(2014) Nnedi Okorarafor, Hodder & Stoughton, £13.99, trdpbk, 306pp, ISBN 978-1-444-76275-4
High on my favourite reads this year for sure. A very poetic take on John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes with enigmatic shape-shifting aliens landing off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. The action takes place in the city and under the rising waters, with many human characters finding they can breath underwater or get inside protective bubbles.
The alien arrival in the politically troubled city is witnessed by three people: a marine biologist who is in a relationship crisis with an abusive husband; a soldier who has been beaten up by his own squad for preventing them from raping a woman; and a world-renowned rap singer.
The trio are snatched from the beach by a giant fist of water in front of several witnesses and see the giant mix of sea creatures and monsters in the waters before being bestowed with special powers by the visitors.
Assisted by Ayodele, a woman who is far from human, the trio are assigned to arranging a meeting with the Nigerian president, though he is initially in Saudi Arabia, dying.
In Lagos (which means Lagoon), everyone wants the aliens to serve their own agenda; the church blames them and women for witchcraft, local suppressed transvestites want to kidnap Ayodele as a champion for their rights, and many exploit the crisis in the city to loot, steal and meet their own needs.
Told from multiple points of view, with even birds, bats, and a giant mythical spider in the caves below the city observing events, this has great poetry and beauty in its writing, as the aliens offer something wonderful amidst the chaos and death.
Soon it is apparent that not all the ongoing weirdness is alien, with ancient nature gods fighting their own corner too. There are wonderful moments throughout; especially a woman lamenting that a deadly sentient road that has taken many lives in accidents being asked why she never simply asked it (the road) not to do such a thing.
The unlikely but likable heroes realize that their powers are not new but a reawakening of energies they have each exercised before. The sense of a need to return to our true natures and becoming what we really desire in our hearts runs throughout the book.
Another highlight has the rapper, Anthony, punch a giant shark clean out of the ocean. Okorarafor would probably write great action comics.
The President is seen as a very human, wise and likeable figure here. The villains are the army and especially the church.
Some of the standard SF images are here to including aliens addressing Lagos on every TV, radio and smart phone, whether it is switched on or off.
There are neat educational touches. Cyber-fraud is often called simply 419, as that is its number in the criminal statute books in Nigeria. Some of the observers of the alien visitations are using cyber-cafes to commit 419's.
Okorafor has great fun with characters talking in pidgin-English, for which he acknowledges the help of a rapper, Success T, who may or may not be a role model for the character of Anthony in the book.
The story does not really end as it sets itself up for a follow up article with Lagos facing resentment and suspicion from the rest of Africa and the world beyond; jealous that the aliens so keen to heal the hurt in Lagos ignore their needs. It will be very interesting to see how this develops in any follow up novels.
A wonderful story with a strong call for change, and a driving ecology message. Lagos looses its right for citizens to swim and fish in the waters we have polluted until they are cleansed, but the sense of the filthy oil being replaced by some greater pure energy is clear even without being spelt out. These aliens are rather like Klaatu, in (the original) The Day The Earth Stood Still) offering both warnings and messages of hope.
Short, action packed, overlapping lyrical chapters in a story that seems both familiar and very original at the same time.
Okorafor apparently wrote the story after being quite angered when watching the South African Science Fiction film drama, District 9, with aliens reduced to dependence on humans when ill-treated by us and then needing a man to man up to save them. I enjoyed the film, but he hated it. By contrast Okorafor's aliens seem in total control, as virtually god-like beings serving as catalysts for change whether we really want it or not.
If you watched James Cameron's The Abyss and wondered what happened next, this might well be your answer…
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