Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Swirling Depths of First Contact: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I enjoyed Okorafor's Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix, but her First Contact novel, Lagoonis my favorite of her books so far.  Of the many amazing things about this book perhaps the most amazing is just how much is going on. Okorafor manages to juggle dozens of stories in a relatively short book, giving enough details to keep the reader intrigued about the arrival of extraterrestrials in Lagos, Nigeria without losing any of the threads.  It's not always immediately clear what's going on, but a First Contact story shouldn't be any other way: First Contact with extraterrestrials would be anything but a clearly-defined situation.

I can't decide if the appropriate metaphor for the structure of the narrative is a many-layered egg or an ocean of swirling depths.  Going with the egg, the yoke of the plot revolves around three characters:  Adaora, a marine biologist in a troubled marriage, Agu, a soldier with a strong moral compass, and Anthony, a Ghanaian rapper.  Moving outward from there, we meet a wide cast of characters including a "witch slapping" preacher, an LGBT group, and the president of Nigeria.  Those are just the humans.  We also get several animal POVs, which were some of my favorites.  The shell of the egg is a narrator who is revealed later on (I loved this part, but to say more would be an unforgivable spoiler).

But the swirling depths metaphor is appropriate in other ways.  Although I'm sure Okorafor meticulously planned the structure of the book, there's something delightfully chaotic about the way the stories swirl around each other as the reader plunges into the story.  Like diving into the murky deep, following the narrative can be occasionally disorienting, but if you learn to go with the currents, the experience is sublime.

The Philosophy Report: First Contact and Postcolonialism

I love the science fiction trope of First Contact, which has always been a way to think about encountering otherness.  The aliens here are, well, alien.  We never really understand exactly what they're up to or how they do the cool stuff that they do.  They also don't contact humans first.  That honor goes to a giant swordfish.  And why not?  I mean, who the hell do we think we are that ETs wouldn't want to spend time with non-human Earthlings as well?

On the note of "who the hell do we think we are?", why must aliens land on the White House lawn?  Why not off the coast of one of the world's largest cities in one of its most populous countries?  Okorafor encourages a postcolonial decentering of eurocentric world views: if setting this story in Lagos seems odd to you, maybe it's worth asking why that should be seen as odd in the first place.

Questioning these associations about what seems "normal" is one benefit of encouraging more diversity in both science fiction and philosophy (as I've argued in an earlier post on eurocentrism and another one on diversity in science fiction and philosophy).  I've always been drawn to the way that both philosophy and science fiction can challenge and expand our perspectives on life, the universe, and everything.  Diversity shouldn't be an ornamental addition to science fiction and philosophy, because interrogating and enlarging our perspectives is the core of what science fiction and philosophy are all about.

Aside from whatever philosophical and postcolonial benefits might accrue, Lagoon's setting of Lagos gives us a backdrop that already includes a confluence of ethnicities, nationalities, folklores, cultures, religions, and dialects (there is a glossary for some of the words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to some readers, but you can get most of it from context).

There's a lot more I could praise about this book (the characters, the use of folklore and current events, the aliens, the animals, etc.), but I think I'll follow Okorafor's lead by doing more with less.

Rating: 93/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. You had me at Folklore! I'm literally going to by all of the books you put on your blog. LOL.

    I agree that diversity should not be an addition. Nothing is diverse until each and every facet of its subcategories and topics are infiltrated with a mix of culture and beliefs. If I'm honest, the resistance to diversity is very revealing. So many people are afraid of what the world will become when it is finally diverse and accepting of others.

    I have one word for that result: #better.

    1. Thanks! I'm hoping that the resistance to diversity is the last gasp of a small, but excessively vocal group of reactionaries.