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“Yeah, but what does that snowglobe mean?”
Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space begins in 1990s America, where Wale Olufunmi, a lunar geologist, is attempting to steal a sample of moon rock from the NASA laboratory where he works. The sample is insurance, proof of his commitment to “brain gain” (the return of Nigerian academics to their home country as a corrective to the intellectual exodus to the West colloquially termed “brain drain,” about which so many countries worried during those years), and to a Nigerian space programme organised by the politician Nurudeen Bello to achieve it. Wale steals the rock—a contingency sample collected during the first moon landing, scientifically worthless but symbolically valuable—and smuggles it out of the country in the base of a snow globe. His plans rapidly fall apart, however, and Bello is mysteriously uncontactable. He finds himself stuck in limbo with his family, neither able to return to his American job, nor to enter Nigeria without a visa, witness to a murder, and in danger of arrest.
The bulk of the novel’s action takes place twenty years later. Wale, with his now-grown son Dayo, has settled in South Africa, where he runs a bamboo business out of his home, gives tours at the Royal Observatory, and has developed an obsession with finding Bello. Dayo has taken his father’s snow globe as the inspiration for a lamp which recreates natural moonlight. The two men’s lives intersect at various points with those of Thursday, a hapless abalone poacher of Malaysian descent, and Melissa, later Melle, a Zimbabwean girl with an unusual form of vitiligo that makes her skin glow with moonlight. Melle’s father is another of Bello’s victims and it is through her attempts to find out what has happened to him that we learn that most of those associated with the Brain Gain project have mysteriously died.
If all of this makes Nigerians in Space sound more like a thriller, all secret societies and high body counts, than a work of SF, that is probably accurate. None of its Nigerian characters gets to go into space. Within this sprawling, international, pan-African plot, few of them seem even to make it to Nigeria. And yet.
In September of last year, India (and if this feels like a bit of a geographical detour, such a thing is entirely in keeping with the events of this book) successfully sent a probe into orbit around Mars. The New York Times responded with a cartoon of a skinny man in a dhoti and turban, leading a cow, knocking on the door of a building marked “Elite Space Club,” with large, tuxedoed men seated inside. The paper later apologised for the offense caused, and offered a more flattering interpretation of this cartoon, but even here the humour was supposed to come from the incongruity of it all—the notion that a nation that could be represented by underfed farmers might have any place in what had been “the domain of rich, Western countries.”
It’s an incongruity of which Nigerians in Space is well aware. The title is deliberately ludicrous (that “ . . . in SPAAAACE!” is what does it), and this is the book’s big challenge to the reader. What is being raised here, in the title as well as the text itself, is the whole question of who gets to imagine space, who gets to imagine themselves in space. In reality Nigeria does have a space programme, and has done for some years now (as do Egypt, Tunisia, and South Africa, among others). Olukotun, who is Nigerian-American, has claimed that one reason he did not know this when he started writing the book was that “it seemed too ridiculous to even be worth researching—I had made the idea up!”
In late 2014 Africa2Moon, a crowdfunding campaign, was set up to facilitate the first phase of a pan-African mission to the moon. The campaign faced some criticism online over whether this should be a priority at all—surely there were other, more immediately useful things that such money could be spent on. But, in addition to the practical uses of a space programme that might be trotted out to counter this argument, explained the project manager, Jonathan Weltman, the moon had tremendous symbolic value. “You can walk outside and there it is [. . .] Kids across Africa can pull out a telescope and see it.”
Wale also has to justify his interest in space travel in general, even to his wife. “It’s not the moon that’s important: it’s what that trip to the moon will produce. We’ll have communications satellites, improved crop yields, accurate population censuses. Nigeria doesn’t need weapons. We need innovation.” But it is the moon that is important (you can walk outside and there it is)—and it’s no accident that Dayo’s invention later in the book is tied more closely to the idea of the moon in its abstract form than to the space programme that, in the world of the book, seems not to have happened after all. This sense of the moon as a concretised symbol for a larger ideal (or several ideals) is one that recurs throughout Nigerians in Space. In Wale’s first conversations with Bello, the possibility of a Nigerian mission to the moon is presented as a form of reverse colonisation—both a satisfying response to the historical fact of colonialism and a kind of perpetuation of it.
“He said [the moon rock] didn’t belong to America but all humanity. He said we would return it to the moon when we landed our first mission as a symbol of ‘the colonized returning the cultural patrimony of all mankind.’ He wants us to plant a Nigerian flag.”
Science and symbol, science and story. In an episode later in the book, Dayo reports yet another failure to sell his lamps. “What story do you tell them about the lamp?” asks Wale:
Dayo went through his routine, trying to emphasize the technical parts. He used the words “luminosity” and “umbra” and “aqueous medium” with what he hoped was familiarity.
Wale then shows his son a part of the observatory where he works as a tour guide—a manhole once partly filled with mercury, used as a mirror to observe the sky.
“Can you imagine looking into a pool of mercury? Gauging the stars in a pool of quicksilver like an alchemist? It would be like floating in space [. . .] This is a popular part of my full-moon tour. It has nothing to do with selenometry anymore. No practical value. But this is where I get my repeat customers [. . .] You’ve got to come up with a story. Put some tension in it.”
You’ve got to come up with a story, and Nigerians in Space contains several. There’s the thriller plot, the SF plot. There’s a novel of exile and loss set in a fundamentally diasporic world (“No one knows what happened and I can’t go to Nigeria anymore . . . Because I’m a refugee”). There’s also an entire reading of the novel, one that appeals to me very much, which ignores all else and focuses on Wale’s personal relationship with the moon; his movement from scientist to priest (though even at the beginning of the book he “couldn’t defile a piece of the moon”). Wale becomes the moon’s chief storyteller, simultaneously narrating humankind’s historical relationship with it and inviting tourists to “look into the telescope and see your future.” If you (the reader) could fish around in the thick soup of meanings Wale ascribes to the moon and pick one, could make the moon a single, stable symbol to build on, perhaps the whole thing would begin to make sense.
Because the moon is what ties together the various strands of Nigerians in Space, Thursday’s abalone and Dayo’s lamp both feed off it, in different ways—as does the luminescence in Melissa’s skin. But is it the physical moon or the symbolic? What is the quality that the abalone (surely among the most SFnal of earthly creatures) recognise in Dayo’s lamps? Are we to read the “purity” of the light from the lamps as scientific innovation or as being somehow connected to the moon rock, on whose hiding place their design is based? Is Melle’s condition a biological one? Science or symbol: it’s partly in these questions that the novel’s claims to being science fictional, rather than science fiction-adjacent or even fantastic, rest. Unusual skin conditions and superior forms of solar energy may be less spectacular than the space travel promised by the title, but they deserve some attention.
In a different (and far more trite) book this constant referral back to the moon could work as a sort of levelling force—characters of Malaysian and Nigerian and Zimbabwean descent living in South Africa and France, and America, all seeing the same moon. Late in the novel, in what would in other circumstances be a climactic scene, Dayo’s lamps are strung up in the streets and they work, and the soft light from the lamps briefly erases all difference. But it’s not allowed to be a triumphant moment.
You’ve got to come up with a story, and Nigerians in Space, frustratingly, won’t let you. There’s no neat tying up of ends here. The mystery is unsolved, the thriller plot peters out. There’s so much meaning here and stories are, after all, only stories. If the novel does have a climactic scene it’s a confrontation between two of its protagonists, fittingly in the observatory, that ends in tragedy and leaves both with all their questions left unanswered. It’s a powerful scene, and a moving one, and it tells us nothing.
And of all the stories the book doesn’t tell, perhaps the most important is the one in which Nigerians go into space. In an article in Slate the author speaks about travelling to Nigeria and meeting a scientist at the National Space Research and Development Agency, whose real endeavours and successes are so easily erased by this book’s narrative of failure. “I had also learned the perverse burden of responsibility placed on an author who writes speculative fiction,” says Olukotun, but also: “Would you have read that story?” I return to that title, and the story it tells about science and science fiction and who they’re for and whose triumphant journeys into the cosmos our collective imaginations allow. How much easier to imagine Nigerians on earth.
- Source: "India Mars Mission: New York Times Apologises for Cartoon", BBC News, 6 October 2014 (accessed 12 October 2015). [return]
- Source: "Meeting My Protagonist" by Deji Bryce Olukotun, Slate, September 2014 (accessed 12 October 2015). [return]
- Source: "Africans Urged to Back Continent's First Moon Mission", The Guardian, 5 January 2015 (accessed 12 October 2015). [return]