The aliens have landed. They’re here, on Earth, and they want to help. They’re going to use their amazing powers and advanced technology for the good of our planet. This is it. This is first contact.
What’s the catch? The first first contact wasn’t with humans. It was with the denizens of the deep ocean, some of which aren’t very happy with the way humans have been treating them and their waters.
This is the basis for Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon. Her aliens haven’t come to New York, or Los Angeles, or even Cardiff. They’ve come to Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor is an American writer with Nigerian parents, and her exploration of the city itself is one thing I loved about this book. Bits of Nigerian history, culture, and language are interwoven with the alien story in a way that never feels dry or preachy. She’s even dedicated the book to the people of Lagos—“animals, plant, and spirit.”
This isn’t an unconditional love song to the city or to Nigeria, however. Okorafor takes us to a place that is beset by poverty, political corruption, and failing infrastructure. The president is infirm and incapable of producing real change. So-called religious leaders use superstition and intimidation to grow their own fortunes. Petty crime is rampant.
Out of the ocean and onto this scene step our alien visitors. They can take any shape they want by rearranging their body’s molecules, and several come in human form as ambassadors to the people of Lagos. The visitors are peaceful and want to help, but they’re not putting up with any violence from humans—see, they can rearrange our molecules too.
The main story revolves around three humans, Adaora, a marine biologist, Agu, a soldier, and Anthony, a musician. The three are approached by Ayodele, an alien who takes the form of a beautiful woman. After a predictable amount of dithering about What To Do Next, the A-Team decides to go to the president, so Ayodele can take him to her leaders.
The news of the alien landing spreads quickly thanks to the Internet and social media. There are riots in the streets and the traffic is so bad that no one can get out of the city. The narrative leaves the A-Team for a long time to explore how first contact affects everyone else in Nigeria. And I do mean everyone. There are chapters about students, LGBTQ activists, a prostitute, a priest, a visiting American rapper, a homeless mute boy, an alien-enhanced bat, a seven-legged tarantula…the list goes on.
This was where the story started to feel thin for me. While the cross-section of Nigerian life was fascinating, I had a hard time connecting to the characters, many of whom come and go in the space of a single chapter. I would have been happy spending more time with Adoara. I wanted to know more about her family and her struggle for normalcy and acceptance despite her mysterious abilities. Adoara, Agu, and Anthony all had experiences with the paranormal before the aliens landed. The revelation of their powers, and of how they can use them to help Nigeria, is the most satisfying payoff in the book.
That’s my other favorite piece. Lagoon features not just aliens, but other powerful creatures that have been here all along. If you’re familiar with Igbo culture or you’ve read Okorafor’s young adult novel, Akata Witch, you’ll recognize Ijele Masquerade. Legba, a West African voodoo god, makes an appearance, as does Udide Okwankwa, story-telling spider and spiritual cousin to Anansi. These types of characters don’t get a lot of play in science fiction or fantasy. It’s always aliens or gods, science or folklore, the future or the past. Lagoon gives us both and it’s awesome.
At the end of the book, my biggest complaint was the flatness of so many characters. That’s a big one, for me, enough to knock this down from four stars to three. This is a personal thing. I love some books that have cookie-cutter settings, no plot, and clunky dialogue, but I stay because I like the characters. The inverse can also be true. If the people in the book don’t feel real to me, I’m out.
I’d recommend Lagoon if you love alien invasion stories but need a shakeup in the setting. If you do read it, you should know that there’s a useful glossary of terms in the back of the book. The sections of dialogue in Pidgin English weren’t too hard to understand without it, but if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like reading unfamiliar dialects this could be handy.
After the acknowledgements there’s a very fun “post-chapter” that gives us a glimpse of the American reaction to aliens invading Nigeria. Three college students sit around watching the video footage and debating whether or not it’s all a hoax. The deciding argument is all-too-true comment on the state of diversity in American media:
“And look at the ‘stars’ of the show. They black. Even the heroes are black. You think they gon’ spend they money to put somethin’ together that looks this real and actually allow black folks to star in it? Real Africans? And they set it in Africa?”
If they did, I would totally go see it.