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:” (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.”