Aliens have landed off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. Immediately, they change pollution levels, marine life, the quality of the ocean water – and that’s just before they get to land. Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon – which I’d describe as a work of speculative fiction – is both a fun, high-action romp through the old sci-fi tropes of alien arrival (think War of the Worlds, Independence Day), and in many ways a carefully considered decolonisation of the genre and its Eurocentric epistemological underpinnings. If the idea of aliens choosing to arrive on the African continent rings a bell, you might be thinking of District 9, and it’s precisely her annoyance at this film that brought the author, as she tells it in the acknowledgments of the book, the inspiration for her novel.
A woman – or at least, a being in form of a woman – arrives from the water, drawing together by intangible mean three Lagosians to meet her: Adaora, the scientist; Agu, the soldier; and Anthony, the artist. They name this alien ambassador Ayodele. The novel offers the crafted backstories of not only these main protagonists, but of so many figures the story meets along the way. Adaora is coming to terms with her husband’s first act of violence against her: after recently turning fanatically religious and falling under the influence of the charismatic charlatan Father Oke, he has become convinced she is a marine witch – he doesn’t know the half of it. Agu, trying to prevent the rape of a woman by his superior officer, was beaten to a pulp and faces worse ramifications for his insubordination. Anthony, a Ghanaian rapper fresh from a wildly successful concert exudes star quality, and is everyone’s favourite musician. All three carry secrets, of strange birth or unaccountable powers.
Add to their stories those of Jacobs, fallen in with a rough crowd with criminal inclinations as he battles his desire to dress in women’s clothes and openly join the clandestine queer group Black Nexus. Or his sister, Fisayo, sex worker by night, reader and secretary by day, plunged into madness by the extra-terrestrial invasion she cannot grasp beyond narratives of religious apocalypse. Or Legba, the American Igbo scam-artist, particularly talented at the 419 schemes ubiquitous to the novel’s internet cafés, who frames his ploys to get a wealthy white woman to transfer money to him as the appropriate response to her textbook white privilege.
Beyond the novel’s human characters, Okorafor offers not only the non-human new arrivals, but also several deities and characters whose origins lie in indigenous epistemologies: Udide the great story-weaving spider, Ijele the spirit of all masquerades. They too have skin in the game of the future of Lagos, and humans, non-human locals, and aliens must battle it out or find a way to live together. The novel portrays a bit of both – and offers a decent dose of gore along the way.
The novel’s marriage of the technophile elements of science fiction, and indigenous methods of knowledge production and story-telling, has an invigorating decolonising energy. As the same time, it gives visibility to some of the difficulties LGBTQI people face, to how tensions between Hausa and Igbo play out, to sexism and gender-based violence, as well as to the cynical exploitation of people’s religious faith. It is evidently critical of corruption and violence in its Lagos setting, as it is deeply invested in this city and its future. What are Ayodele’s intentions with planet earth? Are the aliens colonisers, destroyers, or here to save the human race from itself? You’ll have to read it yourself to find out.