Saturday, May 28, 2016

Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Published: Hodder & Stoughten (2014), Saga Press (2015)
Awards Nominated: BSFA, Tiptree, and Red Tentacle (Kitschie) Awards

The Book:

When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself.”

This is the second book I’ve read by Okorafor, and I’ve also read her novella Binti recently.  She wrote in the afterword that this novel was inspired by her irritation with District 9.  It is definitely an unusually fantastical take on a first contact story.

My Thoughts:

I think I’m starting to get a sense of the general style of fiction Okorafor seems to prefer writing, violent and chaotic stories that mix science fiction and fantasy.  The premise of Lagoon is first contact with an alien species in Lagos, Nigeria, but things start to get weird very quickly.  At first, there’s the extreme alien technology that seems quite a lot like magic (excessive control over matter and energy), but that’s nothing too out of the ordinary for science fiction.  Soon, though, one realizes that the three central characters have unexplained superpowers, and that the aliens have begun waking up mythological creatures from the subconscious of the land and people. The increasingly bizarre situation is grounded in seriousness by the violent consequences for the humans caught up in the change.  Aside from the impact of aliens or mythological creatures, Lagoon does not shy away from showing the brutality of the darker side of human nature.

The chaotic aspect of the story makes it unpredictable, but a little frustrating as well.  The viewpoint is not restricted to the three protagonists, but instead leaps around wildly to many minor characters--some of whom are only around for a single scene.  A few of the one-off viewpoints are pretty neat, such as the perspective of a swordfish or a tarantula.  However, the jumping around sometimes seems to slow the central plot’s momentum down to a crawl, and to give each of the individual viewpoint characters very little time to develop beyond first impressions. All of this makes the novel feel overloaded with too many different stories, some of which receive little or no resolution. For example, there is a subplot about a secret LGBT support group trying to go public alongside the alien arrival, but it seems to be dropped partway through the novel with little resolution.  I think the intention of this approach is to show how the aliens’ arrival affects a wide variety of people in different ways, but the end result just felt a little too fractured for me.

Within the story, I was a little bothered by the inconsistency of the alien’s morality.  The aliens arrive first in the lagoon, and commune with the sea creatures.  When they meet humans, they are shocked by the violence we do to one another.  However, we later see that the sea creatures consciously kill for malice, so I’m not really sure why the aliens are so horrified only by human behavior.  For that matter, the aliens seem to regard sea creatures as people, but then do not show the same regret for killing them as they do for human beings.  I think it was primarily because of these concerns that the (somewhat) happy ending felt unconvincing to me.

On a final positive note, it was interesting to see a science fiction story set in Lagos, a place I have never been.  The story felt very grounded in location, and the many references I did not understand led me to do a lot of reading about the city online.  The Pidgin English was a little hard to follow at first, but the glossary helped.  I also got the impression that Okorafor might be using a restricted Pidgin vocabulary and grammar, in order to make things a bit easier on her readers, but I have no idea whether or not this is true.  Anyway, it’s always fun to be inspired by fiction to learn more about the world!

My Rating: 3/5

Lagoon is a science fantasy novel about first contact with aliens in Lagos, Nigeria.  The inclusion of superpowers and Nigerian mythology makes it a very unusual kind of science fiction story, and I enjoyed how entwined the Lagos setting was with the story.  The perspective jumps wildly between the protagonists and many minor characters, showing the impact of the alien arrival on a wide variety of living things.  However, I felt that the constantly shifting perspectives slowed down the plot and kept many of the characters one-dimensional.  I was also not completely convinced of the coherence of the aliens’ morality, and that led me to be unsatisfied with the way the main plot was eventually resolved. Despite my complaints, it was definitely an original book, and I have never read a first contact story quite like it!  

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