In many ways this is quite a traditional SF story. Which is a shame, because the traditional parts are some of the weakest; when it goes its own way it’s pretty damn good. The upshot though is that, like Who Fears Death, Lagoon is a book which is easier to admire than to enjoy.
The downside to this desire to portray location as protagonist is that none of the human characters really come across in their own rights. There are a lot of them, and the book’s short chapters mean that we don’t get to meet any for long enough for them to get established beyond the most basic tropes. You get broad-brush ciphers: the venal churchman, the upright soldier, the naive girlfriend, but none of them really appear to act for any reason beyond authorial fiat. Agency is almost completely absent and motivation is too often told, not shown:
Jacobs saw an end to living with his parents who refused to accept him. His sister Fisayo saw all of Lagos in flames. Seven saw infinite possibilities and a people from outer space that could make the world embrace and love everyone. Rome saw the rise of Rome. Nnedi saw that she’d ticked four items off her to-do list and wondered how many were left.
That last one might not actually appear in the book, but there’s no escaping the fact that plot dictates character, rather than the other way round. The focus on concept at the expense of characterization is both the biggest and the most traditionally SFnal problem with Lagoon, and the result is that you spend the first 120 pages struggling to care about what happens to anyone at all. This is not a minor flaw.
Fortunately, after the slog of the opening third it all properly kicks off in Act Two. This involves a major escalation of the pace and a whittling of the (human) cast, both of which are very welcome. Aliens have landed in Lagos’, err, lagoon and our human protagonists (in as much as they exist) must race against circumstances and their fellow humans to get the alien ambassador to a meeting with the president. If this all sounds a little like some old-school ‘take me to your leader’ schtick, then that’s because it is (despite a couple of attempts at lampshading the fact), and this is also what I mean by ‘traditional SF’. This is a book which exists as a kind of thought experiment, trying to answer one big What If question. The question here being, ‘What if aliens landed in Nigeria?’ This question in turn leads to an equally traditional First Contact story, whereby a number of human factions jockey for position around the inevitable perturbation caused by alien arrival, with all in question seeing opportunity for personal and social advancement and/or exploitation. SF as response to social change, you know the drill.
Lagoon is strongest, however, when it veers most widely from traditional SF pathways. West African folklore is woven throughout the story, and the sections in which both we and the aliens meet a divine masquerade, the god of crossroads, and other figures from local myth are easily the best of the book. The possessed road (I don’t even know if ‘possessed’ is the right word) is absolutely terrifying and almost worth the price of admission by itself. Sadly most of these manifestations, like so much else here, appear all too briefly, dropping into the story and then out again before you’ve had time to properly engage or appreciate them. They are genuinely wonderful, but this makes it almost a taunt that they’re not given more attention; ‘Look at what you could have won, because now we’re going to trash the city some more.’
The literary desire to turn a location into a character its own right is a long and distinguished one, but it shouldn’t be the only character in the story. Joyce’s Dublin or Jemisin’s Gujaareh, say, emerge through the stories of the individuals who live there, not through a disparate multiple-exposure snapshot of the entire city itself. In Lagoon you feel that at every instance where a decision had to be made between fleshing out the city or fleshing out another character, the city was favoured. Every time. And the result is that while Lagos certainly comes across as a chaotic, flawed, vivid mess of a metropolis, none of the people in it seem to register at all. This matters, of course this matters, but could also be seen as a fairly accurate reflection of the supposed dehumanizing effect of urban living. Furthermore, in-depth explorations of individual stories were clearly not the motivation for writing a book which, in a certain limited way, must actually count as a roaring success, for Lagoon is a chaotic, flawed, vivid mess of a novel and so appears to capture its subject matter perfectly. Twenty-one million stories, remember. Though it’s probably best not to tell them all at once.