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Lagoon cover

Lockstep cover

It is, one supposes, a form of self-congratulation to praise a story because it stays in the mind. Staying is certainly a task in 2014, which has so far been a year it is very easy to want to forget. It has been the kind of slippery-to-hold year fantastika must struggle to capture long enough for us to remember it: remembrance being the first task of fantastika, the second task being quarrel. Nnedi Okorafor seems entirely aware of the fact that in the churn of 2014, her new novel, which is set in Lagos (Portuguese for Lagoon), needs to show some signs of continuity with SF as we used to know it, mainly through some jump-the-shark escalations of old Disaster technothriller formulas, before plunging her mostly non-Nigerian readership into the strangeness she has in store. So the occasional cliche, and a few narrative conventions which she abandons soon after Lagoon leaves harbour, assure us that we are in safe hands: and we stay a while, we hold tight, we ride safely to its world-changing terminus a tale buffetted by melodrama, sentiment, epiphany, 419 scamming, just rage, forgiveness inexplicable to any Christian in the book for they are too congested with anger to forgive anything at all but their sins, rapists, testosterone stink, tough love that wells up from chthonic caverns literally within the Earth Herself, gridlock, people-pie embarrassments, first contact, shapechanging aliens immiscibly interwoven with the technologies they command, supermen, superwomen, politicians, mesmeric singers, mobs, gods, a brand new world aborning: and every bit of the tale told by a Spider.

I guess the Spider was a spoiler, but I will sleep tonight, because the large cohort comprising readers familiar with Okorafor will suspect that the opening passage of the novel —which is set in a different font on a separate page, and in an English subtly different from any other voice in a multi-voiced tale —may well represent the idiolect of a figure found in her previous work: the God Spider, the Nigerian Supreme Artist Udide Okwanka whose eight sticky legs, which adhere to the ceiling of her cave within the deep Earth, are receiving and transmitting antennae: connecting the universal Cauldron of Story to the Story told of Lagoon: Udide being both. So when She welcomes us to Lagos, where the "world turns, masked by millions of names, guises, and shifting stories", we are pre-warned to treat the uproar and shenanigans to follow as anything but the mere world-churn of 2014 as the planet spirals into dire dysfunction. What is happening here, She informs us, is not simply happening: it is being told. Good thing, too.

We do have a bit to cope with. After Udide's embracive exordium, a "Prologue" follows: a very large mysteriously quasi-sentient swordfish, in an ecoterrorist gesture from the bowels of Ocean, punctures an underwater oil hose which has been poisoning the waters near Lagos, and is subsequently transfigured into a sleek Gojira version of Herself and haunts the remainder of the tale from the wings. Lagoon proper now begins. On Bar Beach near Lagos, three separate people, whose names all begin with A, who think this might be a coincidence (it is not), and who will serve as our human protagonists, come together at what they think is random, and history changes. Each of them has been caught in the throes of some personal crisis: scientist Adaora's Christian husband has just slapped her face (go Christians!) because she refused to obey his order not to attend a concert given by Anthony Dey Craze, who turns out to be the second protagonist, and who is fighting off post concertal triste. The third companion is the potentially renegade soldier Agu, on the run after having beaten up his sergeant, who had been raping a woman; but this rapist is related to the sick president of Nigeria, himself wracked with pain and AWOL in Saudi Arabia. Suddenly the waters of Ocean rise on the beach, accompanied by a vast sonic boom, and the Three As are sucked into the depths, from which they emerge a few minutes later, seemingly none the wiser. The waters continue to rise. A strange woman appears walks onto the beach from beneath the sea. Her name is Ayodele. We soon learn that she is an alien ambassador, and that the Three As will be her adjacents. And it all begins to happen.

The venue remains Lagos throughout, a strange entangled booming centre-cannot-hold city at the edge of terminal collapse but containing within its nearly infinite human variety the Seeds of Rebirth into hive-metropolis, something profoundly curative of the dreams of the indefensible utopists who turned (an d continue to turn) post-War Europe (and America, and Lagos Centrum) into cenotaphs. The Lagos that has existed, and may come to exist again, is a place Okorafor, who was born in America but spent much of her childhood in Nigeria, clearly loves beyond tears, for it is a congestion so humid, so engorged with humanity that, like some Ship of Fools, it sings our song. Or so the Spider makes us to understand.

But Okorafor's basic reader-friendly industrial strategy throughout Lagoon, as hinted above, is to tell the unfamiliar in familiar terms: so allows herself to drift from the Three As, whose main plot function is to get Ayodele and the Nigerian president together, and to fractionate her vision of the people of Lagos into a mosaical portrait superficially similar to the Disaster storykit mentioned above. So we see loads of folk face exemplary bits of the utterly new: X experiences this consequence of the ongoing sonic booms generated by the settling of the alien ship into Earth, but becomes entangled in a criminal subplot and expires; Y is a redshirt and just cops it, no questions asked of Guy. A number of characters, having been fatally infected by Christian fundamentalism, are too trapped in denial and rage and sexual disgust to interact wholesomely with the advent of the new, so the Spider (whose Web, we begin to think, makes Lagos dance like a million puppets) gives them short shrift. The decks must be clear for Ayodele to do what she came for to do: which is to announce the new world. As she tells us all on various occasions, so that we Lagosians will not forget: "We are change".

Our three protagonists, who have become encrusted like Pearly Kings and Queens with experiences that have made them wiser, are now individually resigned to coming out of cover and exercising wisely the super powers each was born with, perhaps in preparation for this day (Spider isn't saying). They make sure Ayodele meets the fatally ill president of Nigeria, whom she heals, and conducts him and the Three As into Ocean where the starship lurks, where he is given audience by the alien Elders, who tell him the future out of earshot (Udida doesn't tell us if she has picked up this conversation on her Web). What we do learn is that because we have done our best to poison them to death, the seas are now forbidden to Homo sapiens. More cheerily, because all that is human is native to Lagos a new world will soon spring from the ten million loins of Lagos: "What is that sweet taste I feel with my feet?" asks the Spider, knowing it is Lagos. Under the new dispensation from the stars, Lagos will give suck to a new kind of human being: clement, interactive, non-racist, intrinsicate with the loam of Story. As the novel ends, Udida the Spider tells us directly that she is now prepared to come to the surface, and manifest herself, and protect Lagos.

Sadly, we seem unentitled to witness the meeting of Spider and Ayodele. The book shuts on that. It has been a noisy ride, full of voices, some speaking in Nigerian English (there is a glossary), some in in canted Christian, everyone tending to shout. To avoid the occasional fit of impatience, and properly to register the patent didacticism of the tale, with all its glaring exempla and Spider homilies and group gropes, it may be best to think of Lagoon as an anthem that its huge cast is learning how to sing. And in order properly to follow its generic disjuncts, the jagged leaps from folktale to SF to horror and back, it may be best to stay our gaze on Lagoon as though it were telling us a today to grasp.


At this point we need to invoke the Three Scarcities. They have become familiar by now, but the moment seems opportune, as we're about to deal with a Space Opera, a First World genre. As they apply in particular to technology-driven societies, like Western Europe since 1500 or so, the Laws are of less immediate interest to writers of World SF whose future welfare depends on their successful abolition, hence perhaps their absence from Lagoon. The First Scarcity is power, which steam made free (let us call it free for the moment) in the eighteenth century. The Second Scarcity is information, which became free around 1950 as the integrated circuit began to impact upon the world. The Third Scarcity is complexity, which is becoming free as I write, under the stealth influence of what one still needs to call the 3D printer, though that is clearly a trashy synecdoche for something far more disruptive to our world than the domestic printing of plastic guns: the nearly free replication of the nearly infinite complexity of living things: like us: which is to say matter duplication, with curves.

The problem with the historically sudden elimination of the Three Scarcities is that stories —sf stories in particular, which are normally shaped around problems tied to need —depend on them: the Scarcities are the resistance of the world to freedom that stories attempt to short-circuit. A story that ends happily is a story that bamboozles Scarcity: which is to say a Story is a lie that mortals swallow, and a good thing too. Until now. Though it seems increasingly likely that Homo sapiens (2014 vintage) is going destroy the planet before our owners can leave it, it does tantalizingly seem to be the case that we're on the technological cusp of freeing ourselves from the Three Scarcities for good. But of course even the prospect of that happening is —or should be —a deadly threat to Space Opera, a form whose plots almost invariably turn on who ends up in cartoonish control of a Scarcity or two. (Hugely less interesting is the Space Opera whose last lines open us into the "promise" of some infinite plenitude that will make us free, but without biting the bullet of having to describe a universe so storyless: another way of saying that once you have created Utopia you can't describe it.) So how do we tell a story of the future in which the Three Scarcities have been eliminated, without being able to envision an action to enstory a future of that sort?

The SF response to the elimination of the First Scarcity was Steampunk, which made power visible again; the dissolution of the Second Scarcity gave birth to Cyberpunk, with information transformed into gods in drag. But the Third Scarcity is a story killer, which may explain why so many Hard SF writers continue to give at best lip-service to its imminent dissolution (how many "Thought" Experiments begin without some Scarcity to get rich off?). If one Von Neumann 3D printer, its output controlled by a neuromorphic computer whose instructions change according to changes in external stimuli, can, given sufficient time, terraform Mars, what then of the massively intricate labour-based engineering work necessary to accomplish the same goal in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy? And how do you write space opera? Some version of the Culture perhaps? But Iain Banks died too soon to tell us exactly how. So why should we turn now to Karl Schroeder's Lockstep, which is ostensibly on review here, and breathe some clean pre-printer air again from the closing years of the twentieth century, with a protagonist less deft with the gurrils than Richie Cunningham, oh Happy Days?

Maybe we shouldn't.

But here it is, grinning across the desk with its doggy Young Adult breath and its waggy tail, and let me say I did notice two uses of printers in the tale, which is set some hundreds or thousands of years into the future: towards the beginning of the book, we gain brief sight of one printing a cutting-edge cardboard suitcase; and on page 243 we find a reference to some off-stage "self-replicating fab printers" handed out as party treats by the villain of the tale to potential lockstep clients (see below). But down to nuts and bolts. We are clearly in a Space Opera universe where the Scarcities continue to rule. Lockstep is a Young-Adult Novel by Proxy, which is to say that in the absence of a protagonist who lacks any intrinsic interest because he's YA, Schroeder must falsely report some Munchausen crises for young Toby McGonigle to endure: which is to say that the novel is not only lumbered with the Three Scarcities, it is additionally burdened with a fourth: Scarcity of Agency, all Young Adult novels being about their protagonists gaining sufficient agency to be of some earthly use to any adult within reach (most stop short). In Lockstep young Toby duly eavesdrops when he can on the conversations of adults far more interesting than he will be for a decade or two, in order to find out things we already guess (being adults tricked into reading the tale); and additionally spends much of the novel exhaustingly not finding out where he is and who he is and what it's all about because he's too self-conscious to check the internet, which might mention him. Much of Lockstep, therefore, reads like a guidebook waiting to be read.

The frustration an adult reader might well feel in the presence of Toby McGonigle (rather daring of Schroeder to very nearly call him William McGonagall, the world-famous worst published poet in the English language, but I'm not sure I got the point of the shout out) may be alleviated, however, by the joys of worldbuilding. Schroeder is very good indeed at imagining and articulating macrostructure planets, and some of the Lockstep worlds he escorts us through are dazzlingly more complex than we can quite envisage: but we trust in them: we trust Schroeder to have told us just enough to make us believe: hard to do (in worldbuilding if not in life) if you don't know more than you tell. The overall Lockstep concept itself, which makes these cowabunga built worlds plausible contributions to the New Baroque Space Opera Pattern Book, is the joy of Lockstep, but (Toby aside) its nemesis.

Fourteen thousand years earlier, young Toby is lost in space while still adolescently attached to his parents and siblings, all of whom have collaborated in the invention and patenting and system-wide control of the Lockstep concept, in which an array of civilizations (something like 70,000 of them in a sphere of influence five light-years wide) go simultaneously into an absolutely safe form of suspended animation owned by the McGonigles for an agreed number of years (a ratio of 360 to one) while their bots and orbital factories slowly replenish the raw materials burned up and energy lost during the wake-up years. The system requires an absolutely rigid control of technology, especially during the huge gaps of time when the whole culture is dormant; and there may be an implicit argument (it is certainly not one made aloud) that artificial maintenance of the Three Scarcities is somehow necessary to the McGonigles's retention of that control. Certainly the introduction of free complexity into a system this rigid would dissolve it instantly (hence the passing reference to printers in order to deny their nature). So the Lockstep Worlds have been active for forty years, while outdoors 14,000 years have passed. Unfortunately for Toby, he has gone into suspended animation in a ship no one can find, and is only awoken now.

Geez, thinks Toby, as he slowly —very very slowly —begins to find out what has happened over the intervening aeons, a process of discovery hamstrung for google-free chapters on end by his Young Adult need to come to terms with his parents and siblings, who rule the Lockstep Worlds, and who seem to want to kill him, perhaps because being a McGonigle he is co-owner of all he surveys. Worse than that, his mother has created a myth around his disappearance, in which he will be reborn one day to free the Lockstep Worlds from mortal durance, and to lead them into a Promised Land. This fails to impress Toby: "'I don't want to reappear! I just want to go home!'" ["I'm not the Messiah, I'm a very naughty boy."] He bellowed the last word. . . ." But eventually he comes around and saves Lockstep, as we knew he would.

But nothing can really save Lockstep from its governing premise, that a culture can be maintained through enforced Scarcity. And Schroder's use of a not too bright Young Adult ninny protagonist with the sulks to deflect our attention from the nonsensical playpen he doesn't want to own. It would be cynical to think Schroeder created Toby McGonigle to delay any discovery that Lockstep didn't wash, something I suspect readers in 2014 already know deep in their bones; or that he created Toby because he hated teenagers. But I do know this: Lockstep is on a hiding to nothing. And Karl Schroeder is far too smart to stay there.

Time for the terrors of freedom.




 John Clute (jclute@gmail.com) has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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