The novel “Lagoon” by Nnedi Okorafor was published for the first time in 2014.
A series of circumstances brings three strangers living in Lagos, Nigeria, to meet: the marine biologist Adaora, the rapper Anthony and the soldier Agu. When a strange meteorite crashes into the nearby ocean, the destinies of the three of them become united. Their meeting with an alien shapeshifting creature that takes the shape of a woman who gets named Ayodele changes their lives.
Ayodele is just one of the aliens arrived on Earth so it’s essential to try to avoid panic and set up a meeting with the president of Nigeria. The contact with a series of Lagos inhabitants quickly starts destabilizing the difficult equilibria existing in the city.
The writer Nnedi Okorafor was among the many Nigerians negatively impressed by the stereotypes about her compatriots she saw in the movie “District 9”. The controversy caused at home encouraged her to write a screenplay that was a sort of answer to it but the project quickly changed its path to become the novel “Lagoon”, which is the meaning of Lagos in Portuguese.
“Lagoon” begins as a story of first contact with an alien species but from the beginning we start seeing that it’s quite out of the ordinary for this subgenre. The fact that aliens arrive in Lagos is already an unusual choice and the developments show ramifications that lead to consequences of various kinds for the population of that metropolis but also far beyond.
The shapeshifting aliens, and in particular the sort of ambassador who assumes the appearance of a human woman and gets named Ayodele, arrive in a city that’s complex from many points of view, first of all bringing change. The science fiction element is explicit yet for most of the novel Ayodele does little more than occasionally shapeshifting. However, its alien presence is enough to have an impact on the sometimes precarious equilibrium existing in Lagos and in the lives of the humans it meets.
“Lagoon” is classified as science fiction because of the presence of aliens but is considered closer to the genre of magic realism. In her works, Nnedi Okorafor ranges through various literary genres and even in this novel the included elements go far beyond trivial labels.
The novel has three human protagonists but follows various characters and it can be said that the city of Lagos is among its protagonists. The setting is very important with its population not only human but also with the ocean that bathes it. Nnedi Okorafor offers us a portrait of a metropolis with its complexities and its contradictions where the arrival of aliens has a series of effects.
The characters often represent certain categories and are sometimes developed in a limited way, with some stereotypes. Ayodele is at the center of everything but is perhaps the least developed protagonist. In many ways her presence is used to trigger changes in other characters because Nnedi Okorafor is interested in telling stories of Lagos inhabitants. For this reason, the author mainly develops the three human protagonists giving them a backstory, a personality, problems and motives for their actions.
This choice makes “Lagoon” a little chaotic and uneven but that’s inevitable because Nnedi Okorafor wrote a story that aims to embrace an entire metropolis. In addition to the protagonists there are other important characters whose actions are important in the plot’s development.
Father Oke is a priest who has his own agenda and in the course of the novel both his fundamentalist and opportunist sides emerge. In the variety existing in Lagos, however, there’s also an LGBT community with various members who hope that the arrival of aliens will improve their situation.
The three human protagonists would like to put Ayodele in contact with the president of Nigeria so that they can start diplomatic relations and possibly a friendship between the two species. From this point of view, the Nigerian politicians are certainly not described in a positive way and in spite of the exotic setting the political problems and other ones can be well understood even by non-African readers.
Nnedi Okorafor included many different elements in “Lagoon”, too many to develop them properly in a story just over 300 pages long. In many ways the result remains intriguing because the chaos in the contents is an indication of the vitality of Lagos, where the social complexities lead to very diverse developments as a result of contacts with Ayodele or even of just the discovery of the aliens’ arrival. In the end, in my opinion the novel’s merits far outweigh its flaws and for this reason I recommend reading it.