Saturday, April 6, 2013

Nigerians in Space by Deji Olukotun

Amazon Kindle ed.
Nigerians in Space is Olukotun's first novel and I hope he has another in the works because this one grabbed my interest from start to finish. The title sounds as if it might be science fiction but it is a crime thriller—with maybe a touch of mysticism—set primarily in Cape Town, South Africa. The story moves between 1993/94 and the present.

In 1993, a glib Nigerian government official named Bello makes an offer to Nigerian scientists working around the world. Come back to Nigeria, invest your knowledge in the country of your birth, and together we will make Nigeria the center of technology on the African continent. We will plant the Nigerian flag on the moon. He calls this plan the Brain Gain. He seems to have the money and resources and all he asks is for each scientist to steal a piece of their research to prove their commitment to the project.

But is Bello for real? Can he deliver? Or is this the ultimate Nigerian scam? Lunar geologist Wale Olufunmi, studying rocks from the moon, in Huston, Texas is pulled into Bello's scheme. More than anything, he wants to go into space. He steals a sample from the first moon landing and flees with his wife and son to Washington, DC. But Bello isn't there to meet them, Wale can't go with the contingency play, so he has to improvise. He takes his family to Sweden where he knows there is another scientist who has been recruited. Everything goes wrong for Wale and he stands to lose his dream, his family, even his life.

In addition to Wale's story, we have two other plot-lines. In the present, there is Thursday Malaysius, a man gifted in cultivating abalones (or perlemoen or perlies), a protected species in South Africa. Thursday lets a boyhood friend lead him astray and soon he finds himself an abalone poacher. Melissa is a young woman and a victim of Bello's plan. She finds herself abandoned and stranded in France. Her unusual skin condition propels her toward a direct confrontation with Wale and Bello. She is also the source of what I think of as the mystical elements of the story.

These three plot-lines— scientist on the run/hiding; abalone poacher; young woman—run parallel with the action shifting between the three as the story advances. The author brings the stories together near the end with the mystical (but non-supernatural) power or pull of the moon and moonlight. Ethereal might be a better word than mystical but both occurred to me as I read.

The author blends fact, fiction, and a few liberties with history into an intriguing and many faceted story. He provides a wealth of cultural detail that gives the story roots and shows that it couldn't be plunked down in any location.

The Brain Gain story line is interesting and compelling. The Nigerian Diaspora is  real. At the time the novel begins (1993), Nigeria was about to transition to a democracy after a free and fair election. Bello would have been riding on a wave of optimism that he could pull off his Brain Gain plan. But later in 1993, the election was nullified and the military junta took over. Good-by dreams.

Wales is Nigerian from the Yoruba ethnic group and the story is sprinkled with Yoruba and other ethnic proverbs. Even more fascinating is how the author works in the Yoruba mythos surrounding twins. Nigeria has the highest incidence of non-identical twins in Africa (45 per 1000). Twins are considered to share a soul and if one twin dies, a small statue is carved to represent the deceased one. The statue is called an ibeji. In the story, Ibeji takes on a sinister aspect.

The author wrote Nigerians in Space while living in South Africa and much of the story is set in Cape Town and the Western Cape town of Hermanus. With Thursday Malayius the story takes on a hardboiled/noir tone when Thursday, a generally decent fellow, finds himself a key player in the illicit perlemoen (abalone) trade with Chinese mobsters making him an offer he can't refuse. This might not seem to fit into the overall story arc but it all comes together, honest.

Readers who enjoy a good sense of place will appreciate the way the author presents the Observatory (Obs) suburb, bordering the actual Royal Observatory which plays a important role in the story. Obs is close to the University of Cape Town and consequently has a large student population. It is also a place used for short term accommodations by foreign workers.

The main plotline(the Nigerians) is unusual and generated curiosity in me. Enough to send me to find out more. The cultural aspects of Nigeria and South Africa both rounds out and pulls the story together.

I was given an e-book version for review but purchased my own copy before I finished. I liked it that much.

Nigerians in Space
Deji Olukotun
Ricochet Books, 21 Feb. 2013
Kindle edition

 Nigerians in Space is available in Kindle edition