Much of what is original, exciting, and important about Nnedi Okorafor's new version of the old alien invasion narrative is a function of its setting. In science fiction, the familiar dynamics of extraterrestrial contact and/or invasion tend to play out in one of two spaces: either in a world metropolis—London, New York, Tokyo, L.A.—or in a quiet, isolated location, perhaps a lonely farmhouse, backwoods cabin, or small rural town. In the former sort of narrative, the massive scale of the destruction visited on a global city metonymically dramatizes the overwhelming effects of alien invasion on all of humanity, while, in the latter, a tight focus on a closely knit community or domestic space can operate similarly to universalize the human drama of extraterrestrial contact. Okorafor gives us a fresh angle on first contact by instead imagining the alien invasion in Lagos, Nigeria, one of the most populous cities in the world nevertheless located in one of the world's most marginalized regions, West Africa. Lagoon does not take Lagos for its setting as some kind of symbolic space for the meeting of humanity with an alien species in a newly "flat" twenty-first-century world: the novel is decidedly concerned with how an alien invasion might affect Nigeria itself, and nowhere else. Above all, the novel is a love letter to Lagos, even if Okorafor's idiosyncratic method of expressing her love involves unleashing the destructive chaos of an alien invasion on the city.
Chaos becomes the ruling trope of the narrative—"if there is one city that rhymes with 'chaos,' it is Lagos," muses one of Okorafor's characters (p. 214)—especially when the harder sort of science fiction we might associate with extraterrestrial visitations blends with a distinctively African urban fantasy. We come to learn of strange powers and entities that existed in Lagos prior to the events of the book, suggestive of a larger magic and mysteriousness than the aliens bring themselves. Over the course of the novel, a menagerie of gods, monsters, and African "X-Men" run wild through the city of Lagos and its coastal environs: an eco-terrorist swordfish; shape-shifting smoke monsters like something out of Lost; betentacled krakens; Yoruba deities gallivanting about, American Gods-style; a rapper with superhuman powers; a subterranean, story-weaving spider god; a murderous roadway that comes to life (because it has always been alive); a personified masquerade; and stranger things than these. Okorafor gathers up all the inhabitants of Lagos from the city's past, present, and future that she can imagine, old gods and new alien arrivals mixing with the humans caught in the middle of it all.
Significantly, the invasion of Lagos begins in the liminal zone of Bar Beach, already "a place of mixing" for the many strata of Nigerian society long before the first alien walks out from the sea (p. 7). On this beach, the novel's three central human characters—a famous Ghanaian rapper, a Nigerian soldier on the run, and a Western-educated marine biologist named Adaora—experience first contact and fall in with the enigmatic alien ambassador, called Ayodele. In large part, the novel is the story of these characters' struggle to understand the unfathomable motivations of the alien visitors, as well as what the three of them, apparently "chosen" by the aliens for some reason or purpose, might have in common with each another. The aliens, however, bring change not only to Nigerians from all walks of life, but to all that is African: each of the novel's three "Acts" opens with a prologue told from the perspective of a nonhuman narrator, hinting at the profundity and ubiquity of the changes that Nigeria can expect from this extraterrestrial contact.
In one sense, by setting her story in a country generally ignored by the international community except for its oil reserves and its 419 scams, Okorafor is having some fun by asking the question, "What if aliens invaded a major city and nobody noticed?" (Cheekily, Okorafor even sets her story a few years in the past.) Adaora begins to reason that the alien shape-shifters chose their landing site partly because Lagos is a place where the outlandish and anarchic can escape attention: "Adaora was beginning to see why Ayodele's people had chosen the city of Lagos. If they'd landed in New York, Tokyo, or London, the governments of these places would have quickly swooped in to hide, isolate, and study the aliens. Here in Lagos, there was no such order" (p. 64). For roughly two-thirds of the novel, no one in the outside world seems to know much about the invasion of Lagos—or, more probably, much cares about it—until a kind of "Kony 2012" moment when the force of virality is able to turn international eyes on Africa when nothing else can. (In the world of Lagoon, the alien invasion is not only televised, but livestreamed to all mobile devices.) Okorafor's narrator very perceptively explains that, even as millions begin to take an interest in the unfolding of this African drama, the world watches "mostly for entertainment" (p. 194); others complain that Nigeria is "undeserving of an alien visitation" (p. 287). But Ayodele insists that the decision to come to Lagos was a very deliberate one, and that the aliens wish to integrate into Lagosian society and become "citizens," a part of its future.
At times, Ayodele plays the role of a typical benevolent alien ambassador, dispensing wisdom from a more enlightened race and critiquing human failings like greed and racism: "Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It's your greatest flaw" (p. 67). But the total effect of the extraterrestrial presence in Lagos is far from peaceful, as the aliens provoke a great deal of violence in their program of bringing change to the city: "We are change" (p. 39). The novel's conflicts are chiefly powered by competing groups of Lagosians that each project their own desires onto the alien presence: a gang of kidnappers looking for a big score; a militant evangelical church eager to expand its mission to the stars; an LGBT student organization certain that revolution can finally come; a sluggish government too beset by corruption to respond efficiently to the alien disruption; and many others. Okorafor avoids many of the clichés and pitfalls of the traditional alien invasion plot by so carefully and convincingly imagining how the arrival of extraterrestrials in Nigeria would result in uniquely Nigerian reactions and consequences.
In her author's note, Okorafor admits that Lagoon is both a riff on and riposte to Neill Blomkamp's District 9, since its 2009 release the touchstone "aliens land in Africa" narrative, but also one that infamously vilifies Nigerians even as it preaches empathy for the Other. The novel perhaps owes some of its own cinematic flair to this important precedent in film: Lagoon is so self-consciously cinematic a narrative that its glossary of Pidgin English appears in a section titled "Special Bonus Features" alongside a "Deleted Scene" set in Chicago, as if the book we hold were the latest deluxe Blu-ray edition. Okorafor's prose also emphasizes visuals, and remains insistently onomatopoeic throughout the book: very few pages pass before the next "PLASH!" or "BAM! BAM!", and the opening chapter is itself titled "MOOM!". If individual pieces of onomatopoeia are sometimes inelegant, collectively they represent one small part of Okorafor's attempt to access visual and aural vocabularies transcending the novelistic medium.
The tradition of the alien invasion/disaster film has influenced the novel considerably, and other key non-novelistic intertexts include Orson Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast and the X-Men series, two works plainly alluded to in the "deleted scene." Only rarely does Lagoon risk devolving into a standard sci-fi blockbuster, and only a few of the characters seem to fit more in the world of the 105-minute action flick than the 300-page novel, for example the caricature of a crooked clergyman (and after all such men surely do exist). My sole criticism of the character of Adaora would also be that her career as a marine biologist plays more of a role in the "action movie" plot than it does in building a believable and rounded character. In other words, I was not entirely convinced of Adaora as a working scientist; she rarely thinks about her work, and the reader never learns what exactly it is that she works on as a biologist. The novel seems hazy on the details about what a marine biologist actually does day-to-day, and Adaora's generic job description as "scientist" finally functions in a somewhat simplistic, gestalt fashion to give her a rationalist perspective that the incredible events of the novel will challenge, as well as a convenient home lab in which she can analyze the strangeness of alien tissue (that overfamiliar filmic scene). Nevertheless, for the most part the cinematic aspects of the novel lend it an enjoyably frenetic pace without sacrificing any of its depth.
Indeed, despite its affiliations with the disaster film and its humorous, even farcical moments, Lagoon remains quite weighty: for all of the novel's obvious delight in mashing up all the monsters and master tropes of science fiction and fantasy, a pervasive brutality speaks to its seriousness. Okorafor does not hesitate to depict scenes of violence against women, children, and the LGBT community, and one of the novel's most compelling subplots involves the LGBT student group calling itself "The Black Nexus." Emphasizing the persistent alienation of the LGBT community in West Africa and abroad, Okorafor draws parallels between that which is queer and that which is alien: "Who better to understand than a shape-shifter?" (p. 74); "The Black Nexus has come down to earth" (p. 91). Okorafor also strives to show how an alien invasion might play out differently in a country that remembers invasion: "This wasn't the first invasion of Nigeria, after all" (p. 144).
That the rioting, looting, and general chaos inspired by the aliens can at first be mistaken as business as usual in Lagos reflects not some condemnation of the backwardness or barbarity of Nigeria, but rather contributes to Okorafor's dissection of the origins of and possible solutions to some of the nation's problems. For instance, contemplating the crimes perpetrated by Lagos's gangs of street children or "area boys" in the wake of the alien invasion, the soldier Agu takes a more nuanced view of the social problem they represent: "Agu understood that they were angry at Lagos, angry at Nigeria, angry at the world. The alien invasion was just an excuse to let it all out" (p. 173). The arrival of the aliens reveals Nigeria's social problems in sharp relief, but also brings hope for resolving them. Throughout the novel, Okorafor insists that "[i]t was time for a change" (p. 93), and she suggests that the aliens—those "catalysts of change" (p. 158)—may possess some power to encourage humans in their impulses, to unleash potentials already latent in Lagos; her novel thus imagines big changes for a city and a culture already in a state of massive change. Lagoon's most brilliant conceit is that somehow an alien invasion would be redundant in Lagos: "We are doing what is already happening" (p. 179).
In the end, then, the question of whether the apocalyptic energies that drive the plot of Lagoon were brought by aliens or were present in Lagos all along becomes moot: the aliens serve as stimulant but also represent the potential for change, positive or disastrous, inherent in modern Lagos. The twists and turns of the novel's plot mirror the promise and danger of that potential for change, the promise and danger of Lagos itself: "Fast life, fast death. High life, low life. Skyscrapers, shanty towns. Flies, mosquitoes. The roads rumble as paths to the future, always hungry for blood" (p. 291).
The novel's fantasy of an alien invasion liberates Nigeria from its dependence on oil as the single commodity that makes the world pay attention to it, a commodity that has brought the kind of change in which the aliens revel, but that has also turned out to be more destructive than positive, as the aliens themselves point out: "YOUR LAND IS FULL OF A FUEL THAT IS TEARING YOU APART" (p. 113). The science fictional premise of Lagoon realizes Okorafor's dreams for the future of Lagos, a future in which the city has much to offer the world beyond its oil. To achieve these dreams, the novel must remove the oil and replace it with the wild vitality of the aliens, but the implication is of course that this vitality has always been in Lagos, if only we were looking. The greatest achievement of Okorafor's novel may well be that she's given those of us who have never been to Lagos the opportunity to see a fraction of that vitality and promise for ourselves.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.