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 aliens, who claim foremost to be "agents of change," open a great rift in Nigerian society — one which which is rapidly filled with human created chaos and suffering. It's a fascinating portrait of a place in the midst of the sort of Earth-shattering changes that science fiction is perfectly suited to depicting — doubly so, because it's set in a place we don't usually see portrayed in science fiction.
The story mostly follows three characters drawn to Bar Beach in the moments before the alien ship appears: Anthony, a Ghanaian rapper; Agu, a soldier on the run; and Adaora, a marine biologist with marital problems. The three find themselves in charge of a naïve and powerful alien being, who Adaora names Ayodele.
Protecting Ayodele and arranging a meeting between her and the President of Nigeria are the three main characters' simple and reasonable goals — which are spectacularly complicated by riots, sea monsters and their own, very strange, backstories. The plot moves quickly, spinning out this small scale story against the backdrop of Lagos.
At the height of the alien-inspired chaos, the narrative structure, which has seemed periodically wobbly, breaks down completely. Okorafor allows the story to explode in series of first-person intercut views of the riots. The sudden appearances of gods and monsters, the blossoming intelligence of animals and the horrific cost of human violence slash through the first contact story as if Okorafor is loudly proclaiming that no novel can possibly hold the complete experience of the changes being wrought.
This is not to say the whole thing is overwhelmingly dark and tragic. There are moments of humor and flights of fancy as well. The aliens' wish-fulfilling interference with the local sea life is extremely enjoyable for the reader, if not always for the characters.
Okorafor, whose parents are from Nigeria, clearly loves and is repulsed by Lagos. The deep contradictions of place – where natural beauty, governmental failure, amazing music, absolute poverty, modern social media, deep-rooted traditions, religious fanaticism and multiculturalism all coexist – make Lagos a stronger character than many of the people walking through her streets. I don't think I could draw you a map of Lagos after reading the novel, but it certainly feels like I would recognize the sights and sounds. Her use of Nigerian-English patois for many characters' speech seems a touch overwhelming at first, but the dialogue's interstitials easily get the meaning across even if a reader never gets the hang of it.
Adaora, confused by her marriage's sudden turn toward violence and considering her options, is the most complex of the main characters. Ayodele, the shape-shifting nano-tech alien, is perhaps meant to be a like a wise and occasionally petulant child, but it would have been nice to know whether the other aliens thought of her that way. The other characters are, perhaps, a bit more one note. Though this seems understandable when you realize the whole novel takes place over a couple days. Unfortunately, the one-note villains lean towards camp, particularly the overweening Christian pastor.
Okorafor in previous work has shown herself to be a master of characterization, which only highlights these missteps. In the author's afterward she reveals that Lagoon is partly in response to the film District 9. This seems to explain the slightly flatter characterization and the novel's occasional filmic feel. While perhaps not as strong as her much critically exclaimed over and award-winning novel, Who Fears Death, Lagoon is a fascinating entry into the science fiction of place. Also a fascinating entry into the canon of stories about vengeful biologically-enhanced swordfish.