I came across Nnedi Okorafor a few months ago when I was browsing TED Talks. In a talk at the TEDGlobal Conference in August 2017, she discussed Afrofuturism and read out some excerpts from her Binti novella trilogy and from Lagoon. In the talk, she said:
“Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing.
It’s all about the question, “What if?”
Still, not all science fiction has the same ancestral bloodline, that line being Western-rooted science fiction, which is mostly white and male.”
Despite piquing my interest, I hadn’t picked up any of Okorafor’s books until two weeks ago, as most of them fall into the Young Adult (YA) category.
After finishing The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, I was on the lookout for something equally gripping to read. I found myself thinking back to that TED Talk, and decided that Lagoon—her second adult novel—may be exciting and innovative enough to capture my interest during the “comedown” of finishing such an excellent book.
Lagoon more than accomplished that task. While there were elements of it that bored me somewhat (the lack of subtlety on certain themes, the lack of depth in many characters, for example), I was sufficiently invested in the story that I read it in a few days.
The book centres on three main characters: a marine biologist, a soldier and a famous rapper. The three are brought together in the aftermath of an alien arrival in Lagos, Nigeria. In the ensuing chaos, Okorafor takes the reader on a whirlwind ride around the city and beyond, following different characters affected by the events.
I found the following comment from io9 on Okorafor’s website, which seems a rather pithy summary:
“Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel, is a swirling writhing cross section of life in Lagos, Nigeria as aliens make contact for the first time ever. It doesn’t go smoothly — a fact which allows Okorafor to bring to life a fascinating view of Lagos in all its contradictions.”
The structure of the book is somewhat chaotic, flitting from one character to the next in rapid succession. At times this was tiring, as I wanted some consistency to the storyline, but then again, this style reflects the chaos of the events which are unfolding. Despite my initial reservations, this turned out to be a clever device on the part of the author.
I already knew that Okorafor could craft a compelling story just from her 10 minute TED Talk. The writing in Lagoon is accessible and engaging. I got the impression that she was more focused on creating a well-woven story than worrying about flowery, descriptive language. One criticism I must mention though: never have I seen the word ‘undulating’ repeated so many times. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great word, but surely an editor at some point must have noticed the repetition and considered substituting it for ‘rippling’ or ‘waving’?!
Anyway, now that’s out of the way we can move on to one final point. Okorafor grew up in the US but she is clearly tuned in to Nigerian society and politics. Perhaps as a sort-of-outsider, she has an interesting birds-eye view. I read a lot of books by Nigerian authors and enjoy learning more about the country. Through this fictional story, the author has provided a sweeping insight into the diversity of Nigerian culture.
I’ll finish with a quote from the book itself:
“Adaora was beginning to see why Ayodele’s people had chosen the city of Lagos. If they’d landed in New York, Tokyo or London, the governments of these places would have quickly swooped in to hide, isolate and study the aliens. Here in Lagos, there was no such order.
Yet and still, the country had vigorous life. Everybody wants to leave Lagos, she thought. But nobody goes. Lagos is in the blood. We run back to Lagos the moment we step out, even though we may have vowed never to come back.”