Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon

I’m often frustrated by the sameness of most modern SF novels’ voices. That sameness is made more stark when I read a book like Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon that has a voice of its own. Part of its individuality comes from the setting. This is a standard Earth-based first contact story, like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But these aliens, perhaps realizing we’ve seen an awful lot of U.S. and U.K. based visitations already, decide to park their spaceship in Lagos. More importantly for me–because at the moment it’s the kind of thing I notice–is that much of it is written in omniscient point of view instead of the close third person used by most modern genre fiction.

Cover of Lagoon

I sometimes think I’m tired of SF novels with casts of thousands, like A Game of Thrones. Maybe my problem is more with novels that combine huge casts with close third person, like A Game of Thrones.[1] They’re choppy. I’m just getting interested in a character and their situation when the story jumps to another and forces me to readjust; my momentum is broken. Omniscient narration flows, smoothly carrying the narrative from one character to the next.

Lagoon is free with its point of view. It can focus on one character, tour the inner voices of a crowd, or pull back to survey the city. There are chapters from the POVs of animals, first person witness statements–whatever the book needs in that moment. Some reviews have opined that most of Lagoon’s characters are a bit flat, and to some extent that’s true, but for the type of novel this is that’s fine. Lagoon isn’t any one character’s story. It’s a study of a city reacting to a historically weird event. The characters are mosaic tiles–just chips of color in themselves, but making a bigger, deeper picture.

It’s also a mosaic of genres. It’s first contact science fiction, but with regular sidesteps into fantasy, myth, and magic realism. Lagoon is the kind of book where the three main human characters turn out to be superheroes because, hey, why not. It reminded me of Douglas Adams even though it’s only a comedy in the old fashioned “not a tragedy” sense, maybe because of its willingness to enter the point of view of anyone or anything–there’s a bit with a bat that reminded me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s whale and bowl of petunias. In its early chapters Lagoon also resembles a caper story, maybe by Donald Westlake: It has a big and often eccentric cast, all with their own agendas and attitudes towards the central McGuffin, drifting through each other’s stories and occasionally converging in one place to bemuse each other.

These days it takes me a while to read a science fiction or fantasy novel; I keep stopping and starting. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books I’m reading, but the genres have made me gun-shy. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I find most recent SF depressing and I’ve been conditioned to expect something awful to happen in any given book. No matter how well an SF novel is going, I’m never quite convinced that there won’t be a massacre in the next chapter. This is how I read Lagoon at first, too. In this case my apprehension might have been enhanced by the entire history of the aliens-on-earth trope. These situations never seem to end well. Half the time the aliens are invading monsters as made famous by The War of the Worlds. If the aliens are friendly, then the humans will be paranoid and fearful and the lesson will be that the real monsters are us.

But the occasional tense moment aside, the meeting of humans and aliens goes smoothly. And maybe that’s partly because Lagoon’s magic realist side is nudging it away from the standard tropes of the alien visitation genre: there are larger powers looking out for everybody. But mostly Lagoon is one of those books where most people mean well and the ones who don’t aren’t all-powerful.

  1. For me A Game of Thrones symbolizes everything wrong with science fiction and fantasy in the 21st century.  ↩