4.5 out of 5 stars
I’d have a heck of a story to tell my mother. Papa Legba, the god of the crossroads was alive and well in the country of his origins. That’s epic. Even now, I wonder how much he had to do with what was going on. Papa Legba loves trouble. I just might write a song about all this, too if I survive. I’ll call it “African Chaos.” And if there is a city that rhymes with “chaos,” is it Lagos.
An American woman who was there
I just finished this and don’t know entirely how I feel about it but I also know that just like The Book of Phoenix and Binti, I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about it. I know that voice, in all things literary is one of the hardest things to talk about, and Okorafor’s voice is always one of the best parts of her books. I think that’s what haunts me. I don’t know what it is – it is ethereal. It feels like you are reading a fairy tale told by an ancient spirit, but in this case, it’s taking place in modern day. There is all the technology that tells us it’s modern day. There are Muslims and a Christianity that comes with a heavy dose of witchcraft and superstition, something that American Christianity eschews. Religion is often one of the first social constructs to go in the sci fi or near-future genre, despite the fact that in real life and in real society religion is one of the most unifying and divisive aspects of humanity. Look at the world! The world is tearing itself apart over religion and has been since humanity began to cluster and breed. Why isn’t it in more sci fi? And the meat of this is a sci fi story but with a savory dose of fantasy for sauce.
But the voice of the narrative feels like a fairy tale.
I know Okorafor wrote this because the movie, District 9, set in the country of her origin, Nigeria, really pissed her off. She started thinking about what would happen if aliens really came to Nigeria and the story of the Nigerians was told, rather than the whitewashed version that was given so much props for its “diversity”. The beginning is very abrupt and feels confusing and disjointed. But I think that is intentional. Three people show up on a beach and seem to be walking right into each other’s path. (Oh, this is after the prologue where the sword fish environmentalist destroys an oil supply line. That was cool.) Other people are watching them; a mute boy and a woman who is a secretary by day and a prostitute by night. I have read other people’s take on it: they say the three people are there when the aliens “land”. But to me, I felt the aliens had come through a rip in the ocean from another dimension. I could be wrong, maybe I should go back and reread it, but I don’t want to change my first impression of the book. I mean, how does the ship come OUT of the water? Why does the sea level rise and start to flood the city, unless water is being displaced by something that wasn’t there before? I don’t know, I could be wrong. But the three come together, and are promptly snatched by the sea.
These three people, two Lagosians and one Ghanian, seem to have nothing in common. Adaora had a fight with her husband, a man who has become more and more suspicious since becoming a born again Christian and being involved with a questionable “bishop”. Agu has had a fight with his fellow soldiers while trying to save a girl from being raped. Anthony Dey Craze is a famous rapper from Ghana who slipped out for a breath of air. Or so he said. In truth, he senses something is about to happen and is drawn inexorably toward the beach. As the books goes on, we learn there is a lot more to the situations that drew them to the beach, and they have powers, some left dormant, some newly discovered, that make them unique, that drew them together and drew the aliens to them.
The problem was that I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters. Things happen very quickly and there are sudden turns in the plot and action, so it’s like there is too much happening and too many points of view, I mean even a swordfish gets a chapter. The narration is that sort of camera on the shoulder kind of omniscient – am I making sense? So again that also makes a buffer between you and the characters.
Despite that, there was so much I loved in this story. The idea that the aliens were the nature of change. Ayodele, the ambassador from the aliens, tells them so. The aliens see the creatures of the sea as sea people, and basically help them become what they want to be. They tell the humans they will do the same for them, and all hell breaks loose. Change is so powerful and scary and humans hate it. We’re also irrational as fuck.
The story is fascinating and wonderful. The prose is gorgeous. It feels important. Even when you are with the potential kidnappers, whose pidgen English is very hard to understand, yes, I’m another white person complaining about it. But it adds another layer to the many layers of the setting. I mentioned the multiple points of view – there are a whole lot but it made the book feel so real, despite my complaint I felt separated from the characters. It was kind of necessary if you want to show how a whole city is affected by what is essentially an alien invasion. There are religious zealots, the 419 scammers in the internet cafes, the dangerous boys considering a kidnapping are actually students unable to go to school because of strikes, one of whom is a cross-dresser involved in an LGBTQ group called the Black Nexus, an American singer who had been opening for Anthony, a religious leader that preys on his constituencies weakness and hates and denigrates women, a bat, yes, a bat, like a fruitbat, a little boy who is unable to speak, a family stuck on the freeway when the first panic hits and everyone tries to leave. Okorafor uses all of Lagos and its people, visitor and resident, good, bad, dangerous, saintly, kind, mean, evil and lost, even the flora and fauna. Even the gods come out.
And why not? After the aliens make themselves known and all hell breaks loose, why shouldn’t the first miracle workers come out to play and poke and prod? The mix of the two, the aliens and their seemingly magical and mutative technology and the gods, who are ancient, a blend of monster and myth, are as mixed as the people. Some are trouble makers, some prey on people, and you wonder if they are just being themselves and satisfying their own natures, or are they meting out some kind of justice? You’d think they would be jealous or angry at the arrival of this new element of change, but the gods accept them more readily than the humans do. Maybe when you are as ancient as the gods of Africa, you know change is inevitable.
I don’t now – I tried to get deep there and don’t know if I expressed myself right. Like I said, I know this will haunt me and I will continue to think about it. And that is what I love so much about Nnedi Okorafor’s work.