Book Review

In Alien Stories, Nigerian-born E.C. Osondu collects playful parables of immigrants and exotic cultures, all of which orbit a vague idea that there might be something “else” out there, a life somewhere that’s different from our own. While the title is an easy bit of wordplay (Osondu not-so-subtly captures the overlay between the “aliens” of our planet’s cultural diaspora and the little green men of science fiction), the collection still rings out with worldly relevance. In one story, a literal flying saucer comes to a village each year to pick up a specimen. In another, an African man arrives in America, and it’s as if he’s from another world. As a whole, Alien Stories is a winking allegory that invites readers to look anew at foreignness and perhaps see something reflective in its unfamiliar sheen.

Most of Osondu’s stories are feats of reduction: in order to achieve the feel of a fable, he frequently strips his stories’ necessary elements down to the bare minimum. Many are set in a village, somewhere; there are traditions, elders, perhaps a zany neighbor or two. As if playing in a microcosmic sandbox, Osondu builds little worlds with just enough substance to snap together a resonant moment or a resounding message.

In “Spaceship,” an alien craft breaks down in a small village, and its pilot asks to leave his ship temporarily while he returns to his home planet for supplies. He never comes back, and in his absence the village quickly ascribes all good fortune to the ship’s presence: “everyone in the village agreed that indeed the spaceship was a thing of wonder. . . Surely, the spaceship was a benevolent god of some sort. . .” the narrator continues, and suggests that any local success is “no mere occurrence and could not have happened without some causative agent.” When tragedy falls on the village, fingers quickly point to the spaceship. With its small cast and a setting no more nuanced than a vintage film lot, “Spaceship” develops with the charm of a classic Twilight Zone episode into a taut allegory about faith and using the “unknown” to both explain and obscure life’s many trials.

Osondu deftly twists this premise further into a statement about storytelling, and how easy and comforting it is to have something to believe in, however other-worldly it may be. The elders in the story present another layer: on one level, “Spaceship” is a lesson about how futile it is to reason with the inexplicability of life, but on another, the story shows how easy it is to make a habit of doing so:

“Elders have a long memory and they love to tell stories, so soon one story followed another. There was the year this other thing happened and there was a great change that happened that year and it was only after that people realized that there had been a link between what happened then and what followed. . . .”

The vague wording of this passage is humorous in its emptiness, but it also has a powerful applicability. Its ideas about projected causation can be carried through much of Osondu’s collection, and Alien Stories, like the aforementioned elders, quickly barrels into subsequent short vignettes that have similar themes. “Sacrifice,” like “Spaceship,” is set in an unnamed village, but here a young man is selected each year to be carried off by aliens. “This was our entire relationship with them ever since the days of our ancestors,” the narrator explains. In “Light,” a mysterious blue light falls from the sky onto a woman named Bukwu’s farm: like “Spaceship,” this unexplained phenomenon kickstarts some significant changes in her life and everyone believes her transformation to be caused by the cosmic anomaly.

While some readers may find these stories repetitive and their minimality to appear underdeveloped, they’re the work of a writer in careful control of his prose. Independently, these stories read like fanciful parables, but together they commingle in sly layers.

Tonally, Alien Stories smirks with the kooky erudition of vintage McSweeney’s. They’re thoughtful delights you’d find in a few pages of your favorite new literary journal, entertaining morsels that invite a laugh and a quick ponder. George Saunders often comes to mind while reading Alien Stories, as does Saunders’s student Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of the recent collection Friday Black. Both Saunders and Adjei-Brenyah explore the troubles of contemporary culture with a quirky, working-class deadpan and a sprinkling of genre fiction, and while Osondu certainly belongs in the same literary constellation, there are times in Alien Stories that feel somewhat derivative.

“Alien Enactors,” for example, is set in a futuristic, interactive performance venue staffed by interpreters who each play a particular region of the world. “My duty was to enact Africa for guests,” the narrator explains, “and oh boy, how they loved my act. I pulled no stops. I made each of the clients wear a colorful dashiki and I had them gather around in a circle. . . and visualize themselves sitting under an iroko tree in an African village square.” The narrator’s colleague, Ling, was getting less-than-stellar reviews for her work in the Ranch’s “China”’ wing, where visitors only want to talk about food. “Alien Enactors” is a great story, but one that almost certainly echoes elements of George Saunders’s “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a work that still encapsulates the peak of wry literary short fiction set in an offbeat theme park. Adjei-Brenyah, too, tips his hat to “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”—but his “Zimmer Land” is a harrowing criticism of Stand Your Ground laws in America. Comparatively, Osondu’s story feels noticeably low-stakes. Ling gets fired for not presenting the China that people want to see, but that’s about all there is to the story. Osondu makes a statement about how we think about race and how we let race color how we think about storytelling, but in contrast to its obvious influences, “Alien Enactors” sometimes feels like a variation on a well-worn theme.

Collected, Alien Stories builds into a loose commentary about race, place, and storytelling. Osondu clearly plays with how his readers might project a cultural coloring onto his fiction, as if daring you to place his villages and elders in the Africa mentioned somewhere in another story. The aforementioned trio of “Spaceship,” “Sacrifice,” and “Light,” for example, have nothing in them that explicitly details an African geography. Sure, a few characters have African names, and one story mentions a harvest of corn and yams, but just as Osondu strips away much of his stories’ narrative elements, he also meticulously omits any rooted sense of geography, race, or creed. Osondu’s wise village elders can hold court anywhere in the universe, but many readers, internally, will end up setting these stories somewhere on the African Savannah, near the iroko tree of the narrator’s vision in “Alien Enactors.” While we might grapple through generalizations in search of a way to anchor these stories, Osondu skips past that comfort, and this is one of the collection’s most important clues. While deeply entrenched in themes of otherness, Osondu repeatedly finds ways to tell stories about humanity that transcend place and race, adrift in a space just beyond classification.

About the Reviewer

Jeff Alford is a critic and collector based in Denver, CO. He works as a gallery archivist and writes for Kirkus Reviews, Rain Taxi, and Bubbles, among other magazines. He also runs Wig Shop, an online store that sells indie comics, artist's books, and other various esoterica. See more at www.wigshopwebshop.com.