I don’t take the words of Ursula K. Le Guin lightly. So when a review of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon pushed me to learn more about the book, I soon found myself reading the Le Guin quote that sits atop Joey Hi-Fi’s magnificent cover art. “There’s more imagination in a page of Nnedi Okorafor’s work,” says the quote, “than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics.”
As always, Le Guin was right.
I read that review back in 2014 when Lagoon was published but it wasn’t until 2017 that I was able to find a reasonably priced copy to read. (It often occurs to me that Okorafor’s race, gender and heritage played a part in that limited availability, though I can’t verify that in any way.) During that three year gap I wondered about the origins of that Le Guin quote. What element of Lagoon had inspired such bold words from one of the preeminent experts on the subject matter? Had Okorafor reimagined the language-based magic that Le Guin had so deftly shaped and which had become a genre staple? Had she invented a new device that would that see genre-wide adoption, as Le Guin had done before her? Or maybe she had delivered an entirely new framework for telling a fantasy story, like when Le Guin buried a fantasy epic within a fictional textbook and its accompanying cassette tape of (fictional) indigenous music?
My lack of imagination on this front stands in stark contrast to Okorafor’s. I hadn’t even considered the novelty of Okorafor’s perspective, the brilliant creative space that could be explored if a fantasy story were told from a vastly under-represented viewpoint. Okorafor’s prose and plotting are excellent, yes, but Lagoon’s real magic is in the gift of seeing a world through her eyes, of inhabiting her imagination and perspective.
Fantasy stories, at least those that regularly make their way to me in Midwest America, are centered in America or Europe, in New York or London or a past or future facsimile thereof. They tell Campbellian myths, tracing heroes that fall and are redeemed. Lagoon entertains none of that. Set in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, the story explores alien first contact through the lens of afrofuturism. The world of Lagoon is deeply alive, blending science fiction with Nigerian folklore and sharp social commentary. It is a tremendous piece of fiction and I had never read anything like it before which is high praise for Okorafor but also a damning criticism of the market in which she works.