Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

It feels like it has been a long time since I've sunk down so deep into a book that when I come back up, I am dazed and the real world feels a little less tangible than the fictional one I've just been in. Partly, it's because a lot of my reading has been interrupted quite a bit, but that full immersion has been a bit elusive.

But then I picked up Lagoon. And even though I read it on lunch hours, and once, on a relatively short bus ride to meet my husband for dinner, this was the first book in a while that pulled me in so hard it was a physical wrench to take my attention from the page back to the world around me. I realized it on that bus ride, when my husband asked if I was okay, because I was unusually quiet, and I realized it was because I wasn't entirely back in the world yet.

It's both disconcerting and wonderful, to find a book that sucks me in so deeply, and so I feel fairly confident in recommending this book to everyone who wants an interesting and challenging look at first contact, and the difficulties it would bring to a very human world, and very specifically to daily life and culture in Nigeria.

We start in the ocean, where the aliens have just landed, and start to extend certain overtures to the creatures they find there. Those creatures may or may not be hospitable to the humans who have polluted their waters. From there, we emerge onto land, to the three main characters: a marine biologist struggling with having a husband who has recently converted to a form of what feels like Pentecostal Christianity and newly started to try to subjugate her will to his; a soldier beaten up from trying to stop a rape by members of his unit; and a rapper just finished a large show in Lagos.

The three are swept into the sea and eventually returned to shore with a fourth, an alien that has taken on a women's appearance, named Ayodele by the marine biologist. She needs to talk to the president of Nigeria, but the city is in relative chaos from the weird sonic booms and tidal waves. The book is comprised of several treks across the city, along with confrontations surrounding the alien woman, with some trying to kidnap her for commercial gain, others to find visibility in a changing world, and for others to find out how Christian these aliens are.

Much of the book is about the different ways people would react to alien encounters, and the specific ways in which culture mediates that, particular in assumptions about gender. It feels like too often when we have alien contact in science fiction, it takes place in an Any Culture, which actually means American culture, just assumed to be near universal. Not only moving the locus of contact to Nigeria, but also strongly engaging with how reactions might be affected by both individual personalities and larger social trends, means this is very strong, and sometimes uncomfortable.

And then it takes an interesting turn, one that seems to be present in the other of Okorafor's books I've read so far, when what is science fiction also starts to incorporate some elements of fantasy. These two genres are not easily extricable in her work, and the resulting melange is really neat. Because while the aliens have been altering things under the waves, there are things under the surface of the land that are older and in at least one case, more hungry. I don't want to spoil more than that.

Readjusting to the world around me after pulling myself out with an almost physical wrench was a difficult thing to do every time. This book sucked me in deep, and I hope it does the same for you.


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