There are some who might think that the very premise of Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon —aliens landing in Lagos — is a bit far reaching. After all, if the science fiction cannon is anything to go by, aliens, it would seem, prefer fancy cities in America and Japan. Not a grimy, over-populated third-world megalopolis in a continent thought of as stranded in the “waiting room” of modernity. Even when aliens landed in Johannesburg, Neil Blomkamp made this famously cosmopolitan city devoid of Africans from any other nation, except for Nigerians, who were portrayed as gun-totting, superstitious cannibals. But in Lagoon, Lagos stands up tall as iconic enough to be an irresistible lure to aliens.
The main story line of Lagoon hangs upon two encounters — the seemingly unlikely meeting of three strangers in Bar Beach, on the one hand, and their encounter with a mysterious woman. There is Adaora who is a marine biologist. Agu is a soldier. Anthony is a Ghanaian rapper. The very moment they stumble, quite literally, into each other is perfectly timed with the occurrence of a deafening blast, huge tidal waves, and the appearance of a “naked dark-skinned African woman with long black braids.” Adaora is the one who names the woman Ayodele. But she is no ordinary Lagosian; she is an alien, the emissary sent to present Nigerian leaders with the demands of the alien leadership or “elders from the stars,” as one character puts it. This motley group of four gets caught up in a series of bizarre events that threatens to throw Africa’s largest city into utter chaos.
Okorafor’s Lagos is an amalgam of worlds, both “real” and futuristic. There is the Lagos of everyday life — traffic gridlock, internet cafes, 419ers, questionable pastors, hustling university students, African Hip-hop, underground LGBT groups, and beach nightlife. This Lagos is portrayed in all its chaotic allure.
But, as the narrator remarks, there are “things inhabiting Lagos besides carbon-based creatures.” Okorafor captures this other Lagos by populating the novel with beings and creatures extracted from myth and folklore. One of the most striking is the Lagos-Benin Express Way, a dangerous stretch of motorway where thousands of fatal accidents have occurred. In Okorafor’s magical touch, the road wakes up from its asphalt slumber and becomes a “road monster” or Bone Collector, as it likes to call itself.
It would be perfectly legitimate to criticize Lagoon as being all fantasy and too little sci-fi. There are no gizmos, gadgets, flying cars, space suits, robots, and so on. Perhaps that is Okorafor’s way of cutting down on the clichés of the genre, as well as the overdependence on high-budget, technologically achieved mirages; instead, she lets the African space and archive of narrative forms generate a new set of iconography for science fiction. My favorite example of this is when one character sees the alien spaceship extended across the horizon at night and calls it “the devil’s danfo” (“danfo” being the often rickety and unwieldy shared taxi used in Lagos.)
Where Okorafor really pushes the boundaries of sci-fi is in her portrayal of the futuristic. The mysterious “dark-skinned” woman — who turns out to be an alien emissary — materializes out of the Atlantic. In doing so, she bears close resemblance to Mami Wata, that ocean demi-goddess of Nigerian urban folklore. Ayodele is a shape-shifting alien with the ability to communicate with humans by synthesizing data from their individual archive of experiences. The ability to shape-shift is made possible by some advanced alien metallurgy. Unlike human cells with fixed characteristics and protocols, Ayodele’s body is made up of microscopic metal beads. This metallic consistency of her alien body produces an extreme form of plasticity that enables her to take on any shape she desires. But shape-shifting is not the limit of her alien powers. Ayodele is able to broadcast herself simultaneously — or rather make images of herself go instantly viral — on any communication device whatsoever, as long as it has a screen: phones, TVs, computers, e-book readers, and so on.
The wonders of Ayodele’s alien powers are very much in keeping with the genre. Science fiction is just as interested in technology as it is in how technology intersects with the body. It is already interesting that Okorafor portrays the marvels of a technologically enhanced body with a feminine figure. What is even more remarkable is the fact that the particular conception of the feminine she uses is inspired by folklore and urban legend. Mami Wata and the shape-shifting witch of African folklore are given a technologized dimension, and in this updated form, help us imagine a new kind of body.
The idea of science fiction within an African context presents its own problems. African literature is a somewhat policed aesthetic regime. African writers — especially those who aren’t writing highbrow realist fiction — are always under pressure to justify their aesthetic choices. Going by Chinua Achebe’s fight with Ayi Kwei Armah in the ’70s, stories that experiment with non-realist forms stand a greater chance of being dismissed as imitative, inauthentic, and unserious. That is why in this day and age there are people who think it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether science fiction can adequately portray life in an African city-scape such as Lagos (although they may not question the possibility of that happening in Los Angeles or New York).
Okorafor’s novel is a brilliant response to these kinds of provocations. Through a host of outstanding formal innovations, Okorafor shows that science fiction is not some outlandish literary form that is then imposed on an African setting. The novel demonstrates that African imaginaries have always been science-fictional. And just in case a less discerning reader misses the point, she has a character spell it out: “If anyone gon’ be flying around, shootin’ lasers outta they eyes or jumping in the water and making shock waves because they can, it would be a bunch of Africans.”
Lagoon isn’t merely Sci-fi with an African flavor — a foreign literary form dolled up with some local color. It is a bold, new reinvention of science fiction as a bonafide African form. In a sense, Lagoons is that awkwardly awesome moment that sci-fi realizes it was African all along.