A Review of Caged Ocean Dub

Gautam Bhatia on a new collection of stories by Dare Segun Falowo

In his 2019 essay, ‘The State of Play of Nigerian SFF Today’, Mazi Nwonwu writes:

In our stories our gods live in the sky, underground, in trees, in the wind, and of course, among people. We tell of people like the ogbanje spirit child that is cursed to die young over and over again. We tell of spirit husbands such as the one that Elechi Amadi wrote of in his novel, The Concubine: wed to a lady in the spirit world, who then, in fits of jealousy, takes the life of any mortal that is bold enough to wed her.

Nwonwu attributes ‘this tradition of spinning tales of the extraordinary’ to the notion that ‘what may be considered speculative in the west is considered factual here.’ Or, as the opening lines of Rafeeat Aliyu’s haunting 2016 short story, ‘Sweet Like Pawpaw’ (Omena #7), have it, ‘there are demons living amongst us’.

This idea – that recasts the speculative as simply a more capacious understanding of reality – is not new to Nigerian criticism. In his memoir, There Was a Country, Chinua Achebe describes Amos Tutuoloa’s famous – and controversial – novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, thus:

There is no attempt to draw a line between what is permissible and what is not, what is possible and what is not possible, what is new and what is old. In a story that is set in the distant past you suddenly see a telephone, a car, a bishop – all kinds of things that don’t seem to tie in. But in fact what you have is the whole life of the community, not just the community of humans but the community of ancestors, the animal world, of trees, and so on. Everything plays a part.

Caged Ocean Dub (Tartarus Press/Android Press, 2023) – a collection of short stories by the Nigerian writer Dare Segun Falowo – fits snugly within this mode of Nigerian speculative fiction (itself a rich and vast body of writing), a mode most recently embodied in the works of writers such as Innocent Ilo, Odafe Atogun or Pemi Aguda (if we’re being cheeky, we could even call it speculative realism!). The blurb describes it as ‘Nigerian Weird’, but to simply label these stories ‘Weird Fiction’ feels like a taxonomic hatchet job. A sense of the uncanny runs through the warp and weft of the collection, but the fabric is woven together with elements of fantasy, of science fiction, of slipstream, and of the frankly unclassifiable (or perhaps, to use Falowo’s own term – in this interview – a ‘mash-up’).

How, after all, would you classify a story such as ‘Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa’, in which a woman buys a mirror from an enigmatic hawker in the middle of Lagos traffic, only for the mirror to begin creating alternative versions of herself in multiple mirror-worlds, whose actions ripple back into our world with undecipherable consequences, until nobody knows which world is which? After a few failed attempts, you would just have to say – with Ortega y Gasset – that ‘to define is to exclude and negate’, and leave it at that. Or – more profitably – you might bring it into conversation with Innocent Ilo’s ‘Rat and Finch are Friends’ (Strange Horizons, 2 March 2020), another genre-bending story where the world and the dream blur into one another.

This is not to say that the stories in Caged Ocean Dub are entirely beyond translation (in the Gadamer sense). A number of stories – especially in the final section, titled ‘Heralds’ – have elements that will be immediately familiar to genre readers. ‘LSD-1842’ involves a time paradox, a remembered lesson about how we cannot change the past, even if we could go back to it. ‘Biscuit and Milk’ features a Generation Ship en routeto what appears to be a Solaris-esque planet, complete with frozen embryos and crew conflict. ‘Eating Kaolin’ features the use of magic to turn back the encroaching tide of colonial domination, in a style reminiscent of Ayodele Olofintuade’s magnificent Swallow (Masobe Books, 2022).

But in Falowo’s hands, these elements are pulled out of their comforting shapes, and placed in contexts where they strike us with the force of revelation. The time paradox is resolved, but at an unspeakable cost. The Generation Ship reaches its destination, but the one-time embryos have other ideas. And the last line of ‘Eating Kaolin’ displaces the rebellion from the heart of the story, turning it into footnote in a prologue.

Thus, if one were to search for a term to best capture what Falowo is doing in these stories, it might be ostranenie, Viktor Shklovsky’s phrase that has variously been translated as ‘estrangement’, ‘defamiliarization’, or ‘making strange’. In ‘Art as Technique’, Shklovsky describes defamiliarization as an artistic technique of making the familiar seem strange, as though it was being seen for the first time, and – more strikingly – of ‘de-automatising perception’. In a play on words, Alexandra Berlina, one of Shklovsky’s translators, called it ‘enstrangement’ – a combination of ‘estrangement’ and ‘making strange’ – perhaps the most accurate descriptor of Falowo’s work.

At their best, the stories in Caged Ocean Dub embody ostranenie, pushing against the automatization not just of language or perception (in the Shklovskian sense), but also against the deadening tropes of genre itself: the trope of the time paradox, of the Generation Ship, of the sentient planet, of the dragon and the witch, of the clash between the coloniser’s ‘science’ and the colonised’s ‘magic’, and so on; tropes that have, over the decades, begun to sag into tedium under the weight of accumulated expectations. The effect – as Shklovsky wrote in Theory of Prose – is like walking on ‘a crooked road, a road in which the foot feels acutely the stones beneath it, a road that turns back on itself’.

Defamiliarization is not, however, abstraction. Some of the more striking stories in Caged Ocean Dub are embedded in the materiality of the world. There is ‘October in Eran Riro’, focused entirely upon food, in all its splendour. And there is ‘Kikelomo Ultrasheen’ – my personal favourite in the collection – that introduces us to every known technique of plaiting hair, and where every sub-chapter bears the name of a distinct design (readers of contemporary Nigerian sf will recall Oyun Olugbile’s Sanya, where hair is – likewise – a protagonist of the story, or even Idza Lubumyo’s ‘Five Years Next Sunday’). We are back, then, to where we began: as Nwonwu and Achebe both noted, this is a reality that is non-exclusionary, that makes the speculative a part of the everyday (‘there’s a dragon in my room’, deadpans a character in ‘The Waterwidower’) rather than place it in opposition to, or an escape from, the everyday.

It is, however, an everyday that is rendered in prose of the most vivid colour, rhythm, and movement. While this is a feature of all the stories, it is particularly present in ‘Convergence in Chorus Architecture’, the closing story, an extended lyric that spans the underworld to the farthest galaxies, a cosmic sf story of war, destruction, and regeneration – all through music. It is perhaps fitting that – having traversed multiple iterations of genre, Caged Ocean Dub ends with the space opera, a soaring finale that serves both as conclusion, and as curtain-raiser to whatever it is that will come next. ∎

Gautam Bhatia is a New Delhi-based speculative fiction writer, reviewer, and the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons. He is the author of the science fiction duology, The Wall (HarperCollins India, 2020) and The Horizon (HarperCollins India, 2021). Both novels featured on Locus year-end recommended reading lists, and Gautam was twice longlisted for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. His short stories have appeared in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction and LiveMint magazine. This is his first review for IZ Digital, and you can find more of his reviews in published and forthcoming issues of Interzone.

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