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“We are change”: The Novum as Event in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2016


Nnedi Okorafor is a member of a growing vanguard of global SF/F authors who challenge the hegemony of SF as a purely Western genre. This decentering of SF foremost demands a critical engagement with its dominant, operative tropes. In this light, Lagoon subverts the stock colonial ideology long associated with the first contact alien invasion narrative. Drawing on Afrofuturist criticism, this essay argues that Lagoon utilizes the figure of the alien in order to examine Nigeria as both an object of the neoliberal futures industry and a progenitor of radical anti-neoimperial futurity. Rather than merely incorporating the predominantly Americentric determinations of much Afrofuturist thought wholesale, however, the novel demands a rethinking of the role of the alien from an African-utopian perspective. Ultimately, this requires a reconsideration of the work of the SF novum itself in line with Alain Badiou’s conception of the event, whereby the introduction of the SF novum of the alien can be seen as a placeholder for the unknowable, unforeseeable eruption of a radical, historical event: the reawakening of a seemingly structurally unrepresentable anticolonial subjectivity that is pitched against the ideological confines of the neoliberal present.

© Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Even the IMF is now critiquing certain elements of the same neoliberal economic policies that it enforced upon many postcolonial nations, particularly “removing restrictions on the movement of capital across a country’s borders” and austerity. See Ostry, Jonathan, Loungani, Prakash, and Furceri, Davide, “Neoliberalism: Oversold?Finance and Development (2016): 38 Google Scholar.

2 Hartmann, Ivor, “Introduction,” Afro SF: Science Fiction by African Writers, ed. Ivor Hartmann (Story Time Press, 2012), 7 Google Scholar.

3 Throughout this essay it is necessary for me to distinguish between a group of terms related to the concept of “the future” as both the temporal and economic valences combine in what Mark Fisher refers to as “capitalist realism”: the sense that although time continues to pass, there is no radical historical progressiveness or sense of a future outside of the conditions of global late capitalism. In the present essay, references to the future are meant in the simplest, most banal, quantitative aspect of temporality as passing time, as in tomorrow, or an hour from now. Futurity relates to a qualitative notion of the future-as-difference, as opposed to a merely quantitative notion of the future, especially wherein the conditions of capitalist realism reduce any notions of the future to a mere extension or intensification of the conditions of the present. The futures industry, a term introduced by Kodwo Eshun, combines the economic aspects of speculative futures trading with the colonization and predation of futurity in Africa by generally Western, capitalist enterprises. This last term is discussed in more detail in the “SF as Historical Intervention” section of this essay. For the origins of the term Futures Industry, see Eshun, Kodwo, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003): 289292 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Okorafor, Nnedi, Lagoon (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2014), 309 Google Scholar. See also Okorafor’s review of the film in Nnedi Okorafor, “My response to District 419 . . . I mean District 9,” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog, August 23, 2009. On the general Nigerian response to the film, see Smith, David, “District 9 Labelled Xenophobic by Nigerians,” The Guardian, September 2, 2009. Google Scholar.

5 On SF’s relationship to colonialism, imperialism, and the Black Atlantic slave trade and the ways in which these impact SF’s racialized portrayal of the other in various iterations of the first contact narrative, see Bould, Mark, “African Science Fiction 101,” SFRA Review 311 (2015): 1118 Google Scholar; Langer, Jessica, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction (New York: Palgrave, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially chapter 2, “Diaspora and Locality”; Kerslake, Patricia, Science Fiction and Empire (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Grewell, Greg, “Colonizing the Universe: Science Fictions Then, Now, and in the (Imagined) Future,” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 55.2 (2001): 2547 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pfitzer, Gregory, “The Only Good Alien Is a Dead Alien: Science Fiction and the Metaphysics of Indian-Hating on the High Frontier,” Journal of American Culture 18.1 (1995): 5167 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; III, Isiah Lavender, Race in American Science Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011)Google Scholar, especially chapter 2, “Meta-Slavery”; Kilgore, Douglas De Witt, Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania P, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ferreira, Rachel Haywood, “The First Contact Story in Latin American Science Fiction,” Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Atterbery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University, 2013), 7088 Google Scholar; Lathers, Marie, Space Oddities: Women and Outer Space in Popular Film and Culture, 1960–2000 (New York: Continuum, 2010)Google Scholar, especially chapter 6, “Making Contact”; and Rieder, John, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

6 In general, I hold with the assessment that neoliberalism operates as a form of neoimperialism in the postcolonial world. Indeed, to put a finer point on it, as Samir Amin insists, “historical capitalism has always been imperialist, in the sense that it has led to a polarization between centers and peripheries since its origin (the sixteenth century), which has only increased over the course of its later globalized development.” See Amin, Samir, “Contemporary Imperialism,” Monthly Review 67.3 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar: Web.

7 Rieder, John, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University, 2008), 123126 Google Scholar.

8 Lathers, Marie, Space Oddities: Women and Outer Space in Popular Film and Culture, 1960–2000 (New York: Continuum, 2010), 182 Google Scholar.

9 Ibid., 183.

10 For example, see Eshun, “Further,” 298–99; Shaviro, Steven, Post Cinematic Affect (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010), 2526 Google Scholar; Womack, Ytasha, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013), 3238 Google Scholar.

11 See Eshun, “Further,” 299.

12 Shaviro, Post 25–26; Eshun “Further,” 298–99; Womack, Afrofuturism, 32–38.

13 Ferreira, Rachel Haywood, “The First Contact Story in Latin American Science Fiction,” Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Atterbery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013), 70 Google Scholar.

14 Ibid.

15 Bould, Mark, “From Anti-Colonial Struggle to Neoliberal Immiseration: Mohammed Dib’s Who Remembers the Sea, Sony Labou Tansi’s Life and a Half and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia ,” Paradoxa 25 (2013): 17 Google Scholar.

16 For example, see Ekanade, Victor Olumide, “Dynamics of Forced Neoliberalism in Nigeria Since the 1980s,” Journal of Retracing Africa 1.1 (2014): 124 Google Scholar.

17 Okorafor conjures the figure of the Bone Collector as a direct reference to the brutal robbery of a luxury bus along the Lagos-Benin highway in the summer of 2009. Due to the horrific nature of the crime, and the government’s seeming indifference to it, it has retained a position in the Nigerian public imagination as symbolic of the dangers of random, predatory violence more generally.

18 Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Global Science Fiction’? Reflections on a New Nexus,” Science Fiction Studies 39.3 (2013): 480481 Google Scholar.

19 Okorafor quoted in Zutter, Natalie, “Masquerade, Initiation, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy: N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor in Conversation,”, May 9, 2016. Google Scholar.

20 Okorafor, Lagoon, 55.

21 Ibid., 71.

22 Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 64 Google Scholar.

23 Ibid., 27.

24 Ibid., 29.

25 Ibid.

26 Okorafor, Lagoon, 113.

27 Ibid., 39.

28 Ibid., n.p.

29 The appellation of Udide Okwanka first appears in Okorafor, Nnedi, “Spider the Artist,” People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction. Special Issue of Lightspeed 10 (2011)Google Scholar: Web. The narrator of “Spider the Artist” tells us, “In my language, [Udide Okwanka] means ‘spider the artist.’ According to legend, Udide Okwanka is the Supreme Artist. And she lives underground where she takes fragments of things and changes them into something else. She can even weave spirits from straw.” Moreover, as Okorafor herself explains on her Facebook page, “Since I consistently hear this mistake made, I want to put out the correct info: The giant spider who appears in Lagoon (and in several of my other stories . . . including Akata Witch Part 2) is NOT Anansi. It is Udide Okwanka (Spider the Artist), who is part of Igbo mythology.”

30 Okorafor, Lagoon 113.

31 Ibid., 292.

32 Ibid., 17.

33 Ibid., 293.

34 As Victor Olumide Ekanade argues, “The post-Westphalian states of Europe treat African states as dependent associates, providing them with financial aid through international agencies such as the Bretton Woods institutions. Nigeria for instance is a subordinate unit responsive to the policies of international organizations, and subject to the imposition of their programs such as the World Bank’s SAPs based on neoliberal principles.” As Ekanade notes, these policies and their devastating effects were forced upon Nigerian citizens through their own government’s compliance, but without citizens’ own consent. See Ekanade, “Dynamics,” 2.

35 Jameson, Fredric, “Progress Versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?Archaeologies of the Future (London: Verso, 2005), 288289 Google Scholar.

36 Žižek, Slavoj, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2011), 87 Google Scholar.

37 See Lazarus, Neil, The Postcolonial Unconscious (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 180 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Tsika, Noah, “Projected Nigerias: Kajola and its Contexts,” Paradoxa 25 (2013): 95 Google Scholar.

39 Ibid.

40 Okorafor, Lagoon, 148.

41 Ibid., 147.

42 Ibid., 33.

43 See Ferguson, James, “Decomposing Modernity,” Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, eds. Ania Loomba, et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 172 Google Scholar.

44 Ibid., 177.

45 Ibid.

46 See Eshun, “Further,” 290.

47 David Harvey argues that the processes of primitive accumulation, highlighted by Karl Marx as the necessary set of conditions for transitioning into a fully capitalist economy, rather than being displaced by capitalism actually continue apace as an ongoing process of “accumulation by dispossession.” This is especially characteristic of (neo)colonial and (neo)imperial relationships. See Harvey, David, The New Imperialism. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 145152 Google Scholar.

48 What is revealed here, however, despite this language of historical change or ideological outlook, is less a determinant change in the relations of capital between the core and periphery than what the Warwick Research Collective have argued is the changing dynamics of combined and uneven development within the capitalist world-system’s shifts in the mode of production. Rather than a failure to properly transform colonial “immiseration” to teleological development and convergence, what this registers is the nonsynchonicity that capitalism necessarily perpetuates as a global world-system: “‘Modernity’ does not mark the relationship between some formations (that are ‘modern’) and others (that are not ‘modern,’ or not yet so). . . . To grasp the nettle here involves recognizing that capitalist development does not smooth away but rather produces unevenness, systematically and as a matter of course” [Warwick Research Collective, World Literature in the Context of Combined and Uneven Development (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 12]. Although the political discourse changes over time, from colonialism to postcolonial developmentalism to contemporary Afropessimism and the futures industry, what does not change are the capitalist relations of accumulation by dispossession that mark the processes of combined and uneven development underwriting all of these discourses.

49 Dery, Mark, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180 Google Scholar. Since the coining of the term, a longer history has been traced from the nineteenth century to the present that initially parallels and eventually conjoins with principally American mainstream SF. On this last point, see Yaszek, Lisa, “Afrofuturism in American Science Fiction,” The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction, eds. Gerry Canavan and Carl Link (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 5869 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 Womack, Afrofuturism, 9.

51 Shaviro, Post, 32.

52 Eshun, “Further,” 291.

53 For a more nuanced view of this relationship, see Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, “Science Fiction and Empire,” Science Fiction Studies 30.2 (2003): 236 Google Scholar, and Milner, AndrewWhere Was Science Fiction,” Locating Science Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 155157 Google Scholar, especially the sections on “Postcolonial Theory and Science Fiction” and “World-Systems Theory and Science Fiction: The Anglo-French Core.”

54 Eshun, “Further,” 292.

55 Yaszek, Lisa, “Rethinking Apocalypse in African SF,” Paradoxa 25 (2013): 5556 Google Scholar.

56 Tsika, “Projected,” 100.

57 Okorafor quoted in Zutter, “Masquerade.”

58 Okorafor, Lagoon, 6.

59 See Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W., Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 27 Google Scholar.

60 Vint, Sherryl, “Species and Species Being: Alienated Subjectivity and the Commodification of Animals,” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, eds. Mark Bould and China Miéville (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 119 Google Scholar.

61 Okorafor, Lagoon, n.p.

62 Omeje, Kenneth, “Oil Conflict and Accumulation Politics in Nigeria,” European Center for Sustainable Development Report 12 (2011): 46 Google Scholar.

63 Ibid., 47. In this light, the novel’s preeminent condition for utopia is the end of the oil trade: “All the offshore drilling facilities would be destroyed by the people of the water. Even in the delta, all was lost. Oil could no longer be Nigeria’s top commodity. It could no longer be a commodity at all. ‘But we have something better to give you all,’ the Elders had said. Their technology,” Okorafor, Lagoon, 273.

64 Working from Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics, necrocapitalism is defined by Bannerjee as “contemporary forms of organizational accumulation that involve dispossession and the subjugation of life to the power of death.” There is little better explanation of the oil trade in Nigeria. See Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee, “Necrocapitalism,” Organizational Studies 29.12 (2008): 1541.

65 Wegner, Philip E., Shockwaves of Possibility: Essays on Science Fiction, Globalization and Utopia (Oxford, UK: Peter Lang, 2014), 190 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Okoraafor, Lagoon, 193.

67 Ibid., 114.

68 Ibid., 137.

69 Ibid., 17.

70 See Wegner, Shockwaves, 51–52.

71 Badiou, Alain, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham. (London: Continuum, 2005), 174 Google Scholar.

72 Ibid., 175.

73 Ibid., xxvi.

74 Ibid., 176.

75 See Hallward, Peter, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003), 116 Google Scholar.

76 Badiou, Being, xxii.

77 Ibid., xiii.

78 Okorafor, Lagoon, 287.

79 Badiou, Alain, Second Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. Louise Burchill. (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011), 6162 Google Scholar.

80 Okorafor, Lagoon, 277.

81 Badiou, Being, 176.

82 Okorafor, Lagoon, 293.

83 Ibid., 292.