The Question of Who Deserves an Alien Invasion – A Review of Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

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The idea of an “alien invasion” tends to come pre-packaged with a very specific set of tropes: a group of hostile extraterrestrials wreaks fire and havoc upon a city (usually Western, usually American), and the world (or rather, America) must find a way to unite in order to beat the alien threat back and prove that humanity is a force to be reckoned with once it finds a reason to stand united, rather than divided. This is a pattern that I’ve seen repeated across different movies, from Independence Day to Transformers (that those are both Michael Bay movies says something, I think).

Recently, some movies have attempted to break the mold: Pacific Rim, for instance, takes the typical alien invasion narrative, but sets it in an Asian city, and gives us an Asian heroine in the form of Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Even the movie’s visual and thematic tropes find their roots in Asian pop culture: director Guillermo del Toro has stated on several occasions that he drew inspiration from the Japanese Gojira movies (Godzilla, to Westerners), and from mecha (giant robot) anime and manga such as Evangelion.

And then there’s District 9. It’s been lauded for its attempt to reverse the typical alien invasion story by portraying the aliens as essentially “human” entities, but forced into horrific living conditions by the humans, who are themselves portrayed as inhuman in their cruelty. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, director Neil Blomkamp was inspired by the history of apartheid and its effects, choosing to use aliens as a metaphor for the oppressed Other.

However, though a lot of critical acclaim has been heaped on the movie, there’s also plenty of controversy attached to it – not least for its “white saviour” narrative and its portrayal of Nigerians. These problematic aspects inspired Nnedi Okorafor to lay down the groundwork for what would eventually become the novel Lagoon.

Lagoon begins in the waters off Lagos, Nigeria, with a very angry – albeit righteously angry – swordfish. That swordfish sets off a chain of events that brings three people from vastly different backgrounds together: Adaora, a university professor and married mother of two; Agu, a high-minded soldier; and Anthony Dey Craze, famous Ghanaian rapper. What the swordfish does sets them on a journey that will change the face of Lagos, and perhaps Nigeria, forever.

Now, on the surface, Lagoon doesn’t appear to be all that different from the typical alien invasion narrative: aliens appear, and the ensuing conflict brings people together in ways they might not otherwise had the world been normal. Indeed, one doesn’t really even need an alien invasion for that sort of thing to happen: a natural disaster works just as well, as so many other films have proven. Even zombies work, too.

So why aliens? Because aliens can reason, in the way neither a tsunami nor a zombie can. They can explain why they’ve come, and what they plan to do. To be sure, not all aliens in film do this – a lot seem to adopt the (extremely human) “shoot first and ask questions later” philosophy, or are otherwise unable, or don’t want to, communicate with humanity. But the aliens in Lagoon can and do want to communicate with humanity – in fact, that’s the main reason why they established contact in the first place. They have something they wish to share, and in order to do that they need to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Personally, I liked that deviation from the typical portrayal of aliens. I know it’s nothing new, but it was nice reading about it in a story that specifically deals with the concept of alien invasion. I also really liked that a musician is put forward as primary communicator – an idea which makes sense. Though song lyrics can be hampered by language, music itself is not. So when the aliens choose Anthony as their primary communicator, they are in fact choosing a speaker of what’s perhaps the most universal language possible to humanity. They could have, of course, chosen a mathematician, as many science fiction writers tend to do, but math isn’t really completely comprehensible to everybody – one needs only to watch eyes glaze over when one mentions the words “higher calculus”. Music, however, speaks at the level of the heart, the level of the soul – and when one wants to start change, that’s the level at which one must speak.

And change is what the aliens want to do. “We are change,” states Ayodele, the alien’s ambassador, when asked why she and her people are on Earth. They can change themselves at a molecular level, and they can do the same for everything around them, even to harm, and to heal. But what sort of change do they intend to bring? Again, Ayodele supplies the answer: “We come to bring you together and refuel your future. Your land is full of a fuel that is tearing you apart.” No large leap of logic to understand the reference to fossil fuels and the divisive and destructive oil industry. This is a great thing, of course: our reliance on fossil fuels is literally destroying our world, and something – anything – that can cut our addiction would bring sweeping change.

But what that is, is never really explained. In fact, a lot about the aliens is left up in the air, except what Adaora learns from Ayodele based on what the latter does and says. They are more like gods: mysterious entities from beyond that have come to save humanity from itself by appearing to chosen prophets, who must then spread the word about their coming. Why Okorafor chose to call them aliens instead of gods might seem a bit odd, but I think the reason is simple: gods interfere in the lives of humans all the time, whether to save them or to hurt them – or at least, they used to. It would be less easy to swallow the idea of gods coming back to save humanity, than it would be to accept aliens coming to Earth for the same purpose.

This makes me wish that Okorafor had spent a bit more time developing the aliens. I would have liked to understand their motives more, liked to learn why they really want to help humanity out. They could be doing so out of purely altruistic motives – such things are entirely possible – but a part of me wonders if that’s truly the case. Ayodele says they are “change,” as if that’s their entire purpose, to bring change to everyplace they touch, but is it always positive change? Or was it just pure luck that they decided to help humanity, instead of just wiping us off the face of the planet – something they’re also capable of doing? They come close to making the latter decision, at a certain point in the novel, but they change their mind and decide it might be better to go on with the original plan of helping humanity. It’s a touching moment, to be sure – not least because it’s children that tip the balance back in humanity’s favour – but it does make me wonder what’s really going on in their (collective, as they are a hive mind) heads.

Then again, I suppose that’s not the point of this novel. The point of this novel is, in fact, a very personal one – to Okorafor, specifically, and perhaps, by extension, to Lagosians and Nigerians. In the acknowledgements at the end of the novel, Okorafor shows the whys and wherefores for writing Lagoon, and it becomes clear that this is a very personal work to her, both as a reaction to what she saw in District 9, and her personal history as a Nigerian woman, and a Lagosian, specifically. Hope pointed out that this novel reads a lot like a wish fulfilment story: Okorafor saw things that were wrong about various things around her, and decided to correct all of it in one fell swoop in the writing of Lagoon.

Now, to be sure, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of this novel being wish fulfilment. It’s a completely valid reason for writing anything, because if one can’t have one’s way with the world, one might as well write a world in which one can do as one pleases. The problem with that, though, is not everyone is going to completely embrace what’s going on in the story because of its intensely personal nature. But if that’s not the point, if the point is just to write the story and get it out there, then whether or not other people beyond a specific set of them “get” the novel isn’t really going to matter.

And I think that’s what Okorafor had in mind, when she wrote Lagoon: not many people except those beyond a certain set of them – people with an intimate understanding of Lagos and Nigeria and all the interconnected ideas and problems associated with the culture and people of those places – will really “get” the novel; for all the rest, some parts of the story will appear opaque. But that doesn’t matter: this isn’t a novel for everybody, this is a novel that fulfils a certain purpose for its author, and that’s enough.

I would like to clarify, though, that the opacity of the story had nothing to do with the language, or the artistry, or characterisation, or anything else about the novel. Okorafor’s language is brilliant to read, particularly in her use of slang for atmosphere and characterisation; her characters – the humans, anyway – were a fun and interesting bunch (I adore Adaora’s kids, in particular); and her storytelling is as wonderful as it was when I first encountered her writing in Akata Witch. But I’m not Lagosian, and I’m not Nigerian, and I’m not African, and therefore certain aspects of Lagoon feel opaque to me.

There are some points that I understand, of course, and to a certain degree relate to: the prevalence of corruption; the power of the Internet; the dangers and prejudice faced by women and people of the LGBTQIA community. But the Philippines is not Nigeria, and Manila is not Lagos: the cultures are different, though they face many of the same problems. If Ayodele’s folk had landed in Manila Bay, instead of off the shores of Lagos, I think it would have been a very different story than that told in Lagoon. I don’t know if would have been better, or if it would have been worse, but I know only that it would have been different.

Overall, Lagoon is an interesting take on the alien invasion narrative, albeit one that’s very culturally specific to Lagosians and Nigerians, and very specifically shaped by Okorafor’s own experience and desires. The characters are interesting to read – the women, in particular, have a very special place in my heart – and though the plot feels small and a bit disjointed it certainly works well enough for its purpose This is not a story for everyone: this is a story told to fulfil a very specific desire on the part of the author, and on the part of a certain set of readers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does mean that some readers will find the novel opaque, certain aspects of it beyond their ability to relate. But getting everybody to relate was not the point of the novel anyway, and in that sense, it succeeds in what it set out to do.

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