Here we go with another book brought to my attention by the always informative Tor Publishing newsletter. Written in 2014 by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, this story of alien visitation was at least partially inspired by the author’s anger towards the depiction of Nigerians in the popular 2009 film District 9.
The book opens with the chance meeting of three strangers on a beach in Lagos, Nigeria. Here we meet Adaora, a marine biologist who fled her home upon being slapped by her husband; Agu, a soldier beaten and dumped on the beach after assaulting a general to prevent him from raping a woman; and Anthony Dey Craze, a Ghanian rapper who just needed a bit of air after getting claustrophobic at an after party. As their paths converge, the three strangers witness to an incredible event: the arrival of an alien spacecraft, announced by a very large BOOM and a massive swelling of the ocean. When a shapeshifting creature approaches them from out of the waves, they find that they have become unwitting representatives of humanity in a city on the verge of chaos.
While this story was perhaps not quite what I thought it would be going in, I nevertheless had an amazing time reading it. The author started out with a familiar Sci-Fi scenario, the arrival of aliens on Earth, and flipped it into something completely fresh by rooting her story in Nigerian, specifically Igbo, mythology. This gave the book a more mystical and magical feeling than a traditional Sci-Fi read, but something about the combination of the two realms was really quite fascinating to behold (the side reading I did about some of the particular deities was also rather interesting, though not exactly required). On a slightly separate note, I also really enjoyed the time spent in the ocean, both for the important message of needing to heal the damage done by humans and for exploring the idea that we humans might not be the only creatures on Earth that aliens would have interest in contacting.
What really brought this book to life for me, though, was a deep cast of interwoven characters that all worked to establish a sense of location and (Nigerian) identity that was almost tangible. Moving beyond the primary trio of Adaora, Aga, and Anthony (who were each great in their own right) the reader is introduced to a full range of diverse perspectives, including clandestine LGBTQ activists, Christian fanatics, email scammers, a swordfish, and even a stretch of sentient highway with a taste for human blood. They were an engaging mix of sympathetic, humorous, detestable, and just plain fantastical individuals all of whom served to vividly bring this world to life and give voice to the author’s often irreverent humor and sharp commentaries on things like male chauvinism, religious bigotry, and the human tendency towards indifference to the struggles of others.
I know it’s early yet, but this is a strong contender in my book of the year rankings. I can’t say that I’ve ever read anything quite like it and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I liked the characters, I liked the style, and I liked the themes. Definitely adding more Nnedi Okorafor to my reading list.