Wednesday, February 3, 2016


I have recently read many things; I read voraciously and voluminously. This morning I finished Nnedi Okorafor's "Lagoon", which took all kinds of unexpected turns and, in the end, snuck away from a nice resolution. I find that her style as an author is mostly to leave the reader with incomplete ideas and stories, and while usually this is frustrating, something particular about the way she does it really draws me in.

Lagoon's protagonists are an unlikely crew --- a marine biologist, a soldier, and a rap star --- who are selected as the primary contacts of the aliens who have set up a base camp in their ship in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria. They are not especially willing or eager, and "selected" sums up their training and objectives. No one knows what is going on, and the book creates an incredible atmosphere of carefully-balanced chaos.

It's like watching someone spin a dozen plates atop a dozen sticks. While juggling the sticks.

The three main characters' lives are interwoven with many others: their families, their friends, their nannies, people they pass in the street. Local students' clubs, the man who owns the bar on the beach fronting the aliens' landing. Okorafor has an incredible and ruthless flair for showing readers glimpses of full characters, and whisking them away in a minute, or a day, or gluing them in the center of our vision so that they occlude the rest of the plot. She is not using any authorial tools I recognize, and the novel has no signposts to reassure or orient the readers. The city of Lagos, and the country of Nigeria, are thrown into pandemonium by the arrival of aliens, and the reader is not really allowed any distance from this turmoil; there's no space to draw back and form an outsider's perspective on the entire thing.

The "normal" narrative chapters are interwoven with chapters from the point of view of fish in the harbor, and bats flying across the sky, and other inexplicable viewpoints that I just let wash over me. Some chapters are only one sentence long. Some parts are creative curlicues: in a book written in a sort-of-omniscient third person, the descriptive sentence
And that is all that Adaora, Agu and Anthony will ever remember about that thirty minutes of their lives. (p. 244)
is a sort of double-tease, since it deprives the characters and the readers of ever knowing what happened. It occurs in a chapter titled "Second Contact" and you've now read most of the chapter.

I like the fact that there is a marine biologist, who puts science explanations on the otherwise-magical things the aliens can do (change matter into other matter, control EM waves, etc.), but this is done quietly in the background, the same way that everyone understands that cell phones work using circuits and software, but we don't constantly talk or think about it. We just use the phones, and when they break, we sometimes can fix them. So the science-fiction/fantasy elements of this book were smooth and unnoticeable.

The book, like pretty much everything Nnedi Okorafor writes, made me think closely about social issues, made me look forward to the future, made me feel guilty for my luck and privilege, and made me incredibly happy by its mere existence. I'm glad she is getting so much exposure and encouragement, because it means there will be plenty more to read and enjoy.

This post's theme word is paresthesia, "a sensation of prickling, tingling, burning, etc. on the skin." Aliens have given you telekinesis? Paresthesia is the least of your worries.

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