An alien ship crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos. The polluted waters become pure and salty-sweet, and teem with fantastical marine and alien life. Just before the event, three people were wandering towards each other on Bar Beach – Adaora (a marine biologist), Agu (a soldier), and Anthony (a famous rapper). Then the sea itself rears up to swallow them for a meeting with the aliens that changes their lives forever.
When they awake on shore a shape-shifting alien is with them, in the form of a woman who Adaora names Ayodele. They take her back to Adaora’s home laboratory to conduct a few simple tests and decide what to do, but the situation quickly spirals out of their control.
Adaora, Agu and Anthony want to protect Ayodele, so they her help send out peaceful messages to Lagos and the world. Adaora’s maid Philo tells her boyfriend Moziz about the alien, and he and his friends decide to kidnap Ayodele and make her print money for them, assuming that if the technologically advanced aliens can shape-shift, they can create money out of thin air. Moziz’ friend Jacobs is in on the money-making plan but also has hopes for living openly as a transvestite, given that an LGBT student organisation is trying to use the shape-shifting aliens in a campaign for inclusivity. When Adaora’s newly religious husband Chris finds out, he tells his priest, Father Oke, who tries to make the aliens part of his congregation. Many people try to flee the city, where some are reacting to the alien presence with riots, looting and violence. The aliens in turn react to humanity with curiosity and kindness, but also devastating brutality.
It’s a story in which Lagos itself is part of the narrative. Adaora suggests that the aliens chose the city because “If they’d landed in New York, Tokyo or London, the governments of these places would have quickly swooped in to hide, isolate and study the aliens. Here in Lagos, there was no such order.” It’s a city of contradictions. With all its walls and gates, Chris says, “It’s secure but there is no security.” Adaora describes it as a city where everyone wants to leave but no one ever goes; people want to return as soon as they step out. The city is “riddled with corruption” but she can’t imagine living anywhere else.
The writing is flavoured with Nigerian culture – there are lots of local words and expressions, and some of the characters speak in pidgin English, which takes some getting used to. There is a glossary at the back of the book, but I didn’t find this until I’d finished, and it could be highly impractical for eBook readers who want to flip back and forth.
Culture, social circumstances, religion and folklore also play a major role. Adaora is having serious personal problems with her husband Chris, who has become convinced that Adaora is not merely a marine biologist but a marine witch (the worst kind of witch) and that the home laboratory he built for her is a witch’s den. It was when he turned to physical violence that Adaora stormed out and went to Bar Beach where the ocean engulfed her.
Chris isn’t the only one thinking of witches though; many Lagosians see the aliens from the perspective of traditional beliefs, of which witches and shape-shifters are a part. Adaora mentions that she wishes her grandmother could have seen the aliens, because she believed in shape-shifters. Of course not everyone is optimistic – lots of people think the aliens are evil and a threat to deeply ingrained beliefs. When more of the aliens emerge and take human form, the violence escalates. It’s also influenced by poverty and hardship. As Agu notes, people are using it as an opportunity to take out their frustrations.
Creatures from myth and folklore also appear. I thought they were the aliens in other forms, but they’re the creatures themselves. One of my favourite scenes is when a gravelly monster – the personification of a dangerous road – rises up and faces an alien who has taken the form of a Nigerian soap opera celebrity.
Thus science fiction and fantasy become entwined to the point that you can’t fit this book neatly in either genre. Aliens are the stuff of sf and Ayodele describes her race as being technology, but since we have so little understanding of how they do things that their abilities feel like magic. Like the way they alter the marine life in the ocean by giving the creatures what they desire. A swordfish in the opening chapter becomes a big, badass monster (this chapter is the story “Moom!” in Okorafor’s collection Kabu Kabu). The aliens hack into human technology so that crystal clear video broadcasts appear appear on TVs, computers and phones, even if it goes beyond the devices’ capabilities. It’s sci fi that feels like fantasy. Adaora talks about taking refuge in science, but she, Agu and Anthony have all had powerful, fantastical abilities since childhood, none of which she can explain in scientific terms.
Not that Adaora has the luxury of studying the aliens or her abilities; there’s too much going on. For the reader though, there isn’t actually much of a plot. The As – Adaora, Agu and Anthony – have vague goals, which include getting the sickly Nigerian president to negotiate with the aliens, but their plans are frequently thwarted, so progress is slow. In addition the story frequently hops to other POVs, many of which do not contribute to the main plot, although they add texture and colour to the bigger picture.
And there are loads of POV characters – the three As, Adaora’s husband Chris, their kids Kola and Fred, Adaora’s maid Philo, Philo’s boyfriend Moziz, his friend Jacobs, Jacobs’s prostitute sister Fisayo, a mute child, Father Oke. And those are just the recurring characters. We also hear from a 419 scammer, a bat, and a seven-legged spider.
It’s a riot of a story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Anthony mentions, Lagos rhymes with chaos, and the city is chaotic even on an average day. The arrival of the aliens sends it into overdrive, and the novel gives us a large, detailed sketch of what that looks like. You get the sense that this is a massive, wild story that can’t be easily contained, so Okorafor chose to depict it as such rather than going for a more traditionally streamlined narrative. And she handles it pretty well – it’s fairly easy to keep track of everything.
But, admittedly, I struggled to get invested in the story. I’d start to engage with a particular character’s struggles, only to be whisked off to see through other POVs. The three As and Ayodele get the most page-time, but I found them to be the least interesting characters. In all the chaos, I was never sure what would happen and or what I wanted to happen; I just sat back and watched it unfold. It’s all open-ended, and the novel closes without any major resolutions. It’s more like the beginning of what will be a long, epochal story, but Okorafor didn’t intend to write a sequel. What’s also frustrating is that we never see the aliens in their “true” forms, never learn what happens when they speak to the humans underwater, and only have a vague idea of what they want. It’s a contact story focused almost entirely on the human reaction in Lagos.
I wouldn’t say this is badly written in the way that some novels with too many characters and POVs are. It’s a kind of planned chaos, rather than a story gone amorphously out of control, and I have no criticisms of Okorafor’s writing. So I can appreciate what she did with novel, even if I didn’t get as wrapped up in it as I would have liked to. Time will tell if it’s made enough of an impression on me that I’ll start to admire it more, or if it’s going to fade from memory. But hey, that gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover drove me to buy the book in print, so I’ll probably read it again one day.