Lagoon is Nnedi Okorafor’s first novel for an adult audience since her World Fantasy Award winner Who Fears Death in 2010. And it could not be a more different book. Who Fears Death was a grim, hellish and emotionally draining saga of post-apocalyptic destiny that often recalled the epic dramatic sweep of Dune. By contrast, Lagoon often feels like it’s written with a light touch, even when its characters are embroiled in mayhem and a full-on breakdown of society. Some readers have commented that this book feels like Nnedi’s response to the movie District 9, which also told of an alien arrival in a major African metropolis, but which portrayed Nigerians in — shall we say — a less than flattering light. There may be some truth to that interpretation, but mainly I think Nnedi intended to tell a story that celebrated the unique vitality of Lagos itself, a city of some 20 million people. And yes, it’s a celebration that does not shy away from portraying the city’s less savory elements: its street crime, the corruption of its politics and the Nigerian military, not even its notorious 419 internet scammers.
One of Nnedi’s stylistic hallmarks is the way she structures her narratives so that events unfold the way they do in folk tales or legends, so that even when you read her books set in the modern day, like this one, everything feels like fate has taken a hand in events ages ago. Lagoon begins as three people find themselves drawn one night, as if by fate, to one of Lagos’s most popular beaches. One of these is Agu, a soldier who’s just assaulted his superior; another is Adaora, a marine biologist; and the third is Anthony, a hip hop star from Ghana. The three of them are promptly swept out to sea by a massive wave, where they experience first contact with the alien ambassador, who returns them to shore and then takes human form. Adaora names this being Ayodele.
Where these aliens came from remains an enigma, and their only stated goal is to integrate with Lagosian society. But before Ayodele even makes her presence known to the city at large, there are individuals seeking to profit from her arrival, all the way from a wealthy evangelist sleaze who hopes to boost his fame by converting the aliens (American evangelical religion is here viciously skewered as one of the West's most corrupting influences upon Lagosian culture), to a gang of klutzy small time hoods who think they can kidnap her and that somehow riches will just flow naturally from this. When Ayodele finally does announce herself — by taking command of all the city’s electronic media — chaos erupts, and reality itself simply throws out the rule book. Suddenly, it’s like a party at China Miéville’s house, with roadways themselves coming to life, and ancient demigods and monsters wandering the city, along with the shape-shifting aliens themselves, who have emerged from the sea like the watery undead, and now seem more disoriented and lost than anyone.
This riot of pure anarchy lends Lagoon a quality that’s comparable, more than anything Nnedi has written before, to a blockbuster summer movie. There’s more outright action than she’s written to date. And yet there’s a kind of dream logic to all these events, as crazy as things get, because Nnedi has set things up so that we’re aware there is and has always been an element of the strange and otherworldly to Lagosian society. We learn that from childhood, Agu, Anthony and Adaora have all had some power they cannot explain, which itself explains why they might have been chosen by the aliens for first contact.
Nnedi writes with a lot of wit, and she has a clear sympathy and affinity for even her less likable characters. Even the Nigerian president, whom we first meet as the very personification of a leader too weak and diminished to actually take charge in a crisis. When he tells Ayodele, “Take me to your leader,” it’s a delightfully funny and very knowing reversal of an age-old trope.
The book also addresses the relationship between east and west, as despite Lagos being one of the world’s most populous cities, few Americans or westerners know a thing about the place, except some people may know there’s a lot of offshore oil drilling there. In the story, most people in the west don’t notice or care about the alien invasion of Lagos until viral videos and other coverage start spreading online. And even then they don’t realize what they’re watching is a sign human history has just turned a corner. They take it as entertainment. And the aliens themselves have no particular interest in anyplace else in the world other than Lagos. Indeed, they are there because they feel they fit in. Lagos has such a propulsive and quickly evolving culture that, as far as Ayodele is concerned, the aliens’ arrival isn’t so much bringing change as accelerating a process the city is already doing on its own.
A book unlike any other in the genre right now, Lagoon simply explodes with freshness, creative urgency, and above all entertainment from every single page. Science fiction has too few writers as fearless as Nnedi Okorafor, or as willing to go for broke in their storytelling. You owe it to yourself to get swept as deeply into this Lagoon as you can.