Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor

For some reason, in just about every alien invasion movie I've seen, the aliens land somewhere in the US if they don't outright park their ship on the White House lawn. Why they would pick that particular spot on the globe, which covers only a small percentage of the earth's surface and doesn't look particularly special from orbit is beyond me. The makers of the movie District 9 must have wondered about that too because they decided to have their spaceship appear above Johannesburg, South Africa. Okorafor mentions that this movie was what triggered her to write Lagoon, so I decided to watch t. It's a curious movie and I can see why it pissed of just about the entire nation of Nigeria. For a movie which main theme is xenophobia, the portrayal of Nigerians in District 9 is downright offensive. The story must have gotten away from Okorafor's initial inspiration though. The movie and the book have very little to do with each other.

On Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria, three complete strangers meet and witness something huge striking the ocean a few miles of the coast. It is the start of a series of strange events that will turn their lives upside down and reshape the history of the city, the nation and the world as a whole. Aliens have landed and they bring change. Before that, our three heroes must save the city from tearing itself apart. Accompanied by an alien ambassador they head out into chaos.

Given my introduction you might expect a more positive picture of Nigerians to emerge than the criminal cannibals in District 9. And in a way that is the case. Lagos is described as vibrant and diverse. That being said, she is not blind to the problems the city faces either. Poverty, prostitution, homophobia, corruption,  internet fraud and religious intolerance all show up prominently in the novel. Riots soon break out after the cause of the strange phenomena that wash over the city becomes known. They are opportunistic and extremely violent. In the midst of all this chaos however, sacrifice, compassion and remorse show up time and again. It is a far cry from the dehumanized criminals in District 9.

Nigeria is a nation with many ethnic groups. The three largest, Yoruba, Haussa and Igbo, make up about sixty percent of the population, with countless others making up the rest. Throughout the novel we find the characters constantly aware of the ethnic and cultural divisions and the linguistic complications that can cause. As happened in many places in Africa, the lingua franca of the nation is that of the former colonial power: English. For everyday use, it has evolved into a pidgin language with many influences from various African languages. Okorafor uses this pidgin English extensively in the novel and provides a list of key terms in the back of the book. It took me a bit to get into it. As a second language speaker of English I always have a bit of trouble with English that deviates too much from the school-taught standards. It does give the reader the feeling it has been written by someone who knows Nigeria. I assume Okorafor had to hold back in a few places to keep the novel from becoming incomprehensible for those who are not familiar with the country but it is the kind of detail I appreciate in a book. There is an audiobook version of this novel, someone probably had a lot of fun putting that together.

Their is more than a bit of religious tension in the book as well. Nigeria is divided in roughly equal parts Christian and Muslin communities and violence between them has flared up periodically. Okorafor works that into the novel at various point but perhaps more interestingly, she also reaches back to the traditional  beliefs of the Yoruba and Igbo peoples. Several mythological figures show up in the story and in those parts it is most obvious that the novel is written for a western audience. Explanations about who these figures are are worked into the text. Especially later on in the novel, these occurrences are used as a herald of change. A departure from the oil addicted, corrupt economy by reaching back to the roots of the land, bringing to the surface a Nigeria that cannot be erased by the evils of colonialism, religious strife and environmental degradation. It is a change that needs a catalyst though, barring alien invasions, it is not easy to see what other development could provide it.

Okorafor uses quite a large and varied cast in this relatively short novel. There is liberated marine biologist Adaora and her fundamentalists Christian husband Chris, the compassionate soldier Agu and the famous Ghanaian rapper Anthony, the corrupt priest Father Oke and the unnamed Nigerian president (probably based on Umaru Musa Yar'Adua who was president of Nigeria from 2007 till 2010) and of course the alien ambassador Ayodele. They all play important parts in the chaotic and dramatic events in the novel. I grew particularly fond on Adaora and Anthony, which in my opinion are the most rounded characters of the lot. That is, if you want to see the people are the main characters. One could very easily argue that this is one of those novels where the setting is the real main character. Lagos after all, is the one that undergoes the most profound change in the novel.

Lagoon is an alien invasion novel like you probably never read before. It's wildly different setting and its clear break with the conventions of this particular subgenre make it one of the most interesting science fiction novels I've read in a long while. There are so many interesting aspects to this novel that I get the feeling I can't possibly do this book justice in a thousand word review. It is another novel in a movement to make science fiction more international and multicultural, one of those books that even a decade ago, would have had a hard time finding an audience. I thought reading it was an amazing experience. It's one of those 2014 books that ought to be in this years awards ballots. I can't recommend it enough. Go read it.

Book Details
Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafo
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 301
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-444-76276-1
First published: 2014

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