Who gets to decide what’s science and what isn’t?
Much of science fiction explores the idea of colonialism. In European science fiction this exploration often occurs by turning colonial ideologies around and making Europe the victim, as for example in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, however, takes place in Nigeria, a country that was colonized, not a colonizer. Though Lagoon and The War of the Worlds both tell the story of an alien invasion, the way Okorafor explores colonialism is distinct from any works European SF could produce. Using the traditional science fiction trope of an alien invasion, Lagoon contains elements of fantasy and Nigerian mythology. The inclusion of elements that are not situated within the bounds of science raises the question “Is this science fiction?” According to Nigerian history scholar Onwuka Njoku, “to the contemporary mind … technology and religion are regarded as opposites,” so it stands to reason that a contemporary mind wouldn’t see Lagoon as science fiction.1 In seeking to define the genre, Darko Suvin posits a hard line between science fiction and other forms of literature and argues that “SF is fully as opposed to supernatural or metaphysical estrangement as it is to naturalism or empiricism.”2 The question of what counts as science can be unclear. Suvin’s argument relies on a typical Western understanding of science, but the understanding of science and religion in Nigeria is different from Suvin’s. While at first glance Lagoon may appear to exist in the gray area between science fiction and fantasy, a deeper look reveals that Lagoon falls on the side of science fiction. Okorafor uses science fiction conventions within the context of West African science to represent the acceptance and reclamation of magic as a reversal of Nigeria’s colonial history such that, in this story, the arrival of the foreign body catalyzes a return to the traditional West African understanding of science and magic.
Darko Suvin’s 1977 Metamorphoses of Science Fiction attempts to determine the elements that distinguish science fiction from other forms of fiction. His theory is that science fiction is distinguished by what he calls “cognitive estrangement,” in which the familiar environment is made unfamiliar by way of science. Suvin acknowledges that estrangement is present in myth, but he differentiates myth from science fiction by saying that “SF sees the norms of any age, including emphatically its own, as unique, changeable, and therefore subject to a cognitive view.”3 He asserts that “the myth is diametrically opposed to the cognitive approach,” as the myth is determinate—that is, the myth seeks to answer questions while science fiction seeks to explore them.4 Suvin further casts aside folktales and fantasy as lower-class genres of wish fulfillment, which do not intend to be believable, and are indifferent to or “inimical to the empirical world and its laws,” and states that “commercial lumping of [fantasy] into the same category as SF is thus a grave disservice and rampantly socio-pathological phenomenon.”5 According to Suvin’s genre criteria, Lagoon is not science fiction. There are purely magical elements in Lagoon, not intended to be explained, which is made explicit when the narrator of the chapter “Road Monster” says of the road monster, a sentient section of the Lagos-Benin Expressway which serves as a mythical explanation for the dangers of Nigeria’s roads, “but I also believe in the mysteries we can never understand, especially in my country. This thing was one of them.”6 These elements are left to be what they are: magic.
Suvin’s categorization of science fiction is limited and not representative of all scholars’ views of science fiction. For example, in his book World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of a Subculture Lester del Rey explicitly states that “the ideas of science play a part in much science fiction; but science need not be involved.”7 Douglas Falen points out that since the “science” in science fiction is not necessarily real or possible, “science fiction has always skirted the fringe between magical fiction and scientific reality.”8 The commonality between these arguments and Suvin’s is the idea that the estrangement must be, in del Rey’s words, “justified until it seems possible within the framework of the idea being used.”9 To Suvin, this means a purely scientific justification, to del Rey it does not. Either way, I question what counts as scientific “justification.” Take for example the television show Doctor Who; the impossible elements are sometimes explained “scientifically”—that is, phenomena are explained to characters, and therefore the audience, through invented scientific principles, language with morphological similarity to scientific language, or even simply by claiming that something scientific is happening—but often the show just relies on suspension of disbelief. A watcher is meant to accept that the laws governing reality are different in the show’s universe. For instance, the Doctor’s time machine and spacecraft, the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside, which is simply justified as science that is too advanced for humans to understand.10 If you look then to fantasy, in multiple books in the Harry Potter series this same “bigger on the inside” technology is employed, first with a tent and then with Hermione’s purse. In both cases, the explanation is magic. Comparing these similar phenomena in Doctor Who and the Harry Potter series, the only difference between science and magic is whether the author says it is science or magic. While Doctor Who offers a lot of sciencey-sounding phrases such as “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” which is essentially a meaningless in-joke; there’s not much that distinguishes it from fantasy save for that it pretends to be scientific. That isn’t to say that Doctor Who isn’t actually science fiction, but rather that the line between science fiction and fantasy is not as hard as Suvin suggests. Lagoon, with all its mystical elements, appears to exist in this gray area between fantasy and science fiction, but looking closer at how Okorafor uses Nigerian culture and history as a counter to colonialism reveals that Lagoon falls squarely on the side of science fiction.
Although Lagoon contains explicitly fantastical elements, Okorafor doesn’t use these elements for pure wish fulfillment or to give an explanation for a phenomena as Suvin would say myths and folktales do. On the contrary, Okorafor uses these elements in accordance with science fiction conventions to explore colonialism. In his book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, John Rieder zeroes in on the idea of satirical reversal in European science fiction, where European countries become the victims of colonialism and imperialism. Rieder uses Washington Irving’s A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, published in 1809, as an example of satirical reversal, where aliens come from the Moon and see humans as savages because they look different and have different cultural norms. This same idea is present in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, where the Martians view humans as beneath them and the narrator even suggests that “the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands … at the expense of the rest of the body.”11 Rieder states that by the time Wells was writing in the late nineteenth century, “the device of portraying the imperial homeland as the victim of a surprise attack by one of its imperial competitors was already well worn.”12 European science fiction engages with colonialism from the perspective of a colonizer.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, on the other hand, engages differently with colonialism. For one, Lagoon takes place in Nigeria, a country that was formerly colonized by Britain, not a colonial power. Were Okorafor to simply have written a story in which aliens come to town, see themselves as superior to humans, and then try to take over, the story would not be applying the same satirical reversal that is present in European science fiction. Instead, Okorafor applies the concept in her novel in a way that considers Nigeria’s colonial history. For example, Okorafor’s aliens are quite different from Wells’s. They don’t attempt to colonize or see themselves as superior to humans, and initially, they try to work with and communicate with the humans, who react poorly. When the humans first meet the alien character Ayodele, she explains to the human character Adaora that her people specifically chose Lagos and the waters because “these seemed like good places for [them].”13 Whereas European colonizers considered themselves superior to Africans and therefore entitled to their resources, these alien visitors believe that Lagos has something to offer beyond natural resources. Later on, when addressing the population at large, Ayodele introduces her people as “guests who wish to become citizens” and says “we do not seek your oil or your other resources … We are here to nurture your world.”14 This introduction is a stark opposition to the European settlers of Nigeria’s history, who exploited Nigeria for natural resources at the expense of the indigenous people. Given this history, this moment functions as satirical reversal in its own way. In European SF, the reversal is that the colonizer becomes the colonized, whereas in Lagoon, the reversal is that the foreign body is not a colonizer, but an immigrant, coming to help but ultimately recognizing and deferring to the Nigerians’ existing society and power. Okorafor uses science fiction conventions, such as the aforementioned satirical reversal, within the bounds of a West African understanding of science and magic.
It would be easy to claim that despite Okorafor’s use of science fiction conventions, Lagoon is not science fiction because of its use of decidedly unscientific mythological elements. Any genre could theoretically use those same conventions, and in Lagoon the superpowers of the three main human characters, Adaora, Agu, and Anthony; the Mami Wata and Ijele characters; and the road monster are understood to be inexplicable by Western science. The argument that these qualities categorically place Lagoon outside of science fiction hinges on a Western understanding of science as diametrically opposed to mythology. However, considering the West African understanding of science and mythology, I would argue that these elements are not “unscientific” at all. In his study of religion and science in Benin, Falen writes that “rural and urban women and men repeatedly defined the occult as a ‘science.’”15 What Falen found here is an understanding of magic that is not opposed to science. To the indigenous residents of Benin, the occult is a science itself. Further evidence of the overlap between science and magic can be found in precolonial Igbo metallurgy practices. In the article “Magic, Religion and Iron Technology in Precolonial North-Western Igboland,” Onwuka Njoku explores the rituals and religious ideas embedded in precolonial Igbo iron technology. Every step of the ironworking process was ritual and religious, but “this did not mean that precolonial Igbo people did not seek practical solutions to technical problems … The Igbo combined practical skills with religious conceptions.”16 Igbo iron technology recognized a marriage between religion and what is contemporarily considered to be science. Furthermore, the role that religion played in iron technology wasn’t even simply superstitious or symbolic. Njoku writes that “the ritualization of craft production was a good way of preserving an established production process and of transmitting it from one generation to another.”17 Considering these West African views brings up an important question: Who gets to decide what’s science and what isn’t? Perhaps Western science fiction should adhere to a Western understanding of science, but Lagoon isn’t Western science fiction. As West African science fiction, Lagoon should follow the principles of West African science.
Okorafor situates Lagoon within the context of West African science, using Adaora and the Christian priest Father Oke’s acceptance of magic throughout the novel to oppose the Western values that have been imposed on Nigeria. The Lagos that Lagoon begins in is not the same indigenous West Africa where science and magic are connected but a West Africa that has been fundamentally shaped by European colonialism. This Lagos carries both the scientific and religious imprints of Europe. In Postcolonialism and Science Fiction, Jessica Langer writes that the colonist worldview “lionized the scientiﬁc method and its results … at the same time as it imposed on indigenous peoples its own patently unscientiﬁc system of spirituality, Christianity.”18 Father Oke and Adaora represent the two conflicting sides of this colonial legacy, Adaora the scientific and Father Oke the Christian, but for both of them their interactions with the mystical represent a triumph of or return to indigenous ways of knowing.
Adaora, a biologist, starts out with a view of the world “founded upon empirical evidence, on rigorous experimentation, on data,” but after an attack by anti-alien locals on Ayodele and on Adaora’s home, during and after which she witnesses what can only be described as magic from both Ayodele and herself, Adaora admits to her husband Chris, a follower of Father Oke, that he was right about the mystery of the world.19 Later still, after Adaora, Agu, and Anthony use their powers to fight and Adaora transforms into a mermaid creature, she even says out loud to herself “I am a marine witch.”20 Adaora does not reject science, however, as her role in the president’s plan to move forward in the wake of the invasion is to “serve as his scientific expert.”21 Instead, she accepts science and magic as being linked and coexistant. Another side of this return to magic is found in Okorafor’s use of Christianity and the character of Father Oke. Father Oke is a devout Christian who is firmly against “witchcraft,” as seen in the chapter “May the Lord Continue to Favor You,” in which he slaps a woman and calls her a “foul devil” for being a witch. In the chapter “The Glass House,” Okorafor writes that upon encountering Mami Wata, “many things happened to Father Oke at once. He felt his heart break. Why had he slapped that woman so hard yesterday morning?”22 Father Oke gives in, accepts Mami Wata, and goes to the water with her, never to be seen again. Adaora and Father Oke’s journeys into accepting the mystical over the course of the novel function as a sort of decolonization. Adaora accepts magic as existing beside science, and Father Oke accepts Mami Wata, an African mythological figure, into his Christian views. This structure offers a counter to Western influences, whereby only when the indigenous ways of knowing are reclaimed and given power can there be peace. Langer writes that postcolonial science fiction differs from other forms of science fiction, as it specifically addresses the injustices of colonialism. Postcolonial science fiction melds “science fiction with other forms of cultural production—indigenous literatures, oral storytelling, folktale, legend, religious text and story—as a specific response to specific historical, and potential future, events and circumstances.”23 Lagoon exhibits this model of science fiction, as Okorafor uses Adaora and Father Oke’s acceptance of magic to counter the legacy of European colonization.
Suvin’s argument considers “science” to be opposed to magic, but his argument considers only a limited European worldview, one Lagoon exists outside of. The magic that is included in Lagoon falls within the bounds of a West African understanding of science, not a Western understanding. Despite Suvin’s argument, it is clear that given the history of West Africa, Lagoon’s use of mythology is not opposed to science but inclusive of it. Suvin’s definition of science fiction does originate at a time with a less fluid understanding of genre than when Lagoon was published, but his black and white understanding of what counts as science fiction, or even as science, has not disappeared. The presence of religious and mythological themes in science fiction is not unique to Lagoon either. For example in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus, a British science fiction novel written in the era of British Imperialism, science is not opposed to religion but portrayed as something that can give mortals godlike power—the impossibilities of religion are achievable through the advancement of science.fn]Allison MacWilliams, “Science Playing God,” in Religion and Science Fiction, edited by James McGrath (Pickwick Publications), 80.[/fn] James McGrath comments on the innate similarities between religion and science fiction, saying “both religion and science fiction tell stories that reflect on the place of human beings in the universe, good vs. evil, humanity’s future, and at times about the very nature of existence itself.”24 In this vein some science fiction, such as Doctor Who, is almost indistinguishable from fantasy; it’s possible that in some cases the only distinguishing characteristic of science fiction is the claim that it is science fiction. Even European works often blur the line between science fiction and fantasy, but it is Okorafor’s engagement with science fiction conventions, West African culture, and colonialism which situate Lagoon entirely on the side of science fiction.
- Onwuka Njoku, “‘Magic, Religion and Iron Technology in Precolonial North-Western Igboland,” Journal of Religion in Africa 21 (1991), 210.
- Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (Yale University Press, 1979), 7.
- Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, 7.
- Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, 7.
- Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, 9.
- Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon (Saga Press, 2016), 206.
- Lester del Rey, World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of a Subculture (Taylor & Francis Group, 2021), 4.
- Douglas J. Falen African Science: Witchcraft, Vodun, and Healing in Southern Benin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), 19.
- del Rey, World of Science Fiction, 6.
- Del Rey, World of Science Fiction, 6.
- H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, Edited by Patrick Parrinder (Penguin, 2005), 127.
- John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 131.
- Okorafor, Lagoon, 40.
- Okorafor, Lagoon, 111; 113.
- Falen, African Science: Witchcraft, Vodun, and Healing in Southern Benin, 62.
- Onwuka Njoku, “Magic, Religion and Iron Technology in Precolonial North-Western Igboland,” Journal of Religion in Africa 21, (1991), 211.
- Njoku, “Magic, Religion and Iron Technology in Precolonial North-Western Igboland,” 212.
- Jessica Langer, Postcolonialism in Science Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 127.
- Okorafor, Lagoon, 158.
- Okorafor, Lagoon, 280.
- Okorafor, Lagoon, 277.
- Okorafor, Lagoon, 235.
- Langer, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction, 152.
- James McGrath, “Introduction: Religion and Science Fiction,” in Religion and Science Fiction, edited by James McGrath (Pickwick Publications, 2011), 2.