My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Lagoon is a love letter to the Nigerian city of Lagos and its inhabitants, both good and bad. Through the lens of an alien first-contact story, Nnedi Okorafor gives us an unflinching look at a broad swath of Lagos's population and their reactions to discovering they are not alone. While the concept and locale was intriguing enough to draw me in, the execution was not and I was ultimately left fairly ambivalent about the work as a whole. Rating-wise, I'm hovering somewhere between two and three stars, but per the Goodreads metric, I'm going with two simply because, in the end, I felt this book was merely "ok."
While Lagoon has a fair amount of promise, the story choices Okorafor made just did not work for me. I completely dug the idea of the shape-shifting aliens making first-contact with the aquatic life and helping those sea creatures evolve, before approaching the city's human inhabitants on a mission of peace. But because humans, particularly when confronted with the unknown, are typically a scared, cowardly lot, things quickly go awry.
When the alien ambassador dubbed Ayodele makes her presence known, the sense of wonder is quickly overcome with one of two reactions by the population at large. The first reaction is how the alien can be used and manipulated for profit (one armed gang wants to kidnap her and hold her for ransom; another unarmed gang of Christian faithful led by Father Oke wants to bring her into Christ's salvation so that the BMW driving prosperity preacher can use Ayodele in his plans to extort the community), and the second is to meet her with violence. Aside from Ayodele's three human cohorts - a marine biologist, a rap star, and a disgraced soldier - much of the story reflects on humanity's pettiness and selfishness. The story here, though, is not one of hopelessness - indeed, there's a thick veneer of hope and betterment throughout - but it is remarkably, and thankfully, honest.
One thing I greatly appreciated here was the depiction of Father Oke. Too often, popular fiction represents Church leaders as the Best of the Best, and they're an instrument to help turn the central characters (particularly disbelieving central characters) into Born Again crusaders (check out The Blood Gospel co-written by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell for one of the most egregious examples in pop-lit - an atheist archaeologist discovers vampires are real, has the hots for a priest, and then totally abandons all reason and scientific method to decide that if vamps are real and a priest can be so hot, there absolutely has to be an invisible man with magic powers living in the sky. Because naturally.). Okorafor represents Oke as a selfish, greedy bastard who uses his "divine" authority to smack women, steal money from the sheep that blindly follow him, and label anybody who doesn't lay down for his BS as a witch. Africa, in the 21st Century, thanks to the meddling of the Christian Church and insane demagogues like Scott Lively, still believes in witches, and this conceit is used by those in power to expand their power further by murdering anybody that gets in their way and mentally enslaving everyone else. Anybody familiar with the Salem Witch Trials can tell you just how effective this is, and Oke uses it to similar effect as he stomps around Lagos. If he can't use Ayodele to extort the populace, he'll simply turn his flock against this witch and kill her.
As I said, there are elements in this book that work quite well for me. I also greatly appreciated Okorafor's representation of Lagos and the city's rich mythology and history. At the same time, I felt some of that mythos got too much in the way. There are times where Okorafor strays too far into fantasy, which disrupts the narrative and fails to sit well with the rest of the book. For instance, at one point we get a single chapter about a highway monster called the Bone Collector. We also get segments from the point of view of a mythological spider. I felt these were odd inclusions, and to suddenly have such a strong supernatural component thrust into the story, and for so briefly, was quite jarring.
Overall, Lagoon didn't quite work for me, although it had its fair share of elements that resounded with me. I appreciated the ecological aspects, and the author's inclusion of diversity throughout, and I feel like I have a greater sense of Lagos thanks to Okorafor's story. Unfortunately, the book itself is a bit too plodding and leans too heavily on mythological fantasy, making for an uneasy bedfellow with its progressive science fiction themes.
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