By Gemma Field
An academic article that first appeared in Vector 289. It has been slightly updated since the print version.
This article takes as its starting point the wildly popular and commercially successful African science-fiction novel Lagoon, written by Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor. Lagoon is an ideal site in which to explore the environmental and political concerns that are common themes in the fantastical literature of West Africa, and to demonstrate the efficacy of broadly Afrofuturist aesthetics, both in problematising and reimagining environmental politics in modern Nigeria.
Lagoon tells the story of an alien invasion that unfolds on the shores of Lagos, Nigeria. The novel playfully subverts the structures of alien invasion science fiction, revitalising tired tropes by synthesising them with West African mythology and fantastic futurism. Against the backdrop of the ultra-urban, somewhat dysfunctional metropolis of her native Lagos, Okorafor draws attention to the consequences of neocolonial developmentalism in Nigeria. Lagoon examines in particular the toxic politics surrounding the country’s oil industry, politics that are bound up with what Rob Nixon refers to as “slow violence” (3). In these respects, Okorafor’s novel draws from a rich tradition of non-realist Anglophone African engagement with the consequences of neocolonial developmentalism: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991), in which spirit-human interplay is complicated by the socially and environmentally disruptive imposition of a road that takes on a dangerous life of its own, is perhaps Lagoon’s closest antecedent; works such as Pepetela’s The Return of the Water Spirit (1995) and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) are also worth noting.
Lagoon follows the alien ambassador Ayodele as she establishes contact with an assortment of aquatic and terrestrial Earthlings. Ayodele promises that her people have no malevolent designs for Earth, asking only to assimilate while offering miraculous technology. Intersecting plotlines follow various characters (human, animal, and supernatural) who undergo fundamental changes because of the “radical new possibilities” (Okorafor, 269) that Ayodele and her people bring.
The aliens are a catalyst for change in the city of Lagos and its waters, plunging both into chaos while also bringing forth new forms of life and possibilities. Folkloric forces emerge in brief narrative interludes throughout the novel: the spider-trickster Udide and the mythical living masque Ijele are the most prominent. These ‘super-humans’ apparently discover Ayodele’s nature, and overcome a variety of fantastic and institutional obstacles in their attempts to resolve the crisis, eventually recruiting the President of Nigeria to their cause.
We also meet other non-human characters with their own rich histories, quirks, and agendas, including a “monstrous” (Okorafor, 21) swordfish, determined to destroy an offshore oil rig and given the power to do so by the aliens, and a sentient, predatory highway that calls itself the “Bone Collector.” It is these two characters I will focus on in this article. But before I turn to them, I first want to offer a very brief overview of Afrofuturism. Although Okorafor herself has rejected the label, certain aspects of Afrofuturist theory nevertheless remain a useful lens on her work. [See endnote.]
Afrofuturism is a broad category of aesthetic and intellectual projects, whose main frame of reference includes the cultural products, history, and future of Africa and the African diaspora. In her foundational study, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Ytasha Womack defines Afrofuturism as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation” (23). For Womack, Afrofuturism has characteristic thematic concerns, and also a distinctive epistemology, i.e. distinctive kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing. That is, Afrofuturism draws indigenous mythology and cosmology together with technologies past, present, and future, in order to envision, describe, and realise a liberatory future. As Womack describes, Afrofuturism “combines elements of science-fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity and magical realism with non-Western beliefs … re-envisioning of the past alongside speculation about the future” (Womack, 24). Academic study of Afrofuturism essentially began with Mark Dery’s 1994 essay “Black to the Future.” However, the aesthetic and ideology can be traced to earlier jazz and funk pioneers like Sun Ra, George Clinton and P-Funk, who employed space age theatrics and political lyrics with cosmic themes to raise African American consciousness. These innovators drew parallels between the archetypes of science-fiction and Afro-diasporic experiences, and tapped into the alienation from white American society experienced by people whose ancestors had been abducted and forced into servitude. Kodwo Eshun argues that the psychological dislocation, existential chaos, dehumanization and alienation widely held to be the hallmarks of twentieth century modernism, were experienced much earlier by the victims of the Middle Passage and their descendants: he suggests “situating the collective trauma of slavery as the founding moment of modernity” (Eshun, 286-8) in an Afrocentric paradigm.
In addition to its exploration of alienation and modernity, Afrofuturism also seeks to illuminate “the role of science and technology in the black experience overall” (Womack, 29). This means working to recover marginalised histories: everything from the aural innovations of Jimi Hendrix and other African American pioneers of rock music, to the telecommunications inventions of Dr Shirley Jackson, to the work of Katharine Johnson, the NASA mathematician whose work on orbital mechanics played a fundamental role in the moon-landing and subsequent Apollo missions; to the history of Henrietta Lacks, whose unique DNA (obtained without her consent) was propagated as the first immortal cell line at Johns Hopkins University in 1951. (The study of Lacks’s DNA has paved the way for numerous medical innovations, the most famous of these being the polio vaccine). The Afrofuturist project undertakes historical and discursive activism in “uncovering these inventors past and present and incorporating their stories into larger conversations about science, technology, creativity and race” (Womack, 49).
Eshun’s essay “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” in true sf style, sets out as a thought experiment: what if, thousands of years from now, archaeologists from the highly enlightened and technologically advanced United States of Africa were to exhume and examine the cultural products of the present? “They would be struck,” Eshun suggests, “by how much Afrodiasporic subjectivity in the twentieth century constituted itself through the cultural project of recovery” (Eshun, 287): the process of undoing the erasure of black presence in culture and society over time and space. Accordingly, he suggests assembling an arsenal of “countermemories” (Eshun, 288) to resist the colonially-inscribed past and taking ownership of the future. These countermemories constitute “an ethical commitment to history, the dead and the forgotten, the manufacture of conceptual tools that could analyze and assemble counterfutures,” in order to create alternatives to dominant narratives that have marginalised or erased accounts of that founding trauma, and have consistently downplayed the roles of Africans and African Americans in science ever since.
In addition to its concern with alienation, and with science and technology, Afrofuturism has a science fictional interest in temporality. That is, Afrofuturism asserts that reclaiming the past, and reinscribing it within our present culture, is a crucial step toward establishing racial and social justice in the future. Art and activism are thus closely linked in Afrofuturism: evidence of this approach is available, for example, in the “cybersoul” of Janelle Monáe’s android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, who “shows us new liberatory possibilities created by African-American cultural production in concert with contemporary technological transformation” (English and Kim, 218). Cindi Mayweather’s narrative lays claim to both the future and past as she escapes the enslavement of the Palace of Dogs (an asylum) to start a robotic electronic revolution that reaches its apotheosis in the “emotion picture” Dirty Computer. There is undeniable recuperative power in a unified attempt in politics and the arts to “to unearth the missing history of the people of African descent and their roles in science, technology and science-fiction … [and] to reintegrate people of the colour into the discussion of cyberculture, modern science, technology and sci-fi pop culture” (Womack, 29, 30).
With this Afrocentric paradigm in mind, we might also consider the emergence of “the futures industry,” a term used to refer to the collective infrastructure that profits from “the envisioning, management and delivery of reliable futures” (Eshun, 289) — from stockbroking, to Silicone Valley, to election results — that has become increasingly prominent in determining the course of development in Africa. The questions of who gets to live in this future, and who will be relegated to the past, are central concerns of Afrofuturism. The value of information in this future-now is paramount: it “circulates as an increasingly valuable commodity” (Eshun, 290). For Eshun, “Afrofuturism’s first priority is to recognise that Africa increasingly exists as the object of futuristic projection” (291), from weather to resources to migration to politics and conflict. There is always a reliable trade in market projections of Africa’s socio-economic crises.
From Afrofuturist imaginings, to those of the futures industry, energy and the environment are crucial factors in Africa’s future. In Lagoon, science and technology are misused in the profit-seeking plunder of Nigeria’s natural resources, resulting in social injustice and alienation. Lagoon’s Lagos is a prime example of the “soul-crushing corruption” (Okorafor, 57) that accompanies such extractivist-capitalist development: the army is a law unto itself, ordinary people eke out a living running 419 scams, but most significantly, the country’s roads have been neglected to such an extent that the motorway has begun to prey upon living creatures. The paradoxical “resource curse” — a term coined by Richard Auty, and taken up by Nixon in his book Slow Violence — suggests a correlation between resource abundance and troubled economic development. Nixon suggests that such countries may suffer from overdependence on revenue from oil exports, leaving other areas of the economy underdeveloped, and encouraging rent-seeking, as the “highly concentrated revenue stream is readily diverted away from social and infrastructural investments and into offshore bank accounts” (Nixon, 70). Political power can become predicated on “controlling the central resource [rather than] on strengthening civic expectations”; consequently, “national cohesion and stability may be jeopardized by exaggerated inequalities” (Nixon, 70) as the revenues from the nation’s natural wealth is siphoned off by Western companies.
The Niger Delta and the coast hold large oil reserves, but Nigeria’s mineral wealth belies a “resource curse” of persistent political instability and a legacy of widespread environmental devastation, and associated deleterious effects on health, safety, corporate and political governance, economic opportunities, and the wellbeing of local communities. Lagoon highlights the violent dysfunction in two key moments: on the offshore rig, the site of oil extraction, and the predatory highway, a combination of asphalt and oil-powered vehicles. These dramatic moments in the text call attention to the environmental and social problems of Nigeria’s oil-based society.
In contrast to humans acting under the incentives of extractivist capitalism, Okorafor’s aliens are markedly empathetic and considerate towards the natural environment and non-human actors. They “ask such good questions” (6) of the marine life, immediately establishing a rapport with the fish, pointing to an alternative to Western anthropocentrism and neocolonial economics. The swordfish is accorded agency, subjectivity, and a key role in the narrative: she starts the novel and sets the whole series of events in motion by attacking the oil rig. When she encounters the alien ambassadors, she asks for the power to realise her goal of destroying the rig once and for all, and “they make it so” (Okorafor, 7).
Ayodele’s association with indigenous mythology and cosmology suggests that these alien “invaders” are not the stock figures of monstrous, extraterrestrial conquerors. Rather, they are potential collaborators in a project of recovery, along the lines suggested by Eshun. Upon examining her, Adoara remarks that Ayodele “looked like a member of her own family”; further, Ayodele’s appearance textually references Mami Wata, the “pantheon of African water creatures” (Womack, 71). Half human and half sea creature, they are “bringers of divine law” (Womack, 70) in West African mythology. Contrary to what we expect from much of the Anglo-American canon of sf, these aliens offer redemption and renewal: a chance to make a complete break with dirty sources of energy and repair the seemingly irreparable ecological damage to our planet.
There is much to be gleaned from a close reading of Chapter 19, titled “Offshore,” in which Agu and the swordfish come to a head in the shadow of the oil rig. By bringing Agu and his fellow soldiers to defend the rig from the sea creatures who have begun to violently resist, Okorafor is highlighting the bonds between international oil companies and the Nigerian government. As the swordfish reminds us, the rig is the alien in this ecosystem; this interpretation is strengthened by Agu’s description of the oil infrastructure as the “decades-old monster, a hulking, unnatural contraption of production facilities, drilling rigs and crew quarters … usually a place of noise and activity” (Okorafor, 95). In the encounter, Agu’s fellow soldiers are ripped apart by the razor-sharp fins of alien-enhanced flying fish, and only Agu’s supernatural powers save him from the same fate.
Thus the oil rig as a site of violence is brought viscerally to life. Usually, human brutality towards the non-human world occurs as slow violence, “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not typically viewed as violence at all” (Nixon, 2). Invading a country with artillery and military personnel, launching missile strikes or dispersing chemical weapons, are actions easily labelled as “violent.” In conflicts such as the Vietnam War or the Biafran War, damage done to bodies can be readily linked to military operations, and in this sense such wars appear to have well-defined beginnings and endings. But the long-term consequences of Agent Orange and British Petroleum on rural Vietnam and the Niger Delta — poisoned soil and failing crops; undrinkable water and unbreathable air; birth defects and cancers — that have fundamentally assaulted human and ecological matter, are often discounted and disregarded; time and remoteness can distance consequences from their causes. The same is true of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, and the associated violence of climate change. In Okorafar’s Lagoon, the textual presentation of the oil rig redresses that displacement in a manner that leaves the international politics of offshore drilling quite clear: the “spidery structure made of concrete and rusty steel, anchored firmly to the seabed by steel beams” (Okorafor, 95) resembles a parasite leeching off a host, or at a molecular level, a virus clamping onto the host cell’s receptors. Slow violence is marked by displacements — temporal, economic, geographic, rhetorical, and technological — that “simplify violence … [and] smooth the way for amnesia”, minimizing the human and environmental costs of “turbo capitalism” (Nixon, 7). The slippery and unspectacular nature of slow violence poses representational and strategic challenges; Nixon posits that the aesthetic response to the crisis “entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency” (Nixon, 10), in order to highlight the “representational challenges and imaginative dilemmas posed not just by imperceptible violence but by the imperceptible changes whereby violence is decoupled from its original causes” (Nixon, 11).
By making the site of oil extraction a site of swift and dramatic violence, violence against humans by natural forces, Lagoon reframes the slow violence of offshore drilling as unmistakeably dramatic and urgent crises. Furthermore, Okorafor positions the aliens as the remedy to the representational slippages of slow violence during Ayodele’s broadcasted speech. Here the alien reveals that her people “have come to bring you together and refuel your future … your land is full of a fuel that is tearing you apart” (Okorafor, 113). The aliens overtly position themselves in opposition to the oil, the fuel of violence. They are here to “nurture your world” (Okorafor, 113); they are going to expunge and redeem the consequences of that conflict — the environmental devastation caused by oil which have been extensively represented in the text, and the corruption and dysfunction that accompanies the oil’s extraction.
While the gruesome scene on the rig dramatizes the slow violence of oil extraction, the predatory highway that calls itself the “Bone Collector” calls attention to the serious consequences of social dysfunction in an oil-powered society. Public roadways enable mobility, but it is the responsibility of the state to maintain them, to keep them safe for motorists and pedestrians. In Lagoon, the Lagos-Benin Expressway is “full of ghosts”, a “death-trap” (Okorafor, 189), a symptom of corruption and inequality, in contrast to the ‘Angelic’ roads in affluent Lagosian suburbs.
This “Road Monster”, like the swordfish, is based on actual events. Okorafor was inspired to write about the crisis of Nigeria’s roads after a horrific accident on the Lagos-Benin Expressway, the city’s major thoroughfare. The hijacking of a luxury bus gone horribly awry, which is retold by a fictional eye-witness. He describes “mangled, twisted bodies all over the goddamn road … [it] reeked of blood and fouler things … torn up bodies littering the roads, blood, intestines, skid marks of skin, twisted torsos, body parts torn off … a brutal scene” (Okorafor, 204). His account drives home a visceral quality that slow violence typically lacks: the vessel of human subjectivity deconstructed into its meaty components by the unstoppable velocity of the motor-industrial complex.
This portion of the Lagos-Benin Expressway “has named itself the Bone Collector … it mostly collects human bones, and the bones of human vehicles” (Okorafor, 120). The title is ominous: the road does not find throwaway bones, but actively accumulates them through engineered accidents. The predatory representation of the road is emphasised by its carnivorous greed as it “grumbled like an enormous empty stomach”, and uttered “a deep, guttural growl that intensified into a roar … the angry roar of a creature denied its meal” (Okorafor, 171). Here again the novel destabilises traditional subjectivity in according a dangerous agency to this typically taken-for-granted element of the built environment. That the antagonism of this man-made creature towards its creators speaks to the text’s petro-anxiety — the dangers of oil to the environment — to all the environments — has been made abundantly clear. But it is the Bone Collector that emphatically dramatizes the dangers of the oil industry to humans. The fact that we are using fossil fuels to destroy our true habitat is not sufficiently upsetting to make us desist — the environment actively preying upon us is much more effective at driving the message home. This is the slow violence of oil. Extreme weather conditions, and data pointing to catastrophic irreversible climate change, are not threatening enough, so the hazards of the petro-discourse are radically re-envisioned as the monster turned on its makers as an irrefutable and immediate danger.
But Okorafor’s conclusion is decidedly optimistic. Shortly after Ayodele heals the president, she allows herself to be killed by a mob and disintegrates. By “inhaling her essence” (Okorafor, 271) all of humanity becomes “a bit … alien” (Okorafor, 268). The novel ends on a utopic note: with the waters reclaimed and revitalized by their denizens, the president decides that oil will be expunged from the Nigerian economy, because the aliens will replace it with something cleaner and more powerful. Ayodele’s sacrifice infects the humans with a new way of thinking, an Afrofuturist epistemology, that the President’s speech makes clear. Nigeria has “rolled through decades of corruption and internal struggle” (277) that could only be addressed because of the alien “tipping point” (Okorafor, 277). “This kind of transitional shift”, that has come about as a result of the alien arrival and the proliferation of changes they bring, is a “cause for celebration, not panic” according to the President. The President tells his people that the aliens bring with them “new technology … [and] fresh ideas that we [Nigeria] can combine with our own” (Okorafor, 277). He concludes that Nigeria “will be powerful again” (Okorafor, 278), although if oil is removed from the equation, the form and structure of the power he hopes for is completely unknown.
Utilising traditional African iconography and mythology in concert with radical futurity, Okorafor has produced a remarkable novel that challenges the assumptions and tropes of mainstream sf. Lagoon draws attention to political, social, and environmental conditions in Nigeria. The intense, visceral quality of the two moments in the text I have explored establish strong textual links between oil and violences fast and slow, and the consequences of extractivist capitalism. Dramatically re-envisioning the conditions of Nigeria’s social, political, and economic present, the novel makes connections between environmental devastation enabled by global capital in concert with state power, and the violence and trauma visited disproportionately upon the populations of the Global South.
Eshun makes clear that envisioning the future is an important step to claiming a stake in it. If he is correct that “sf is now and research and development for the futures industry that dreams of the prediction and control of tomorrow” (Eshun, 291), then Lagoon can be situated within the catalogue of African Diasporic counterfutures. It comprises part of the intellectual and aesthetic project that seeks to redress racial and imperial imbalance in the future and the present.
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Bio: Gemma Field is studying for a master’s in English Literature at the University of Cape Town, where she also obtained her bachelor’s degree. Her research interests include the environmental humanities, science-fiction and other fantastic literature, energy history and economics, and petrofiction, particularly as they pertain to African and especially South African contexts.
In the original version of this article, a sentence in the introductory text read, “Although Okorafor herself has expressed mixed feelings about the label, certain aspects nevertheless remain a useful lens on her work.” Nnedi Okorafor comments: “My feelings about the label are not “mixed”. I have clearly rejected the label and been quite vocal about this fact.” The text has been updated to reflect this.
This article was peer-reviewed.