First Published: 2014
A star fall from the sky. A woman rises from the sea. The world will never be the same.
Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the world-famous rapper. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering the beach outside Lagos, Nigeria’s capital city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before. But when a meteorite hits the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they’ve never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world…and themselves.
‘There was no time to flee. No time to turn. No time to shriek. And no pain. It was like being thrown into the stars.’
Normally, when I dislike a book as much as I disliked this one I get a sort of perverse pleasure out of going over all its flaws but not this time. This time I just feel bad. I desperately wanted to enjoy this book, there was so much in there that I liked and admired. The author is a woman of colour in a genre (sci-fi) that is still disproportionately weighted towards white men, and an author I’ve read widespread praise for too. It’s sci-fi set not in Britain or the US, but Nigeria (how often does that happen?). Almost the entire cast is black, the primary leads are both women (a scientist and an alien), and it touches on a hell of a lot of social issues; some that are topical specifically in Nigeria but many that are applicable everywhere (evangelical christianity, LGBT rights, prostitution, domestic violence, military rape culture, internet fraud…). But, in the end, and despite my attempts to like this book, I thought the best thing about it was its gorgeous cover.
I tried, I really fucking tried. And I still don’t want to completely dismiss the book because it’s at least interesting and experimental and different. But I still could not make myself like it. The characters fell flat, the narration felt dull, it was a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, the sic-fi elements were completely unbelievable, and nobody seemed to react to aliens in any way I would expect an actual human to. Apparently this novel, and the more welcoming attitude the characters have to the aliens is a reaction to District 9 and its portrayal of Africa’s reaction to an alien arrival there. I’ve not seen District 9, so perhaps I would have liked this book more if I had, but I do admire the book for having a variety of reactions rather than everyone jumping instantly to the ‘invaders!’ scaremongering. Its just a shame that the reactions people have instead are so damn weird. It was all just too credulous and accepting and bizarre. At one point, on viewing secret footage of an alien shapeshifting, one character’s reaction is to rhapsodise about what this will do for LGBT rights…wut? Absolutely no character felt true to me, they were all rather one dimension characterisations of whatever issue they were there to represent. And yes, some people exist who are essentially caricatures – I do not doubt for a minute that their are crazy evangelical pastors like Father Oke obsessed with driving out witchcraft, but when every character feels like a one issue caricature that’s a problem. And most of these threads are only picked up for a few chapters each and then dropped completely without any resolution. What happened to the minor characters? Who really cares?
Worse still, I didn’t care for any of the main protagonists either. I still don’t even know what Anthony brought to the group or how him being a famous rapper was relevant. When we get glimses into any of the character’s thoughts and monologues they all seem to be basically the same person. At one point, after the aliens go public, there are three chapters of reaction told in first person from three very different people; a young male internet fraudster, an older male commuter, and a visiting female african-american hip hop artist. Yet all of these chapters follow exactly the same formula that lends exactly the same voice to each character. At one point Agu and Adaora kiss a few hours after meeting each other. It’s rarely mentioned again until near the end when Agu envisages a life with her an omniscient narrator invites the reader to speculate as to whether Adaora left her husband for her. One kiss! Insta-love! And zero fucking chemistry.
The main problem with the book though is that it’s just crammed too full of stuff, any of which could make an interesting novel on its own but when smooshed together just creates a big smoosh. Aliens transforming the sea life in Lagos into terrifying monsters protecting their borders from human fishing and oil rigging? Awesome! three people coming together to convince the world that alien integration is the way of the future? Less awesome, but you know I’d roll with it. People with poorly defined super powers? Maybe! A secret LGBT society going public in the face of evangelical Christian hatred? Yes. Figures from Nigerian religion and folklore walking around modern day Nigeria? Right back to awesome again! A road that comes alive and eats people? That’s batshit off the wall awesome! All of these in one book? Way waaaaaay too much.
So many ways I could have loved this book, but I didn’t. I half want to give Okorafor another go at some point because people seem to love her and I can definitely see things in her work that do appeal to me. But somehow I have a feeling that she’s another Neil Gaiman for me – critically acclaimed, loved by fans, and with absolutely great ideas, but executed in a way that sucks away all fun or interest and makes me want to scream.