Combining a half-baked species of magical realism with high-minded science fiction, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon sits in an uneasy twilight of muddled themes that don’t quite coalesce into a coherent story. In many respects the novel serves as a love letter to a fictional Lagos, Nigeria, with sentient spiders, aquatic monsters, and magically-enhanced protagonists fighting for attention in the context of awakening gods and visiting space aliens. The novel shines brightest in its depiction of life in Lagos, a place that mingles middle-class wealth with desperate poverty, but is overshadowed by the huge cast of characters that do nothing to move the minimal plot along.
Lagoon is an unusual sort of first-contact tale: an alien spacecraft appears in the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, and three people are drawn to its arrival: Adaora, a marine biologist; Anthony, a rapper; and Agu, a soldier. Adding to the confusion of A-names, Adaora christens the alien they meet Ayodele. The rest of the novel is taken up with how the alien Ayodele interacts with people, how Ayodele intends to change the world, and how life in Lagos is altered by the event.
The antagonists are Chris, Adaora’s husband, who has recently found Christianity, and Chris’s priest, Father Oke. Father Oke follows the cliché of Christian clergy in fiction: greedy, occasionally violent, entirely without ethics. His influence on Chris is profound, turning Chris from a loving husband and father into an abusive, bull-headed monster. While Islam is also mentioned as a religious influence on Nigeria, you won’t find anything uncomplimentary said or implied of it in the novel; after all, it’s a lot safer to stigmatize Christians than Muslims.
When reading a book for review, I always avoid finding anything out about the author until after the book’s finished. My intent is to review the text, not the writer. Nnedi Okorafor is a communist, an out-and-proud Marxist, and this is made clear early on in the novel during an exchange with Chris and Father Oke:
Father Oke made the sign of the cross. This always calmed his parishioners down. Now was no exception. Chris instantly quieted and relaxed. “Trust in the Lord, Brother Chris….Go to bed. I will see you tomorrow.”
Sufficiently opiated by the words of his beloved priest, Chris felt better.
This term “opiated” brings to mind Karl Marx’s sort-of quote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” and Okorafor’s love of the destructive, anti-human philosophy of communism is also reflected in the words of the wise alien Ayodele, who says to the president of Nigeria, “You believe in Marxism, yet you are too powerless to enact it.” It’s the superintelligent alien’s version of the modern-day communist’s lament, “Communism works: it just hasn’t been tried properly yet.” While this isn’t a main theme of the novel, the anti-Christian nature of communism is a theme, and hence is worthy of comment.
I liked the pidgin dialect of the Lagosians, the “Face me, I face you” apartments, the peeks into the darker side of life in Lagos. At times Ayodele the alien seemed impatient, even sulky, which added some personality to an otherwise bland, all-wise, all-knowing superbeing. It’s just that the mix of African highway gods and underwater extraterrestrials didn’t do it for me; there wasn’t enough communication between them for the story to make sense. The novel just ended with nothing resolved, which added to the general lack of plot. It’s not that Lagoon needs a sequel to tie the disparate strands together: it needed an editor.
I’m always eager to read science fiction from other cultures, and I’m glad I got a glimpse into a fictional Nigeria with Lagoon. I just don’t know if I can recommend it.