the novel, when the aliens begin to make themselves known throughout the city, which is told in a series of first-person vignettes. It’s perfect. It reminds me of the beginning of The Stand, when King flips through dozens of eerie stories of different people all over the country dealing with the outbreak of “Captain Trips,” few of which turn into main characters. In one of Okorafor’s stories, an Igbo-American running 419 scams in a cyber café runs into a wild spirit-masquerade. In another, an alien woman sacrifices herself to the Bone Collector — which is also known as the Lagos-Benin Expressway. These stories are a perfect mix of West African mythology and sci-fi aliens and real-life Lagos.
This fearless genre-mashing is something Okorafor does better than almost anyone else. Despite their proximity on public library shelves and substantial fan cross over, science fiction and fantasy don’t often mix. As Orson Scott Card once noted, “Fantasy has trees, and science fiction has rivets.” And never the twain shall meet. But Okorafor writes freely about both trees and rivets, and spaceships and mermaids, as though no one had ever drawn a line between them. It’s quite original, and it’s also a playful elbow in the ribs to the hard science fiction purists who don’t believe that wireless internet should exist on the same planet as ancient spirits and giant swordfish. I like to imagine the Clarkes and Asimovs of the past rolling in their steel-and-rivet graves.
Lagoon is a fun, smart, summer blockbuster of a book which — even if it sometimes fails to pack the narrative power that Okorafor is capable of — is well worth your time. And I would recommend getting a hard copy, for two reasons: First, the cover is drop-dead gorgeous. Scroll up. Look at it. Second, you’re going to need frequent references to the Pidgin English glossary, in order to make sense of dialogue like, “Wetin you want mek I do if you dey fear?” On a Kindle, switching back and forth from the glossary was like playing a DOS computer game.