Media, Magic, and the Multilevel Network

“A woman who’d been walking down the middle of the busy dirt road that passed through the market wanted to throw her mobile phone away. She’d never liked mobile phones. She knew it sounded crazy, but she had always been sure that they could do more than anyone let on. She had a feeling that they could watch you. That they could speak to you at night when you were asleep and brainwash you.”

Okorafor, Nnedi. Lagoon (p. 277). Saga Press. Kindle Edition.

Okorafor’s novel pushes the limits of the network narrative beyond her readers’ typical capacity, pairing a magical and folklorish use of widespread animal communication (the spider’s web and the enlightened bat’s sonar) with hyper-advanced media technology that helps to align the novel with the scifi genre. This overlapping is most apparent as Okorafor chooses to call Ch. 54, which portrays the President’s speech taking over every single screen in Nigeria, “Spider’s Threads.” I think this is what makes Okorafor particularly unique: throughout this semester we have seen stories portraying the asocial results of hyper-connectivity, as well as the way in which it leads to environmental decay. However, in Lagoon, the President’s sudden and powerful control over mass media, thanks to Ayodele, not only connects Nigeria politically but also, yet again, magically to their physical environment. The president temporarily acts as the spider whose web connects Nigeria as Ayodele simultaneously becomes a fog that everyone inhales–it is connectivity on multiple ecological and social levels. What is more, as the selected quote shows, Okorafor refuses to separate the power of advanced media technology from the mysticism that defines her portrayal of Lagos. Everything–music, magic, media, and Ayodele’s atoms–is contained in the soil of Lagos.

Multimedia in Lagoon

Ayodele was downstairs in the lab reading an issue of National Geographic.
(Okorafor 65)

Like in that old American movie…. I forget the name. When are the aliens ever not evil?
“E.T.?” Rome said.
(Okorafor 75)

This moment in Lagoon, after Ayodele, Agu and Anthony enter Adaora’s house, is somewhat ironic, because National Geographic is a magazine based in the US and known for its visual representation of the Global South to a mostly First World audience. The magazine does indeed provide useful information regarding geography, history and world culture to its readers, but it also often depicts the Third World as plagued by issues such as famine or illiteracy, yet capable of modernization. Throughout Lagoon Okorafor highlights Nigeria’s rich culture and history that colonialism attempted to erase. Alongside these aspects of Nigerian culture are references to American films such as Star Wars and E.T. It seems a bit odd to write about these particular movies, because they are only further representations of a colonial past as well as capitalism. Perhaps these are necessary because as a postcolonial nation-state, Nigeria’s original culture and history resurface, but the need for modernization is still prevalent and multimedia and technology are ways to prove that a nation has finally “developed”.

Lagoon and Media

Considering that Okorafor’s novel, Lagoon, takes place in the twenty-first century, social media, as well as all types of media, are prevalent within the story. This story works in the media world because it uses media as a way to solidify the truth of what is going on with the aliens and Ayodele. There’s news outlets and phones and cameras taking pictures and videos. There’s no room for doubt on what is happening because with the click of a button Aydolele’s actions and shape shifting can be recorded and there is tangible proof. A lot of other science fiction novels that we have read before don’t have this type of relationship or presence of media, therefore there is room for speculation among the characters for the truth or realness of what is actually happening. In Lagoon, there is no question because media establishes its truthfulness. “Jacobs had a nice phone, so the footage was even clearer the it had been on Moziz’s cheap disposable one. Jacobs had watched it at least fifty times, and it still blew his mind. She was a young woman, then she seemed to turn inside herself to become a smoky, metallic-looking cloud, then she turned inside out again to become a completely different woman who was old and bent… ‘whaaaat?’ Rome whispered, bringing his face close to the high-definition images on Jacob’s mobile phone. ‘Play it again,” Seven said grinning,” (Okorafor 67). Here we have the scene of the passing around of the video that Philo took of Ayodele shape shifting. In this novel, media is not only used as proof of truth beyond imagination, but for sharing and accessing that proof. Philo started out taking the video, then passed it to her boyfriend Moziz, who showed it to Jacob, who showed it to his friends, and so on. Media is used as the cycle of information and exposure. By having this type of media in the novel Okorafor can use it as a way for all of her characters to pass the information of Ayodele’s existence and properties around. It is impossible for them to say that what they are seeing in this video is false, therefore they feel the need to spread this information and show it to more people.

Connectivity of Media

I think something that makes Okorafor’s science fiction different than most of the other we have read is the connectedness of all the characters because of social media. She uses this ability to connect with the entire world through social media like YouTube or fandoms like Anthony’s fan base. The butterfly effect way that this story is written is expanded and explodes when a medium like social media in introduced because the ability to affect others is made more accessible. In many of the other novels and short stories we read, the characters were isolated and experiencing the events of their story without the ability to connect to another person. That isolation centralized the story around a single person and everything happened to that one person who could not escape their situation. As I said before this story is more of a butterfly effect and so for the first time we get to experience what a whole community would feel, be that a physical community or a fan group, in the case of an alien invasion.

The Phasing Out of Story Mediums

“Jordan wore a black T-shirt with a drawing of a marijuana leaf in the center…He stood up straight and stamped a Timberland boot on the floor… ‘You think it’s some Orwellian shit?…Like that War of the Worlds radio broadcast back in the day that caused all that panic?'” (302)

“There’s a ‘witch slapping’ scene in Lagoon. Are there self-proclaimed holy men slapping the so-called witchcraft out of women? Yes. See for yourself at: youtube.com/watch?v=bfeGpcmfMBA.” (306)

When I saw Okorafor’s comment at the end of Lagoon (in which she gives further insight to some elements of the story), I immediately wondered how quickly the link would expire — or, even further, when YouTube itself would no longer exist and the link be wholly unusable. I paired this with a scene in the extra chapter at the end of the novel, which not only gives the story a specific era in terms of fashion (the marijuana leaf shirt and the Timberland boots) but also brings up a question of the inevitability of the phasing out of technology and whether stories will surpass this phasing. The character, Jordan, brings up the radio drama adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of The Worlds, which first premiered in 1938. While radio dramas have mostly gone out of style (largely due to the introduction of television), the tale of The War of the Worlds radio drama lives on. Jordan’s comparison of the “The President of Nigeria Saved by Witches and Warlocks” YouTube video to the infamous radio drama doesn’t seem to be accidental; Okorafor may be toying with the notion that, while the mediums these stories are presented on may eventually phase out, the stories themselves may survive.

The Spider and the Web

Then he [Femi] embedded the footage he’d posted on his YouTube page. When he posted the story on the website, he’d make the YouTube footage live… He reread his story, editing, adding where he saw fit…The world as he knew it had changed…He clicked send. Then he sat back and waited for his world to turn yet again. His thread of story would join the vibrating of the great narrator’s rhythm.

(Okorafor, 288)

I found this passage interesting, for it alludes to a relationship between the “great narrator,” the spider, and those who utilize media to communicate the events that transpire in Lagos throughout Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. Though I am unsure of the exact function of the spider, it seems as though it exists as a force that interprets information in a way that grants the information new meaning; it “spins” information. For example, at the end of the novel, the spider claims, “The boy with no name had no destiny until I wrote that part of the story” (291). Only when the spider interprets the boy’s existence, is the boy granted destiny. By uploading his interpretation of the events that have transpired in Lagos to the internet, a global medium, Femi grants the events and perhaps even Lagos new meaning to a large audience. The multiple perspectives given throughout the novel produce the same effect. Perhaps Okorafor writing the novel is an example of this as well.

Media and Perspective

That afternoon, the church was packed, thanks to the television, newspaper, and radio, though not so much the Internet.  According to the media, the water along all the beaches was “rising at an alarming rate!” and pushing into the lagoon.  Government buildings and independent businesses were all “closed until further notice!”  There had been an “excruciatingly loud racket tumbling off the ocean.”  Something was amiss, and everyone was getting ready for whatever would come next.  (58)

Throughout Lagoon, we are presented with a staggering multitude of perspectives and, on more than one occasion, multiple accounts of the same event.  In doing so, Okorafor very clearly provides readers with the idea that simply because two people witnessed the same occurrence does not mean that they will interpret that occurrence the same way; in fact, Lagoon almost seems to posit that it is impossible for one person to absorb something in the same way as another.  The presence of the media in the novel only complicates this.  In the passage above, it can be garnered from the three separate quotations that there are multiple outlets reporting on the events taking place in Lagos, and the fact that there are clashing reports–all engendering paranoia of some sort–demonstrates the way in which a different perspective on an event can work towards obscuring that event just as much as it could work toward elucidating it.  In spite of all the information the people of Lagos are being given, nothing is concrete- and as a result, they are not preparing for any danger in specific, only “whatever would come next”.

Change Many Can See

“‘The winds of change are blowing. We are change. You will see'” (Okorafor 112).

In Act I of Lagoon, one of the most prominent uses of visual and digital media is the video message that Ayodele spreads throughout Lagos. This particular scene presents readers with a modern take on invasion suggesting the interconnectivity that the internet provides for people now can potentially be both harmful and helpful. The inevitable change is coming, but one is ignorant to what that might mean. When Ayodele states “You will see,” she hints at the inevitability of it while also admitting that because of the technology the people have they can now all be witness to this change. Instead of the few that experience the androids’ message, for example in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, in hopes of change, Okorafor allows many to hear Ayodele’s message which provides a broader spectrum of reaction. Richard Deckard may go back to his life like nothing ever happened, but Lagos will be forever changed by Ayodele whether for good or bad.

Gossip Mags

Although District 9 has an overarching framing device in the form of a documentary because of the interviews and obvious motions towards the camera, I was more interested in the gossip magazines which tore down Wikus’ reputation. The picture which seemed to be the sexual act of Wikus with an alien has a comical yellow circle meant to cover their genitalia. Sex scandals are sensational and this was enough to destroy Wikus’ reputation and become a target without anyone asking questions. Even Fundiswa exclaims that the government didn’t even hide the information about Wikus or the experiments well. I suppose my point is that people can be overcome with sensationalism and automatically accept something as truth because they’re told it and only see ambiguous pictures as proof instead of investigating or doubting it.

“He” and “I” in Okorafor’s Media Representation

The boy was there. He had no mobile phone. He had never touched a computer. The cramped room he shared with seven other homeless boys and no television. He had no access to any type of screen, large or small. He hadn’t even been immunized against polio. But he was there. (123)

I was there. To be specific, I was in the Testament Cyber Cafe, not far from Bar Beach… Yet there I was in the cyber cafe totally unconcerned, and up to no good. Okay, so I was good at it. I was good at being up to no good. I was good at 419. Nigerian Internet fraud. (194)

I chose to compare these two excerpts because what Okorafor is presenting us with here is an interesting balance between identity, technology, and media. Okorafor introduces the mute boy in the aforementioned scene through the third person, because seemingly he cannot articulate what is going on in his own life. The use of the third person seems conspicuous because we know that being mute does not affect one’s thought processes; but it seems that Okorafor attributing the lack of identity for this individual to his lack of participation in the media of the novel – at least in the way that he does not participate in the technological part of it. Obviously this little boy plays an instrumental part in the novel, and in terms of what the media is representing, he experiences it first hand, whereas most only experience the actions of the book through some type of media representation (YouTube, news columns, etc.). This seems to point at the fact that many people believe that media – particularly social media – is the best way to represent and be your “true self.” Now, I wouldn’t say that Okorafor believes this, since when we look at the other excerpt with “Legba” we can understand his identity through technology and through different types of media to be false – as he is an expert at fraud. Why then should he get an entire chapter to himself in which he is the  main focalizer and voice?

 

Personal note:

Thinking through with Neuromancer and with the cyber cafes in Lagoon, have you ever walked through a casino – like the Bethlehem Sands – and just seen the people mindlessly pulling the levers, oblivious to the world around them? This reminded me of the cyber cafe where everyone just ignored what was going on until if finally crashed in on them.

Also, in terms of technology, many science fiction stories deal with the idea of connecting ourselves to technology, and beyond the obvious connection we have to phones and the internet, I was thinking about our connection to cars. As a commuting student who is put in many tight situations on the major highways coming to school everyday, I would physically get sick if someone crashed into my car – where did this empathy for physical objects come from? Maybe Phillip Dick can help me figure that one out.

The future of science fiction is already upon us!

May the Force Be With You, O

“[The president] wished he were at his home in Abuja with a glass of cool Guinness, watching Star Wars on his high-definition wide-screen television. He loved Star Wars, especially the more recent installments. There was such honor in Star Wars. In another life, he’d have made a great Jedi knight.” – 84

The neat things about this paragraph is that it shows science fiction is an acknowledged and important part of Okorafor’s universe. That might seem like stating the obvious, but in my experience it’s pretty rare to have 21st century characters directly cite the flood other media available to us in their thinking. In much the same way the protagonist in a zombie movie might have never seen or heard of these “dead-walking things” before the Outbreak, Okorafor could have glossed over other frames of reference for aliens. Showing these shout-outs and references not only makes the characters more sympathetic, but reflects how culture influences our thinking. These frames of reference stack on top of one another as time goes on, until Star Wars and District 9 form a sort of mosaic that gives Lagoon more complexity and nuance by having a conversation with the works that inspired it.

Prompt (group 2 and last): Media, media everywhere

How does Lagoon reflect on its own relationship to other media? All semester we have emphasized the specific qualities of science fiction in print. But Lagoon is full of representations and allusions to visual and digital media. Choose a particular example and write a short paragraph about how this particular Okorafor’s writing might help us think about how this science-fiction novel works in a multimedia world.

You may certainly discuss Lagoon in relation to District 9, but you need not.

Since this prompt is going up late, you will receive blogging credit for it if you post any time before class on Tuesday.

Supplements: Lagoon

Okorafor, Naijamerican Eyes on Lagos: text and photographs from a talk about Lagos Okorafor gave earlier this year, archived on her blog. I showed some of the images in class.

Okorafor’s own web site, with some biographical information about her and publicity materials for her various books (which gives a sense of the range of genres she works in). There is a video interview in which Okorafor talks, among other things, about how she chose writing as a career.

David Smith, Crisis in Nigeria as President drops out of view. A report from the London Guardian on the 2010 absence of then-Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua. Six years have since passed, and Lagoon, published four years since this event, is quite self-conscious about choosing this particular moment for its setting.

Nathaniel Bivan and Risqah Ramon, “Nigerian writers shouldn’t focus on fame, money – Nnedi Okorafor,” Daily Trust (Abuja), September 24, 2016: a recent interview, with some remarks on genre that we’ll talk about in class.

David Esizimetor and Francis Egbokhare, Naijá (Nigerian Pidgin): A descriptive article about the language, from the Language Varieties site, which also has good concise definitions of the linguistic terms “pidgin” and “creole.”

Gibson’s Neuromancer: An attempt at a brief summary

In a cyber-punk version of our world, an outlaw computer hacker is given the opportunity to get back into his field of expertise. Through a series of events, he discovers the true purpose of his mission: to unlawfully unite the two halves of a super-AI entity. The events that transpire are those that can only be described as a cybernetic rabbit hole of action.

That was my attempt, to the best of my ability, to summarize Neuromancer in my own words as concisely as I could  without trying to rewrite the Wikipedia summary. It was extremely difficult to nail (what I believe to be) the key points of the novel. In all honesty, I believe trying to describe the plot in full would deter some readers away. I only say this because it feels as if every detail of the novel seems to matter to over-arching story that is being told. It sounds absurd when you have names like Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool, but this is what made reading the novel so captivating. Trying to connect every dot that has been laid out by Gibson leaves a story that becomes almost like a puzzle. It’s not the kind of novel that one can finish reading, and then think nothing of it. Gibson provokes the continuation of thought long after you have finished the book by leaving the reader with the questions of what it all really means when Case has ended up becoming part of the super-AI’s design.

 

Neuromancer Summary

Henry Dorsett Case is a thief who was punished with damage to his central nervous system therefore becomes very depressed and without a job. He is saved by Molly Millions, a street samurai,  and Armitage, an ex military officer, who promise to fix his nervous system. Case becomes involved in more crime and violence while working with them, falls in love with Molly, finds out Armitage is actually Corto, and gets a new girlfriend after Molly leaves him but only continues getting into trouble. 

Gibson’s writing style in this book is jam packed with details. There is a lot of imagery presented to us within the descriptions of characters, scenery, and terms. This helps move the plot of the novel along because instead of having to try and figure things out or come up with my own ideas of how a world is or what a character may look like Gibson describes everything in such intense detail that I don’t have to do these things. It’s easier to see this world then say Le Guin because her descriptions and world she created was more vague.  I found it easier to understand the characters and their missions and motives in this novel. Every foreign name or concept was explained, maybe  not immediately but somewhere down the line in the book which made it a more enjoyable read for me. The plot moves along with the details because you need the details to help you follow the plot!  Some may classify that characteristic as not challenging enough on the mind and as an “easy” read however I don’t think by giving extra detail it took away from the complexities of the story. 

A (Brief) Glimpse At Neuromancer

In a vaguely dystopian, high-tech future, Case – who has a full name, it just doesn’t come up often – is offered the chance to return to his old profession as a master hacker, which he was surgically prevented from continuing, in exchange for his assistance on an enigmatic job. The offer comes from a cybernetically enhanced assassin named Molly on the behalf of her employer Armitage, a mysterious figure with extensive resources and a military past. Molly and Case embark on an extensive espionage-based tour of the future society, extensively sketched by author William Gibson, and uncover the behind-the-scenes machinations of a deeply troubled artificial intelligence, which they do nothing to stop and leave to its own ends as they go their separate ways.

When summarized in a manner that assumes no prior knowledge, a blurb-style plot synopsis can’t help but omit the texture of the world Gibson builds (at least not at the expense of communicating crucial story beats). So much of Gibson’s storytelling is about the way you learn about the differences in his world by the differences in his characters – to a degree that, I think, goes beyond the obvious level at which the actions and speech patterns of the cast can be used for exposition in science fiction, and into something that sort of hybridizes character and setting (appropriate for a story so occupied with the hybridization of humanity and technology – especially when both of the former map onto both of the latter). If his characters read as somewhat flat without a sense of that setting I think it should speak to how important he makes his world to the reader’s understanding of the people within it, not a failing of his characterization overall. The most obvious way I could think of improving my above plot summary is therefore by the addition of some text to give the flavor of (ie) the Sprawl as written by Gibson, rather than, say, detailed character profiles. That’s not to say character profiles are of less merit overall – actually I’d say the better part of the science fiction we’ve read in the class so far would benefit from it in a plot-summary challenge like this – but in the specific case of Gibson’s writing I think it’s secondary to understanding the setting he’s thrust his characters into.

Neuromancer & Plot

Neurally damaged cyberpunk junkie Henry Dorsett Case takes too many pills for temporary relief from the death spiral in which he is trapped. At the behest of ex-military officer Armitage, hired “razorgirl” and street samurai Molly Millions pulls Case from his miserable existence and repairs his nervous system, effectively indenturing Case to whatever cyberhacking missions Armitage wants him to complete. Cue lots of suspenseful action that ends with Case’s consciousness and that of his dead ex (from when he was a drug addict) forever floating through cyberspace.

Many posts have already commented on the level of sensory detail and its effect on the plot. Though distinctly futuristic, the physical space of the novel is not unfamiliar in the way Le Guin’s planet Winter is, allowing the reader to mentally map out Gibson’s world and follow the intricate visual details that drive the plot. Pistols, computers, bars, and violent crime are easier to relate to versus genderless aliens or humanoid robots, features that create terminology and circumstances that can slow a plot down. The high-speed nature of Neuromancer is enabled by Gibson’s apparent intent to provide a plot that requires little explanation of its surroundings. Even the characters themselves — their feelings, thoughts, pasts — are not as important to the plot as the actions they take, making Neuromancer a pretty quick read.

 

Gibson and Neuromancer

Case is suicidal and numb after losing his gifted ability to hack after stealing from his employer, and is now a drug addict and a low-level hustler.  He gets pulled back into the world of hacking and given new organs to reject the drugs and keep him clean, by Molly and Armitage, who need his help in hacking into digital networks in cyber-space. The three get intermingled in a world of crime, violence, sex, suspicion, discovery, and hacking, until many people die, Armitage is found to be Corto, Molly leaves Case, and Case spends the rest of his days continuing to hack with his new girlfriend, buying his way back into his old drug addictions.

Gibson’s plot is orchestrated through the delivery of incredibly intricate details and imagery. He sets the stage for every scene that we are placed into. We are given the ability to see every character and scenery and it enhances the plot, for we are given an overload of information. There really is no leaving anything up to the imagination. Unlike other authors we’ve read, like Dick or Le Guin, we have found ourselves to have a better understanding of the world that Case is journeying through and the people he’s with, and what they are doing, because of the detailed description of the plot. I found myself asking less questions because, even if I did not understand a term or a part of this new world, the amount of information I was being given on the subject helped me to see how the plot was advancing and what was going on. Most of the time you are just given the name of something and not any explanation. Such as in The Left Hand of Darkness, there were so many new terms to go on in that novel between the cycles and the months and years, and the technology used, and a lot of the time there was no explanation. You followed the plot and hoped that it revealed what you needed to know. With Gibson, the details and explanations are woven into the plot. His intricate imagery allows us to see and know everything that is going on whether we are really sure of what it is or not. Yet, sometimes there are so many details you have to wonder whether or not they are that important to the advancement of the plot. Basically, Gibson’s whole style of writing relies on the overload of details, and his plot is made up of it, as well.

Gibson Carries a Microscope Le Guin, a Map.

Emotional strained cyber hacker is “saved” by a cool warrior chick who takes him on an adventure back into his old life of crime and takes away his drug addiction. But . . . its not what he thinks and he’s dragged into a huge crazy mess of crime, drugs, fighting, old girlfriends, and ninjas. After its all over he gets paid, gets a new girlfriend, and does his best to become a drug addict again because that’s a good thing.

There are moments in Neuromancer that are so up close its as if Gibson is looking through a microscope at every object in the room and explaining to us what he sees.  I wonder if it is even important to know these small details and if the story would be the same without them, but because he is mentioning them, they seem important. For example, the moment he describes the gun he picks up from the black market and we find out the kind of gun it is a model of a model of. The plastic. The feel of the gun at night. It can be compared to Le Guin’s foray guns of which we are only briefly told shoot metal, like human guns, unlike the sonic guns that seem to just make you feel uncomfortable or pass out.  On that note, the guns in The left hand of darkness are less important it seems than the gun in Neuromancer.  Maybe they are just as important but they aren’t given as much thought and detail.  We don’t particularly know what any of Le Guin’s guns look like let alone feel like. The story is still just as interesting and has just as much that can be said about it.  What ends up happening is that we get an enormous sprawling and mystical landscape from Le Guin, or a map of a new world where we take in what is necessary, and from Gibson we are force fed sensory information that seems unnecessary but because we as readers generally trust that an author will only tell us what we need to know for the story to go on, we try to make meaning from sensory overload.

Details, Details, Details

Expert hacker Henry Dorsett Case is at the bottom of his luck when offered the opportunity to regain his lost purpose and livelihood in exchange for his services to a figure and cause shrouded in mystery and danger. Drug-infused and wildly suspenseful, Neuromancer follows Case and his fellow underworld insurgents as they navigate consciousness, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence that blurs the lines between riveting literature and borderline psychosis. Relentlessly driven by vivid details and captivating cerebral conflict, Case’s journey across the planes of reality ends in success, drugs, and hyperreal version of “happily ever after.”

 

One would think that summarizing a plot in three sentences would be fairly easy, but when the plot of the story is driven by drugs, violence, and cyberspace, three sentences becomes almost as deadly as a mycotoxin to the bloodstream. But despite it’s challenge, it made me really appreciate just how many conventions are being utilized by Gibson in his telling of Case’s adventures within the matrix and beyond. As pointed out by the other blog posts, most of our discussions in class, and most every scholar on the subject, it is the incredibly hyperspecific nature of detail within the story that gives it much of it’s charm. One can practically feel the story as it’s being described within the pages of the books, truly submerging a reader into everything- characters, plot, setting… even abstract consciousness.

I agree with my classmates in the Gibson’s plot is far more driven by details than perhaps that of Le Guin, who’s Left Hand of Darkness tracks more conceptual thematic elements that drive the plot rather than the incredibly descriptive nature of what the figures of the book are experiencing. Neuromancer truly is one of a kind.