Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor


Anthony laughed. “You bring in what you put out. Lagos …” He patted Agu and Adaora on the shoulders and dropped into Pidgin English. “‘Lasgidi’ you dey call am, right? Eko? Isn’t that what you people call Lagos? Place of belle-sweet, gidi gidi, kata kata, isu, and wahala. Lagos is energy. It never stops.

Lagoon is Nnedi Okorafor’s first science fiction novel, written in an entirely Nnedi Okorafor-esque way—it’s a first contact story of aliens landing on Earth, written in the context of collision of modernity and change with tradition, folklore, and mythology.

In the middle of the night, an alien ship lands in the lagoon outside the city of Lagos. These aliens don’t just bring with them the promise of change—they are change. Thousands of Lagosians witness or are a part of this change, from the people on the street, to the members of the church, to the military, to regular creatures, to strange creatures, to the gods of old. The city explodes as a result of this change. Nothing will ever be the same. And leading the way is Adaora, a marine biologist; Agu; a soldier; and Anthony Dey Craze, a famous Ghanaian rapper, the first three people to witness the aliens’ arrival and the first to be changed by it.

Lagoon is a novel of multiple voices and perspectives, multiple conflicting, opposing, and coalescing stories of what happened that night during the landing and its aftermath. It took a while for me to figure out how to read because unlike what I assumed in the beginning, Adaora, Agu, and Anthony are not the protagonists. Yes, they’re billed as such, but the narrative doesn’t treat them as such. (Anthony’s POV gets probably a tenth of the page time in the entire book.) Adaora is the person whose perspective we follow the most. Her narrative provides the most linear storyline of what happens and so acts as a centering narrative for the other three. Otherwise this is a story of a multitude of voices and not one or two or three.

Really though, the protagonist of Lagoon is Lagos itself—the hustling, bustling, chaotic Nigerian city Nnedi Okorafor brings to vivid and immediate life. As soon as I realized this, I had a much more enjoyable time reading the story and immersing myself in all these different reactions to the aliens arriving in Lagos (ex., a swordfish, a bat, a bishop who wants the aliens to join his church, some college students who want the aliens to participate in their money-making schemes, Americans visiting Nigeria, and many more.)

The aliens themselves are fascinating, and feel like something Octavia Butler could have come up with. Not only can these aliens change their own shapes, but they can shape others’ physicality, humans and animals alike. Just their very existence ignites change—there is no way for any alien to land on Earth without change precipitating as a result. And in Lagoon, this story of contact is not one of danger and impending destruction, but one of perspective hope and positive change for all Nigerians and Nigeria as a country.

I also loved how the criss-cross of older traditions and newer beliefs and how the arrival of aliens exacerbates both those divides and the places where they intersect. And narratives! I loved how the gods themselves became a part of this tipping point in Lagosian and Nigerian history, replicating older narratives while setting up the stage for entirely new ones. Take one instance while the President is giving a speech to the whole country about the aliens and the humans who are their representatives:

However, he didn’t say a word about it all, he still felt Agu, Adaora, and Anthony were witches. Good witches, but witches nonetheless. Old outdated ways of thinking don’t die easily, and sometimes they don’t die at all.

But then the storytelling spider Udide Okwanka, who’s been spinning stories of Lagos since its birth, takes the initiative to step outside her role and join the story in response to this new world order, and her elucidation of this is fantastic.

My only complaint is that the overall narrative was sometimes confusing, not because of the language or culture or story itself, but because it seemed at times like the action in a scene would skip ahead in time, and I wouldn’t have followed the jump or understood how the narrative got from Point A to Point B. This was particularly an issue with Adaora, Agu, and Anthony’s POV chapters, and since they are the three characters who move the plot forward, it was frustrating not be able to fully comprehend at times just how they’d gotten certain places or when they’d undertaken certain actions.

Lagoon is a wonderfully different kind of science fiction story, and one that should appeal to readers of genres such as magical realism or literary fiction in addition to science fiction. I prefer Nnedi Okorafor’s other adult novels (Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix), but I still really appreciated reading Lagoon. It’s science fiction making its own rules and playing in an entirely different sandbox and telling a different kind of story with a different kind of ending than usual Western-rooted science fiction, and it’s a joy to read.

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