Three strangers, isolated by their own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the world famous rapper. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before.
But when a meteorite hits the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they’ve never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world… and themselves.
Aside from the setting, that blurb makes Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel sound like just another first-contact novel, a theme and plot we’ve read many times before. To imagine that that’s what Lagoon is would, however, be a serious mistake. Indeed, Lagoon is as far away from the standard first contact novel as its African setting is from the standard Anglo-American one.
The most superficially striking thing about Lagoon is the use of Nigerian Pidgin English for significant parts of the dialogue, a decision which might make the novel seem more formidable to the reader than is actually the case; to leaven this, Okorafor has (I discovered on finishing the novel) included a glossary-cum-dictionary in the back of the novel. However, this is actually not as necessary as one’s immediate impression might lead one to believe. In fact, as one reads the 400 pages of the book the pidgin English becomes almost as natural as the “real” – read, Western/AngloAmerican – language, and it really conveys immediately a lot about a character whether they use formal English or the pidgin form, as well as creating a sense of place and setting like nothing else.
That setting is integral for the plot; Lagoon is at least as much a novel about Lagos (specifically; in the same way much urban fantasy is specifically about the city in which it is set, not “America” as a whole – this is not a Nigerian, let alone an African, novel, but a Lagosian one) as it is about an alien invasion. Whilst the appearance of aliens and the changes they wreak on the environment and people of Lagos is a catalyst for the plot, the way the city reacts and the counterreaction to that reaction form the meat and drink of the novel, with the aliens bookending the novel as cental figures, rather than being central throughout the work. That the aliens are something we’ve seen before, acting in ways that are familiar to us, is irrelevant when how that actually plays out is so fresh and new; and the Lagos-centric view feels as natural, total and complete as the parochial myopia of much Western-set science fiction in its failure to acknowledge non-Western nations’ existence and reactions. There’s a deleted scene at the end of the novel whose inclusion would have rather diluted that, and I’m glad for its deletion, but I’ll discuss that more in a post here tomorrow!
The plot of Lagoon draws in each of the three (black) protagonists, who meet by chance before essentially being abducted by aliens from the beach; aliens who change them and the world – or at least the corner of it that is Lagos. This leads to wahala – chaos, or trouble – in the streets of Lagos as the ramifications of even the smallest actions of the aliens gain greater and greater effect, snowballing into (visibly) global impact by the end of the novel; but we keep seeing those large, national/global concerns brought down to the human level, with chapters that break away from our protagonists and, in either first or third person, recount the reactions of what are essentially bystanders to or spectators of (rather than participants in) this monumental change. Okorafor handles that element beautifully, and really keeps control of her points of view and style such that the different characters of Lagoon (including something that sounds very like an authorial proxy within the story) are immediately recognisable and are also incredibly human and both relatable and believable.
I’m incredibly glad that this book found publishers willing to put effort and time into its distribution; Lagoon is both alike other first contact novels and unique of itself, and I hope it finds success and paves the way for a whole host more African-set genre fiction by nonwhite authors!