I’ve recently read the 2014 book Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun, and I’ve come out the other side baffled and unsettled. I don’t understand why this book has received the praise it’s gotten. While the core premise around which Olukotun builds his narrative may be promising, that premise is hardly explored and is almost entirely obscured by unrelatable and unlikable characters and bad writing.
I don’t think there’s a lot of value in delving more deeply into the “bad writing” claim. I think it’s poorly written, and I encourage potential readers to seek out an excerpt (for a spoiler-free excerpt, readers may look to the chapter on the character named Thursday, around page 53). From there, they’ll easily see whether the writing style will turn them off or not.
I do think there’s value in looking at what I mean when I say characters are unlikable (since it is my main complaint), and also in acknowledging what I do think is laudable about this book.
When it comes to unlikable characters, Olukotun has done something incredible. I did not encounter a single character I found relatable in any way, or indeed encounter any characters written in such a way that the audience was even supposed to like them. They are uniformly without personality, not just in a dry sense but in their almost frantic lack of relatable motivation or worldview. This alone might be chalked up to where I stand on the topic of “show don’t tell”, but a lack of personality is not where this character issue ends.
This book is astonishingly anti-woman. Wale’s wife, for instance, remains nothing more than an essentially mute and sullen harpy, a foil for Wale’s drama to play against. Another character, when encountering the girlfriend of his partner-in-crime, says
“Fadanaz’s breasts pushed out when she was angry, and their presence made it hard for him to register her words.”
And the whole book reads like this. I can’t take a book with lines like this seriously, and I genuinely don’t think anyone should.
However, if I can’t talk you out of reading this book, I’d like to suggest a way to look past its significant problems. Read Nigerians in Space with an eye to the future: to the hope and potential living within Olukotun’s promising premise, and to how prophetic this book has already turned out to be.
In a Slate article, Olukotun describes an understandably (yet almost unimaginably) surreal experience. In a trip to Nigeria, years after writing Nigerians in Space, Olukotun visited Nigeria and the African University of Science and Technology and met Dr. Olufemi Agboola, the director of engineering and space systems at the National Space Research and Development Agency. He says
“There was something absolutely terrifying about meeting in real life a person whom I thought I made up. .. Before me sat an individual with agency and flaws and nuance. I was nearly silenced by the absurdity of our encounter. Since the program was founded in 2003, Agboola’s agency has launched five satellites into space.”
Dr. Agboola, it turns out, really is remarkably like Wale from his book – only real.
If you read Nigerians in Space, remember this part. It’s easy to see that both Olukotun’s book and the reality of scientific advances in Nigeria came from the same kernel of ambition that inspired Olukotun’s writing way back when. You might marvel at how beautiful it is that a man could be inspired to write this story, whose hopeful scifi future turns out not to be future at all – but Nigeria’s real present-day, full of the accomplishments and the ambition that Okulotun (and scientists like Dr. Agboola) dared to dream.