Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review of Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is one of genre’s more divisive offerings.  Loved or hated, it tells of an alien arriving with a message of universal love and the religious, political, and social reaction as a commune of belief is created around it.  Heinlein painting the scene in black and white, his ideas are presented via contemptuous satire, rendering the novel largely a soapbox—the reason behind said reader discord.

Enter Nnedi Okorafor’s 2014 Lagoon.  About aliens who arrive in Nigeria bearing a message of love, likewise all manner of chaos is unleashed as they spread knowledge of their mission.  Lagoon is significantly different from Heinlein in tone and attitude, however.  Rather than bludgeoning the reader with jaded cynicism, Okorafor presents the social and political issues Nigeria is dealing with in candid fashion while integrating the alien viewpoint, arriving at something greener, something more holistic than just the disparaging dichotomy of Heinlein.  Her commentary may sometimes be (indirectly) cutting, but Lagoon remains a warm, parental novel—the strong hand of love—that is more constructive than destructive.  Not just Heinlein’s stick, Okorafor also offers the carrot. 

Nigeria running with the colors of sunshine and blood, shiny mobile phones and gritty streets, and old and new world beliefs in its move toward a globalized country, Lagoon is foremost a brilliant character study—the capitol Lagos itself that character in transition.  An anthill kicked by the arrival of aliens off Bar Beach, the true personalities of its citizens emerge in the aftermath.  Renewed faiths, mass exodus, rioting, public gatherings, military action, opportunism, confrontation—all send the people scurrying toward the anchors of their souls they rarely looked to in everyday life.

But just perhaps it means a new dawn for Lagos.  Arising from the sea is the angelic light of the alien Ayodele.  Of the “we come in peace” variety, she promises a better life, and is met with a host of reactions.  Attempts at kidnapping, flight, stunned wonder, social media explosions, knock-kneed terror, religious backlash—the people of Lagos are struck by her.  Father Oke sees the arrival as a chance to spread the gospel to the stars.  Adaora wants to dig deeper into the science behind the aliens, all the while balancing her family’s troubles.  And the rapper, Anthony Dey Craze, wants to capitalize in fame and money.  But for all, Ayodele holds a promise that Lagos may not be able to contain.

It’s thus that the theatrical structure of Lagoon is fitting.  When encountering “Act I,” I put in my notes “any underlying purpose?”  Okorafor uses the idea wonderfully.  In addition to the stage presence her main characters achieve, breaking the novel up like a play serves to also spotlight said transitions they, and the city, go through.  Enhanced by the arch tone of each of the act’s prologues, Okorafor shows exquisite command throughout her story, guiding the city and its people through the alien landing to beyond.  Lagos may seem to have burst its bounds on numerous occasions trying to deal with Ayodele’s existence, but continually Okorafor’s gentle hand coaxes the chaos toward pertinent, poignant resolutions properly staged, prior.

I would be at fault were I to finish this review without mentioning Okorafor’s usage of language.*  Lucid and often lyrical, Lagos comes to life through the vivid character portrayals.  Each springs off the page.  And while a handful of characters anchor the plot, there are several minor characters whose interwoven side stories add that little extra layer of detail to truly flesh out the populace—the pickpocket, the President and his two wives, even the seven-legged spider.

In the end, Lagoon is a science fiction love letter to Lagos and Nigeria.  While admonishing her countrymen for their faults, Okorafor extends her arms to embrace them, whispering in their ears of better things, of higher goals than just religious conformance, political corruption, and commercial greed.  The colors of the city warmly and vividly presented, Okorafor creates an African version of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land yet does a markedly better job balancing issues at stake and solutions possible.  Full of dynamic, breathing characters built on a sentiment that rises above the bumps and bruises the country takes coming to terms with aliens in their waters, it is a prosaic, motherly, transcendent novel that really stands out in 2014.  (For those who read Lagoon and are looking for something similar, try John Kessel’s 1989 Good News from Outer Space or Ian Watson's Miracle Visitors.)  

*I should confess that I listened to the audiobook of Lagoon.  This is a confession because, I believe the voice acting so superb as to have affected my better judgment of the novel.  Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe are perfect. Listening to the voices of the characters is sheer pleasure that lingers while the story is being told.  The narration bubbling and diving parallel to story, I’m quite certain it influenced my opinion to the point the “reading experience” was completely different than the average rainy day and cup of tea.  Highly, highly recommended.


  1. Hey thanks for this review as well as the confession at the end. I skimmed the review itself to avoid possible spoilers because the comparison to Heinlein was enough to convince me to seek it out. I started Stranger in a Strange Land last year but only got through about twenty or so pages - that had to do with the style of story telling more than anything else. Heinlein I've always struggled with. But the confession was also useful because I've also struggled with reading for almost fifteen years now, where for ten years prior I had no issues, and have never tried the audiobook route.

    Thanks! :)

    1. Firstly, thanks for stopping by my backwaters of the web. I do my very best not to include spoilers in my reviews, so feel free to read. :)

      Regarding audiobooks, the quality depends on many factors - some inherent to the text and some to the voice actors. A good voice actor enhances, or at least doesn't detract from a story, whereas bad one completely destroys the experience. That being said, I think there are some stories that work very well in audio format, while others fall flat. Listening to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow would be a futile experience, whereas works more plot and character centric have a chance of being good in audio format - as long as the voice actor is good, of course. In short, not all audiobooks are good, and not all books were made to be read, but Lagoon I can whole-heartedly recommend.

  2. Lots of yes, yes, yessing as I read your review! You completely captured my experience with Lagoon, which I also enjoyed in the superb audiobook format with those brilliant actors. I'm with you that they add a dimension that the book-book version probably does not provide.

    I love the comparison to Heinlein, and never would have thought about connecting Lagoon's compassion with the destructiveness of Stranger in a Strange Land, but this is just brilliant. Where Heinlein gets distracted by the things that, er, usually, predictably, distract him, Okorafor offers some real, biting commentary about the world at large. She intertwines humor with violence in a natural way and you can tell she had a lot of fun with it (as did the actors). A fun and necessary addition to the First Contact field.

    1. I should have also confessed I picked up the audiobook based on your recommendation. ;)