Nigerians in Space, by Deji Bryce Olukotun, is a transnational mystery novel replete with assassins, abalone poaching and an international fashion model who exudes light from her skin. It begins in 1986 with Wale, a middling NASA scientist and Nigerian expat in Houston, Texas, who receives an elliptical note from Bello, a Nigerian politician. We soon find out that Bello is scheming to lure back eminent scientists from around the world in an attempt to reform Nigeria's economy and “tap Nigeria's minds, and not its oil.”
These are high stakes, and it doesn't take long for Olukotun to make us squirm. Wale, to prove his loyalty to the project, tries to steal an artifact from the first moon landing. After a funny, fumbling theft, he leaves his workmate unconscious and speeds away in his manager's car. Wale quickly gathers his family and flees to the airport, where he scrambles for further instructions.
The instructions do not come. Wale, whose crime is now on the news, proceeds to drag his family around the world. He goes from continent to continent, searching for other Nigerian expats in order to find the truth about Bello, with the ultimate aim of returning to his (suitably reformed) homeland – a homeland that might one day provide an acceptably bourgeois lifestyle for his family.
This is not exactly a stirring motive, but such, Olukotun suggests, is the scope of his politics. The title, Nigerians in Space, is a literal reference to Bello's ambitions to build a Nigerian space program - but it is also a reference to his myopic political imagination, an imagination that seems to miss the on-the-ground lives of most Nigerians (who probably wouldn't count a Nigerian "space program" in their list of priorities), as well as the tendency of political and economic power to defend its interests with the barrel of a gun.
So it goes in Nigerians in Space, as the resistance to Bello's dream is gradually revealed to reach into the most sinister recesses of the Nigerian state. Excitement ensues: There are gunfights and fistfights and multiple near misses. Wale grows obsessed with the conspiracy against "Brain Gain," as the space program is dubbed, and this mystery keeps the novel crackling to the end.
This is a novel that is rigid in form but anarchic in content. From the beginning, Olukotun splits the novel into three subplots, as you would expect in film script, and paces the novel with textbook precision. But if the form is familiar, the content, well, that remains as odd as can be. If Wale is the A plot, then the B plot tells of a kind-hearted worker who gets sucked into an underworld of illegal abalone poaching. The C plot gives us the life of an orphan – the child of one of Bello's scientists – whose remarkable skin glows like the surface of the moon.
As the plot hums along and we try to bring together the various threads, it becomes clear that Olukotun is hitting a few general themes, mostly about the failure of grand ideas against the cynicism of the state apparatus. Populated with inventors, the book is also about the emptiness of encomiums to the power of Science and Technology to correct the brutal inequity of our current political economy.
These are big ideas, but Nigerians in Space can't quite have it both ways, as the plot of a mystery novel doesn't allow Olukotun much room to maneuver. Despite his considerable imaginative energy, the form means that Olukotun can hardly give himself a breath, and the novel's ideas, along with its general critique, have less force than they ought to.
But it's still a lot of fun. You get to read passages like:
“He'd felt paralysed by the force of the shot, that had torn clean through Ferguson's jaw, and then the knife that had almost sliced him. Somehow the burglar had known about the PV cell. That meant he probably knew about Bello and Brain Gain in general, and he was willing to kill for it. Why?”
And lines like: “I missed on purpose. Next time I will not.”
And Olukotun's deadpan humor: “'Ah, Mr Smith, you mean he is a Negro', the dispatcher said in lumbering English."
'Yes, a Negro. An African.' […]
'Thank you. A Negro.'
'He has a gun! Armed and dangerous! Get there now!'
'But you must be mistaken. Guns are not legal in Stockholm.'”
Olukotun generally follows the structure and pacing of a mystery novel, though with fewer cheap tricks, sex scenes or clichés. The prose is clean and functional, and despite a few five-dollar words to establish the credentials of his characters ('tachycardia', 'persiflage'), you should be able to drink this down in a sitting or two. It's a fun, bleak first novel.
Matt McGregor lives in Wellington, where he works for Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Monthly Review, The Rumpus, Bookslut, The Millions and The Literary Review. Other writing by Matt can be found at www.oldcommaforeign.com