A solar flare damages electrical systems across the globe leaving most of the world offline and in the dark, save parts of West Africa and South America. In the confusion following this, Nigeria emerges with a space program aimed at rescuing Masha Kornikova, an astronaut stranded on the International Space Station. This is the basic premise of After the Flare, the second book by Deji Bryce Olukotun in his Nigerians in Space series.
“The Flare—the great cosmic intervention—has given us an opportunity to prove our ingenuity and to right the wrongs of the past,” says politician, financier, and head of the Nigeria Spaceport Nurudeen Bello. To make the Nigerian space mission a reality, there's a worldwide call for experts sent out by the Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency. The agency specifically wants experts with at least one-eighth African ancestry; why this requirement was put in place is not clear. Kwesi Bracket, an industrial engineer who's lost his job at NASA following the blackout, receives an invitation. Although he's white-passing, Bracket is able to make it through to the program, being one-sixteenth African and one-sixteenth Seminole. While in Nigeria, Bracket comes into possession of a strange artefact that exposes him to another aspect of what happened after the flare.
While Bracket tries to concentrate on filling up the Naijapool where Naijanauts can practice space simulations, getting things ready for launch, and learning more about the artefact, there is a running sub-plot following a group of Woodabe women on the run from terrorist group Boko Haram, rebranded as Jarumi here. Having sought refuge in a cave near the spaceport, the women come across “Songstones” which they learn to control by singing at different pitches. Using the Songstones gives the women supernatural powers and ignites in the most assertive of their number, Balewa, the desire to save the last of her people.
As the story progresses, the first novel’s Dr. Wale Olufunmi appears dressed like a Congolese sapeur with his double-breasted suit and titanium cane, gold rings on his fingers, and cowrie shell buttons. He teams up with Bracket and Seeta, and together they learn that the Songstones are actually meteorites and part of a unique technology linked to the ancient Nok culture that has reawakened after the flare. Meanwhile, the threat of the Jarumi rises as they plan to storm Kano before a Nigerian rocket built with support from India, the Masquerade, is launched into space and Masha Kornikova brought back home.
After the Flare has some really fascinating worldbuilding. A year after the flare, Nigeria seems to have developed technologically (even though other parts remain underdeveloped). Here is the complex, if tedious, manner in which Bracket opens an encrypted message on his Geckofone.
To read the priority message, he had to take out a key that looked like a straw from his desk and then check the calendar. The kola nut was designated for Tuesday. He opened up a small jar, extracted a kola nut, peeled it, and took a bite, feeling a sharp rush as the stimulant coursed through his taste buds and gums. Kola was still used in Nigeria as a traditional greeting, part of a ritual to begin conversation among a number of tribes, and this, along with many other traditions, had been integrated within the facility’s security systems.
Later Bracket inserts a straw into his Geckofone and blows into it so the device can analyse particles in his breath and open the message. This blends parts of traditional Nigerian cultures with technology in ways that are interesting. Then there is the reintroduction of cowries, which have been used for centuries to trade across West Africa, alongside other currencies such as cloth and manillas. Olukotun has created a world where cowries communicate with each other based on random groupings that only become valid when close to each other. When in groups, they adjust their collective value to reduce the chances of theft.
There's even new ways of jerking off with “vibrating haptic nodes.” Animals are technologically modified, too—as seen with a virus (which is literally a spider with eight optical cameras and a data transmission fang) that attacks Bracket's phone. Then there is the emergence of new social groups, most likely due to the flare. The newshounds who use information as their drug of choice, hooked on unending feeds from the Loom. The pypers who communicate with music, spinning songs over “a hyperlocal mesh network.”
However, not all the worldbuilding was clear to me. Take the switching of identities on the Loom. The Geckofone allows users to alternate between multiple ethnic identities using avatars. This apparently allows for security and anonymity, and protects against tribalism in theory but slight changes to facial features and gestures don't stand when different ethnic identities have different languages too. There is mention of botnets used by “jobless American coders to peddle medicines to rich northerners” but no mention of how the drugs would get to Nigeria when the US is largely off-grid.
Likewise, an unnamed scientist at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka invented the Geckofone, making them a Nigerian invention— but G-fones are put out as expensive and unaffordable even to Nigerians. There's mention of digital technologies “flooding Nigeria,” but from where and how when a solar flare and unknown persons have left the world dark? In one scene, we are told of self-driving SUVs imported from Germany; were these imported before or after the flare? How is Germany exporting cars when the world outside very specific regions is supposed to be offline without basic technology and electricity?
So while I found the idea behind the book and its world-building intriguing, After the Flare had flaws that made it difficult for me to fully enjoy it. Primarily, in the way Kano was described, an absence of cultural nuances that I expected to see in a book set in Nigeria, poor character development, and holes in the plot that were not resolved.
Initially, I was curious to see what Olukotun's future Nigeria would look like. The Nigeria Spaceport where Bracket and his team work is located in Kano. Kano is a historical city located in Northern Nigeria, it has been an economic and sociocultural centre for centuries. I am familiar with Kano, but got little sense of the city itself in After the Flare, which presents Kano as a village booming in the aftermath of the flare thanks to the spaceport.
Kano is a city that is deeply Muslim but this is easy to miss in the novel. During an event in the early chapters of After the Flare, “soothsayers” from different parts of Nigeria take turns blessing the Masquerade. They do this in the presence of the Emir of Kano, which I found hard to swallow. The Nigeria of today is one where practitioners of traditional belief systems are often misunderstood and met with disdain due to religious colonialism. Did the flare cause a change in attitudes towards tradition in Nigeria? If so, how? The book doesn't delve into this. I believe there was an opportunity to look into how a solar flare could have impacted religion (and indeed superstition) in Nigeria but this wasn't explored in depth.
Regarding its depiction of Kano city, it felt like the author was more familiar with Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city, and transposed some of what he was familiar with to Kano. So you have Nurudeen Bello wearing an “airy indigo agbada” as opposed to a babban riga. Bracket sits down to eat a dinner of ewa agoyin—a dish of boiled beans served with a tomato and pepper sauce, and said to be of Togolese origin, that would be hard to find in Kano. While many Nigerians of different languages and ethnic groups speak pidgin, the lingua franca of the North is Hausa. After the Flare relies on pidgin more so than Hausa. There is highlife and fuji music blaring from speakers, as well as the mention of danfo buses, and all of this harkens to Lagos. Northern Nigeria has folk music, praise songs composed on the spot or sung to celebrate everything from weddings to political appointments, as well as a growing hip-hop scene.
These points can easily be missed by readers who aren't Nigerian, but they were many, though subtle. For example; the mention of suya being grilled as Bracket drives into town in the morning (the suya grills come out in the evening), yakuwa referred to as “collard greens” (not all greens are collard greens, it's sorrel), reference to the Emir of Kano as the spiritual leader of the Muslim North (it's actually the Sultan of Sokoto), the fact that Kalabari was spelt Kalibari and no one noticed. Then there is the scene with Professor Wale Olufunmi cracking a turkey bone as he eats. Cracking bones is normal in Nigeria, where typically people break chicken bones to reach the marrow within. But turkey bones are hard, like, so hard you could break your teeth trying to crack one. Yet here, we have an old man who is half paralysed cracking a turkey bone.
Then there’s Bracket, the novel's hero and the man who saves the day— even though from start to finish there's nothing particularly special about him. Bracket is described as white-passing while “the most African parts of him were his navel and his penis, the dark melanin enrobing the skin.” References to Bracket's light skin are peppered throughout the book; it is a thing to be fascinated by and attracted to in Nigeria, according to this story. From the first chapter, a group of Nigerian workers at the spaceport storm into Bracket's office shouting, “Oyibo, oyibo [sic], we can't work anymore!” Oyinbo is a Nigerian pidgin term that is usually translated as “white person,” but the truth is that anyone can be called that, even dark-skinned Nigerians like me who have spent time abroad. The term is overused in After the Flare, with almost every Nigerian Bracket encounters referring to him as “oyibo.” I get that Bracket looks white, but I had a hard time picturing the term’s use here as a nickname or some weird form of endearment, especially from employees to their employer. This is simply another example of what I saw as a lack of familiarity with Nigerian cultural nuances.
Similarly, After the Flare gives passing mention to a number of complex issues in Nigerian society without delving into them, making one wonder why they were brought up in the first place. Take the scene with the Nollywood actors, resolved in a few pages. To boost public support and interest for the space program, Bello sends Nollywood actors to shoot a movie in the Naijapool. When the Nigerian actors get there, the Naijapool is not yet full, so Bracket simply takes them to his Nigerian supplier's house, where his three wives welcome the stars and give them access to their personal pool.
One of the stars is the actress Omotola Johnson, reminiscent of popular Nigerian actress Omotola Jalade Ekeinde. Omotola is, needless to say, Bello's girlfriend— even though he's old enough to be her father. In one scene, Omotola goes on a spiel about her “Magical Skin-Whitening Cream.” Bracket seems shocked to learn that skin whitening is a thing in Nigeria despite the fact that his light skin is brought up time and time again. While Omotola explains how skin whitening is about finding inner beauty, a random Naijanaut cries, “Praise the Lord.” This is one scene which left me wondering what the point was. I had questions like, if the ending of the world as we know it can't change attitudes towards skin bleaching in Nigeria, why would the Nigerian government insist on only hiring experts with African ancestry to work on the space program?
Furthermore, After the Flare crams in many familiar negative clichés about Nigeria and Africa in the wider sense. There is the police torture scene, mention of the Niger delta militants sabotaging pipelines, child soldiers, Africans “having no respect for our own past,” a rant against vaccination in a poorly framed context that ignores the complications behind vaccine rejection in Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram of course, tribalism, and human sacrifice which comes paired with superstition targeted at albinos.
Now take one of these: the novel’s suggestion that the alien-like creature which attacks Bracket and Seeta is an albino is outlandish. I mean, imagine a fast-moving bluish glow being mistaken for an albino?
Something towered over them. A presence of shifting light, a being so large it reached the ceiling. He couldn’t get a fix on it, its outline rapidly spurting in and out of focus. Bracket thought he could see long, sinuous, bipedal limbs and they disappeared, and the head seemed to be covered by a tufted crown of electric wires, and then these too blurred out of sight. He couldn’t see any eyes or find a head.
It made no sense to me that in describing his encounter with this kind of being to the police, the first thing to come to Detective Idriss's mind would be “albino.” Detective Idriss says the albino “is often more than they first appear. They are held in deep suspicion in this part of the country. People trade their body parts for medicine, believing that they are imbued with magical powers.” Even the Professor is described as fearing albinos, pointing out that the wounds on his body were given to him by an albino woman with “skin that glowed in the moonlight.” Thus two of the handful of Nigerian characters in this book who have been smart, educated, and somewhat level-headed suddenly become superstitious and scared of albinos.
In fact, there is nothing that immediately strikes one as noteworthy of Bracket's character. Yet he faces terrorists twice and emerges unscathed; he survives explosions and an attack by the alien-like possibly albino creature. As the book wraps up and the Masquerade is set to head to space, Bello appears after a stint where he goes missing. Bello remarks that Bracket “rose to the occasion” during his absence, to which Bracket replies, “Frankly I helped save the spaceport because it was the right thing to do. “But I didn't see him be anything other than a spectator, carried along by the discovery of the artefact/meteorite, Olufunmi's appearance, and the Woodabe women.
We initially learn of the Woodabe women and their interaction with the meteorites they call Songstones through Balewa, and a few chapters in After the Flare are told from her perspective. Balewa is headstrong and reckless, angry at the fact that she is pregnant after being raped by Jarumi terrorists. Yet somehow, as soon as she meets Bracket, she is infatuated with him and his light skin. Balewa and her companions are portrayed as anti-violence, yet they hold Bracket, Seeta, and Olufunmi hostage after an accident causes the three to sink into the cave where the Woodabe women have sought refuge. In addition to this, the Woodabe women killed Olufunmi's bodyguards Clarence and Haruna, and would have killed Olufunmi himself when he tried to escape. Meanwhile, the Woodabe women claim ownership of the Songstones, only for Balewa to gift one to Bracket in the last chapter.
Then there's Bracket's falling in love, having sex with, and adventuring alongside Seeta Chandrasekhan, an Indian vibroacoustic engineer working at the Nigeria Spaceport. Seeta is also a lesbian who hasn't dated a man since university. She never wanted to “touch one” or “sleep with one,” but she does end up having sex with Bracket. I found this portrayal disturbing. The inclusion of diverse sexualities and genders in After the Flare is supposed to be a plus, but having the foremost woman character in this book be a lesbian who says, “This isn't a conversion”, as she proceeds to fall into the male protagonist's arms just isn't right.
In After the Flare's climax, Boko Haram/Jarumi attack Kano with the aim of reaching the space station. The rationale is that Boko Haram wants to sell the rocket but ... to whom?
The Jarumi would have been expected to move along the main highway from Kano and to attack the spaceport from the entrance road. Instead they must have flanked the city on backroads to attain the much larger prize of the spaceport; if they could gain control of that, the rockets, the Masquerade, and even the mission itself could fund an entire army of rebels for years, outfitted with the most advanced weapons. For the time being, the Jarumi had laid siege to the spaceport and were locked in a stalemate.
In a world that is dark save for a few countries, what would a terrorist organisation do with a spaceport? How will the rockets etc. fund them?
Too many ingredients fuck up the soup, and this pretty much sums up my thoughts on After the Flare. With the varied themes running through the book, I was left with more questions than answers. Early in the book it's revealed that some unknown figure launched cyberattacks that have crippled networks and disabled everything from “heart pumps to refrigerators and generators.” By the time the book ends, this is not resolved and we have no idea who this unknown figure is. Then with the arrival of Olufunmi comes mention of the Ibeji Network, a counterterrorist organisation that played a shadowy role in Nigeria's history without offering much into it. I was not aware that After the Flare was second in a series when I read it, and it’s possible that these points are elucidated in the first book or will be explored in an upcoming book.
If Olukotun had selected one or two central issues and fully explored, examined, and discussed them, After the Flare would feel less like a parade of all the things that could go wrong while trying to do something right in Nigeria. I wonder if I would have enjoyed After the Flare more if I was able to suspend my expectations before reading—specifically in how what's familiar to me, in this case Northern Nigeria and its culture, was portrayed. Nonetheless, the characters, the plot, and the lack of conflict left me with too many questions— and did not make up for the promises of the book's concept.