Okorafor, Nnedi. Lagoon [Hooder and Stoughton, 2014]
Available to buy from April 10th, 2014 : amazon both formats or UK publisher
The Nigerian city of Lagos is named after the Portuguese word for 'lagoon', and this absorbing novel takes its aquatic title and its strong heart from this turbulent city. Full of incident, emotion and action, 'Lagoon' is one of the more unique and inventive science-fiction books I've read for some time and I look forward to reading more from Chicago resident Nnedi Okorafor.
As Peter Higgins said so well on this site just last week, however, genre tags can be both limiting and inaccurate. Really the only sci-fi element to this tale is that aliens land and, assuming human form, start to make contact. Okay, that's pretty damn sci-fi, admittedly. Yet most of the atmosphere and incidents are human in origin and focus. There is no Independence Day nonsense here. It is this, for me, that gives Okorafor's writing such impact. Otherworldly and incredible things occur, but the reactions and consequences are very relatable, earthly and affecting.
The central cast of the yarn are an unlikely trio, albeit with a hidden link revealed late-on. Adaora the marine scientist, Anthony Dey Craze the Ghanian rap star and Agu the righteous soldier all meet on Lagos's beach as the extraterrestrials land in the ocean, and they are literally and metaphorically swept up by this new force. Once back on dry land they are accompanied and manipulated by the alien ambassador, who they name Ayodele, and are tasked with helping her both make contact with the president and adjust to human behaviour.
As they head back to Adaora's home and are beset by various opponents (including her violent and born-again husband and his corrupt priest, and a gang of young thugs), they find their strange link to Ayodele, and the disgusting actions of a populace stressed by poverty and panicked by an alien invasion, force them to take sides in a struggle for control of the city.
These moments of interaction and confusion between the powerful new arrival and her companions, and their clashes with largely-hostile local groups, form the central chunk of the narrative and I found them convincing and entertaining. The moment where horrific erupting violence causes the alien to angrily yet flatly declare "I hate humans" is moving and saddening. Okorafor effectively weaves wry and often condemning comment on Lagos society and humanity at large within her fantastical adventure.
Aside from this core plot of the three humans and the alien, myriad smaller stories interrupt to give greater scope to the tale. Some of these stories connect with the central narrative, whilst others show the impact of the invasion and the human response in various unconnected ways. A fair share of some of wildest flights of imagination were in these moments (a giant killer swordfish, ancient spirits jumping into computers, and a mythical spider living under Lagos are three highlights) yet I felt in them the main weakness of 'Lagoon'. Though any section would be good enough as a short story in their own right - especially a surreal road episode that made me think of The Walking Dead and other post-apocalyptic horror - they distracted from the flow of the central plot. Despite adding range and colour, they reduced tension ultimately, and the variance in narration perspective from first to third added to this reductive disconnection.
However, this may really be a case of praising with faint damning. The author's chief characters are so compelling, original and sympathetic that to be away from them in the company of relative stereotypes was a pity. Also, I'm not sure how the epic scale of the events could have been shown through just their eyes, nor would I have wanted to dilute their story by having it become a novel told by a more evenly-weighted yet less-complex crowd of witnesses.
Overall, this is a book that did what my favourite ones do - took me to another world. There is much in it I liked purely because of its - to me - original location and culture. Whilst some of the local dialect dialogue was sometimes confusing (there is a glossary at the back but my ebook version didn't signpost this), the shifts in language were fascinating, and the sense of refreshment at reading about a place I know little of was an additional satisfaction. It is slightly hard, therefore, for me to separate entirely the quality from the context, just as I used to wonder, 'Do I find Japanese horror more spooky because its an alien culture and language or are they just better?'. Still, I'm just a dumb white English person, and I wouldn't stop to think this if the vivid descriptions, keen dialogue and surprising plotting weren't already very good and had already made me greedily gobble through the pages in four days (that's quick for me, and there were no pictures neither...). Despite minor flaws, I loved 'Lagoon'.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 for managing to combine Lagos social commentary, Nigerian folklore and sci-fi action and still entertain; +1 for something stranger, more intelligent and beguiling than the usual UFO attack.
Negatives: -1 for the above issue of weaving the various stories together and losing some pace and tension, and for the out-of-place line 'How would you have felt?', addressed straight to the reader. I'm not your dear reader and you're not Austen. Stop it.
Nerd Coefficient : 9/10 "very high quality / stand-out in its category"
(See our scoring system for why 9/10 is something special)
Posted By: English Scribbler, Galala dancehall champion and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2013.