REVIEW: Lost Ark Dreaming by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Reviewed by Dave Oei

At under two hundred pages, Lost Ark Dreaming is a lean work of science fiction by Nigerian author Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Focusing on the lives of three residents inside a massive building called the Pinnacle several hundred years from now, Dreaming is a gritty, tense thriller. It’s also a succinct and merciless examination of society under great stress, one that questions whether humanity is doomed to repeat a history of environmental missteps, corruption, and greed.

The key to understanding Dreaming lies in understanding the Pinnacle, a kilometer-high skyscraper built on reclaimed land miles offshore from Lagos and partially submerged underwater. Originally one of five adjacent structures, the so-called Fingers, the Pinnacle is a luxury development completed in the 2050s as a refuge to escape the have-nots (the poor, rising waters, pollution). It’s also the only surviving building where exit and entry are no longer feasible. Whether humanity exists beyond its walls is unknown. For the inhabitants, this dwelling is their Earth.

Told from three points of view—Yekini, an analyst for the Commission for the Protection of the Fingers; Ngozi, a mid-level administrator of the Office of the Pinnacle Leadership; and Tuoyo, the engineering foreman on Level 9—Dreaming opens when Yekini is instructed to bring Ngozi down to the submerged Level 9. There, the three are tasked with investigating the cause of the leak that Tuoyo and her team of engineers have already sealed. The tension mounts when Yekini’s analysis turns up the possible presence of an NTD, or “non-tower dweller.”

Increasing the stakes, Okungbowa taps into the parallel issues surrounding his book’s setting and our present in an organic and logical way, maximizing drama without diluting the commentary. The effect of global warming on the Pinnacle creates a claustrophobic setting that underscores the problem of rising seas. This is not a kinder, egalitarian future. Class and social stratification are defined in the Pinnacle by the level one lives on, much like the placement of luxury apartments on present-day Lagos’s hilltops above the shanties below. Ngozi’s rank and social status cause him to snub anybody who resides on a floor below his, including the sharp and capable Tuoyo. Through flashbacks, Okungbowa demonstrates how Ngozi’s attitude reflects those of today’s wealthy Nigerians who scoff at their poor neighbors. Just as the Pinnacle is a reflection on Lagos’s current woes, so is Ngozi’s reproachful attitude on today’s rich. Drawing these parallels enhances tension: if present-day Lagos is doomed, and tomorrow’s Pinnacle shares a similar setting, then what are the chances for a brighter future? Within the story’s fabric, Okungbowa tells, shows, and weaves in the social commentary. The omnipresent threads serve both as message and antagonistic force.

Only after Yekini’s investigation does Ngozi’s attitude shift. Evidence of the NTD’s identity suggests it is one of Yemoja’s Children, a creature born of the water spirit Yemoja, the mother of humanity per the current-day Yoruba religion prevalent in southwestern Nigeria. In addition to allegedly killing Tuoyo’s wife, Children instill fear within the protagonists in much the same way zombies do in popular entertainment. Unlike the creatures in The Walking Dead, to cite one example, there’s no proof of the Children’s existence, yet the shared fear among these three is palpable. Okungbowa delves deeper into the unknown: Lagos is no longer visible, there is no communication with the outside, and access to historical records is kept secret and confidential. This increasing uncertainty builds into a potent yet quiet, pressure-filled tension. Pinnacle becomes a setting not unlike James Cameron’s Titanic: When a breach is detected within a submerged but populated level, the environment devolves from a luxury residence into a dispassionate, haunting antagonist. With surroundings that are equal parts squalid, dark, and grim, the protagonists must face whatever caused the breach—mystical creature or not—through the confined spaces within.

Interspersed between chapters narrating the protagonists’ plights, Okungbowa employs brief sections that reference culture, history, government corruption, corporate greed, and the poverty has Lagos faced. These interludes insert critical world-building elements into the story without slowing its pacing. One such moment comes from a newspaper article from 2034 describing the Fingers as a potential construction project. Another from 2012 calls out corruption related to local clear-cutting. Their relevance to the respective adjoining chapters telegraphs their pertinence, and their brevity feels more like a quick coffee break than a lunchtime outing. This is creative worldbuilding that paints an expanded picture without stepping on the protagonists’ journey.

Like much of the most resonant science fiction, Lost Ark Dreaming is full of futuristic concepts, but its foundation is based on current technology extrapolated to fit the period. This modern, non-physics-bending tech allows for a more intuitive, effortless immersion in the story. At its heart, it is a thriller filled with twists, social critiques, and a window into the state of Lagos today. Through a far-reaching scope and the characters’ arduous journey, social ills are scrutinized inside the Pinnacle-turned-crucible. Dreaming, on its face benign as drinking water, is a potent, captivating elixir within its depths. Okungbowa’s evocative tale takes us to a foreign, future setting that feels too familiar and too close for comfort.

Dave Oei is a writer, husband, father, student at UC Riverside’s Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing, and advisor at his family’s veterinary hospital, not necessarily in that order. When he’s not crafting romances, fantasies, or science-fiction thrillers, he can be found on the soccer pitch or on sunset beach walks with his wife of many years.