Dare to Discuss Time: Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon


Here gather some reviewers and/or writers — AND YOU IF YOU’D LIKE TO JOIN IN — to discuss a book. We do it every couple of months, so pay attention if you like reading things. Since you’re here, I think you do.

This time, we’re talking about Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (not an affiliate link, if it matters to you) in the comments section below. I’m going to talk about it here a little bit first, and my fellow participants have written their own thoughts/reviews on it at Sci-Fi and Scary, The Scary ReviewsMichael Patrick Hicks dot com,  and Dave’s (David Dubrow’s) Blog.

I suggested we read it, and from what I’ve heard they mostly sort of enjoyed it but saw some pretty serious problems with it, giving it two or three stars out of five.

So I might not get to recommend new fiction for us to talk about for a while. We’ll see how forgiving they are.

Don’t take the previous two sentences too seriously 🙂

Nnedi Okorafor has a few words to say about Lagoon as well, on her Wahala Zone Blog. They’re worth reading. “I admit (and don’t apologize for) the fact that my flavor of scifi is evenly Naijamerican (note: “Naija” is slang for Nigeria or Nigerian.),” she writes.

If you’re personally acquainted with the cultural context her writing speaks for/to/of/with, or even have enjoyed reading some Afrofuturism in the past (that’s my case), you may find Okorafor’s work more easily accessible than if your experience is otherwise.

On the other hand, to hell with accessibility. Variety is the spice of life and all that.

My impressions of the book:

Some folk have been bugged by the extensive use of dialog in Pidgin English. I wasn’t, but then I’ve read through A Clockwork Orange so…

A Clockwork Orange is full of this sort of thing.png

…the Pidgin didn’t bother me for reasons you might guess. Others found it distracting. Personal taste.

I enjoyed reading Lagoon. I wanted to love it as much as I loved reading Binti and Akata Witch and a few of Okorafor’s short stories I’ve stumbled across. But I couldn’t quite.

It felt, to me, like the ideas of two or even three books stuffed into the skin of a single book. If it were a sausage, I’d say the richness overwhelmed the flavor. But I’m glad I ate it, and the experience was positive and memorable, even if I had to take a break in the middle and let everything settle for a while. Which I did. I put Lagoon down about 2/3 through and read a short story anthology, then came back to finish it.

Nnedi seems to have her plate full of writing for the forseeable future so I’m not holding my breath for a return to Lagoon. But if a sequel showed up, I’d love to see what she does with that crammed-full-of-interesting-things world.




83 thoughts on “Dare to Discuss Time: Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon

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  1. I’ll post a couple of starter questions as 7PM EST approaches to kick off the discussion…
    first, I’m not the only one who has observed that Lagoon felt like too many ideas for the pagecount. Is there anything in particular that didn’t work for you, that you would see either cut out of the book, or expanded if Lagoon had been a dualogy (this word gives me the hives but there is is anyway) or trilogy?

    1. It felt like it didn’t know what it wanted to be. That’s what really bothered me. I mean first it was going to be sci-fi, and then it was drama, and then it..it… it went sideways and mystical.

      1. Agree, and for a bit that bothered me too. It still does, because it doesn’t fit into my experience of how genre works. Because of that, I felt off-balance reading it.

        On the other hand, I now think that was basically intentional. That part of what she’s saying is that those things aren’t separable even though for the sake of neatness or ease of thinking we’d like them to be.

        It doesn’t make for the easiest reading when it fights your expectations. But I think it’s a statement of richness in the world.

      2. I think if it had been split up into a dualogy or trilogy it would have worked better. It would have given her time to subtly work things into the plot instead of it coming across like “A bit of this,a nd a bit of that, and *SHOVES* I can make room for this here!”

        1. Sorry your comments got stuck in limbo — that should be fixed now. Call me a n00b.

          “Hot mess” is rougher than I’d be, but I get the frustration. There was a lot that kind of came out of left field, abruptly. For me the story hung together for the most part. The people-eating road — for that to fit it seriously needed a lot more to tie it to the rest of the story. There were a few things like that, and they jangled me as a reader.

    2. I would have cut out a lot of the fantasy elements. For me, the random side diversions for a highway monster or Satan/Loki one-off chapters were too distracting and disruptive. It wasn’t just too many ideas crammed in, but a few too many genres.

      1. I think that side of it could have felt more natural with double the pagecount — as Lilyn says above, a fair bit of it seems shoved in suddenly, by surprise. More room could have given those elements space of their own to play in, make linkages, be a bit more explained. That was definitely a big part of my feeling that there was too much in this book to be only one book.

      2. The mingling of science fiction and fantasy could have been done rather better; Jonathan Carroll’s had some success with it in The Wooden Sea and some of his other magical realism efforts. The problem is that the two elements didn’t really talk to each other in Lagoon, so yeah, neither worked.

  2. Another starter: Did Okorafor’s frequent use of Pidgin English for character dialog add, detract, or both, or neither, for your experience reading Lagoon? Do you think she could have faithfully shown us a faithful and rich image of Nigerian/Lagos culture without using it, or no?

    1. Here’s the thing – if the dictionary had been at the beginning of the book, where I realized it was accessible, I wouldn’t have minded it so much. But I didn’t know it was there. So half the time I was googling this nigerian pidgin words and NOT getting anything pop up. That irritated me.

      Plus, it would just come out of nowhere. Maybe if there’d been a consistent level throughout the book, it wouldn’t have been a pain in the butt. But as it was..dropped in, dropped out, dropped in, dropped out.


        I do think it dropped in and out based on characters and situations and social strata. Like, the president of Nigeria didn’t like Pidgin though he could speak it. Other characters used it almost exclusively. The ones who switched in and out were doing that situationally.
        Kind of I use y’all in Virginia, but if I’m visiting relatives in Illinois it disappears from my lexicon. But more so.

      2. Yes! The dictionary absolutely should have been at the front. I’ll admit, I wasn’t a fan of the Pidgin, but I also recognize it was a lot culture shock on my part. I do think its inclusion was necessary, though, and added a vital richness and sense of place. Okorafor was writing a love letter to Nigeria, and the language of its inhabit should not be ignored. And having a little bit of culture shock is far from a bad thing.

      1. I’m with you on that one, Lilyn. I reached a point where I was more frustrated with the book than anything else. I’m glad I gave it a shot, but honestly, if not for this group I probably would have given up on the book.

  3. Hi, S.A. Thanks for linking to my review of the novel. And thank you Lilyn for inviting me!

    I very much enjoyed the pidgin dialect; it added a level of realism to the novel and put me into a culture I don’t know a lot about. Your quote of A Clockwork Orange fits, stylistically speaking: what would Alex and his droogs be without their pseudo-Russian patois? So for me, the dialect was one of the strongest parts of the book.

    1. You’re welcome — I also liked that the Pidgin was there. It’s part of the Lagos that Okorafor knows. I don’t know it, so I’m happy she showed me. I think it would have lost an important level of richness without it.

  4. I wanna ask a question!! 🙂

    I feel like Lagoon was one of the most extremely lenient uses of the science fiction genre classification. How about you?

    Is it really considered partially just because there’s aliens in it? I felt more like I was reading fantasy than anything.

    I know its easy to get hung up on genres, and we shouldn’t, but part of my irritation with the book was “I thought I was going to read a sci-fi!!”

      1. On a side note, I just finished an ARC of Kameron Hurley’s upcoming THE STARS ARE LEGION. That, too, presents a lot of Fantasy in the guise of science fiction. I enjoyed that more than LAGOON, but I think between these two we’re seeing a stripping of genre barriers. SF/F may get the bookstore categorization, but both of these are firmly SFF as a total genre.

    1. Sci-fi has gotten pretty vague as a genre, really. I read some of the zines and there’s magical realism and fantasy and contemporary sorta-literary. It’s awfully flexible.

      If you take the “remove the science and the story falls apart” strict definition — no, it’s not sci-fi. But the alien visitors is a strong enough element to call it that. It’s definitely a big ol’ genre mashup. I wasn’t expecting that either.

      1. I like how simply you defined science fiction there – “remove the science and the story falls apart”. Very well put.

        I think this is one of those cases where my tendency to stay on the hard/exploration/militaristic side of sci-fi line really puts me at a disadvantage here.

    2. Expectation counts a lot in apprehending a piece of media, whether it’s a book or a TV show or whatever; if Okorafor had been successful in this mix of alien first contact and Nigerian mysticism story, we would all be having a different discussion. As it is, the novel’s genre classification becomes the largest hook to hang the hat of failure on, so to speak.

      1. I think that failure is where my wish it had been two books instead of one comes from. I want Lagoon to work better than it does, and the writer in me instantly went to “you need more room, dammit!” I have enjoyed other works from her immensely and I want to love them all. This one, though, is a like. Which isn’t bad, but… but…

      2. Hm, I don’t know that I agree with the largest hook comment. My initial disappointment with the novel was because it wasn’t sci-fi, but if I had to state the primary reason I didn’t like the novel, I’d lay it at the feet of “It just simply wasn’t coherently written and enjoyable.”

      1. I think you’ll find Binti much more straightforward — I did. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel. It’s a very traditional science fiction theme: young person finding her place in the world must also figure out aliens and adventure at the same time.

      2. I’ve seen more praise for BINTI than LAGOON, and I suspect it’s more up my alley. Your description further convinces me. Although I have held off on ordering the next BINTI novel until after I read the first one.

  5. Here’s a slightly harder one, given the general straying towards displeasure with the novel:

    Name something you LOVED (or at least really liked) about Lagoon.

      1. The whole priest subplot in general was one I really enjoyed, and how it tied into old superstitions and old ambitions like money-grubbing and power. The “marine witch” element was really what was trying to tie the whole thing together, with mixed success.

      2. My experience with the portrayal of clergy in genre fiction is different; I found Father Oke to be a typical money-grubbing priest.

        Pity that Okorafor didn’t have the courage to portray an imam with the same vitriol.

      3. The marine witch stuff was a good use of local mythology and cultural lore. I liked that she tried to really give shape to the region, basically making the location a character itself. Some of it was too half-baked and shoved in, though, like Lilyn said (I’m looking at you highway monster!).

    1. I also liked the water elements and evolving of sea creatures. I really wanted to see more of that, particularly with the lead heroine being a marine biologist. And the thoughts on climate change were much appreciated.

      1. The sulkiness was ridiculous to me. “Me big, advanced alien greeting new race. Oof they do something I don’t like. I’m gonna pout in the corner now!”

      2. That was something that I both appreciated and felt frustration with. It set off sort of an internal dialog in me that unfolded as I read. On one hand, she’s near-deathless and part of a knowledeable alien race, so why the surprise/anger at violence? On the other hand, I’d be pretty upset to be shot no matter how powerful I was, I’d think. And we do expect aliens to be better than us, for the most part — and overall she’s at least equal to our better impulses as humanity — but why shouldn’t an alien get to have an emotional episode after a traumatic experience too? I appreciated it; I took it as an example of Okorafor getting inside the heads of her characters and giving us something that made sense yet we didn’t quite expect (or I didn’t) as readers.

  6. No, probably not. There’s so much else out there to read, and I only have so many hours in the day. I didn’t get enough out of Lagoon to risk Lagoon 2: Aliens in the Water, O.

    1. (If you hover over the gray piece of the comment you want to reply to, a reply button pops up – that way your comments will be connected to the question) 🙂

      I”m with you.

      I mean, I’m telling myself I’ll at least give her a second try..maybe with Binti, but honestly I’ll probably never get around to it.

      1. Or maybe it’s my theme, but I don’t seem to have an option to change it. It’s killing threading at 3 comments deep for me. Sorry, I didn’t realize!

  7. Did the taste of Nigeria’s culture and mythos that Nnedi Okorafor gave you in Lagoon interest you in reading more about Nigeria – regardless of who writes about it?

    1. I’m a sucker for novelty, so I’ll read any culture a writer cares to throw at me. I’d certainly read more set in Nigeria or other African nations. It’s a pretty underserved area in English-language fiction.

    2. It did. Oddly, and without any deliberation, 2016 introduced me to a few African authors. I’ve been reading Lauren Beukes for a few years, but her short story collection, SLIPPING, was the first South African focused work of hers that I’ve read. And the two Apocalypse Now Now books from Charlie Human got read, too. I’d love to explore more African genre fiction soon.

    1. I’m with Dave D. and Lilyn on this one. I think Okorafor tried to do more than she had room for. I kind of wish she had sat on the manuscript for a year or two and come back later — maybe with some time for planning, thought, and subconscious working it would have come together better.

      Or maybe not. That’s just what I do when I don’t feel like a story is working. Put it aside and come back later.

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