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by Nnedi Okorafor
Saga Press, Hardcover, $24.99, 320 pp
American edition published July 14, 2015,
originally published April 2014.

What if first contact happened in the Third World?

That central premise underpins Nnedi Okorafor’s masterful Lagoon, about an alien ship landing in the lagoon off Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria and the event’s aftermath. She wrote the book as a response to the movie District 9, attempting to portray another vision of aliens in Africa.

The novel follows three residents of Lagos — marine biologist Adaora, Ghanian rapper Anthony Dey Craze and soldier Agu, who meet the mysterious alien Ayodele on Bar Beach shortly after her ship has landed in the Lagoon. The three are mysteriously chosen and spiritually transformed by the contact, and agree to help Ayodele contact the President of Nigeria.

And that’s where everything starts going to Hell. Gangsters, soldiers, activists and religious fanatics all find out about Ayodele and all seek to control or kill the visitor. Soon the city is on fire as 5 million Nigerians are rioting in the streets.

It is not a hopeful view of humanity in general. But Okorafor injects plenty of little human moments into the story, as the world reacts in horror as tragedy after tragedy plays out over YouTube.

Some of the text can be a bit tricky, Okorafor freely switches between English and the Pidgin language of the underclass, this adds plenty of verisimilitude, but the language can take some getting used to. There is a glossary provided at the end, though.

The novel also has a dreamlike quality, with Okorafor blending magical realism and African folklore into the sci-fi take. Turns out the original trio are more than they seemed and the alien encounter awakens powers with them, even as it heralds the return of ancient Gods to the world as well.

Okorafor also injects some interesting POVs into Lagoon. The novel begins with the actual first contact with the aliens — from a swordfish in Lagos Lagoon. The aliens are able to communicate with the fish and are able to grant them their dreams as well — dreams that don’t bode well for polluting humanity. She also presents the first contact from the perspective of a bat and a tarantula as well.

Mostly the novel is about transformation and the pain and hope that come with it.  Ayodele and her fellow travelers promise a restoration of humanity, and they bring that promise to one of the poorest, most hopeless, places in the world. But that contact awakens hope amongst the people and their leaders, that they can transform the squalor to something beautiful. Provided they can survive the growing pains in the process. ~~ Michael Senft

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