Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater, Tade Thompson (Apex 978-1-937009-29-8, $16.95, 360pp, tp) November 2016. (Orbit 978-0-316-44905-2, $15.99, 394pp, tp) September 2018.

I missed Tade Thompson’s Rosewater when it first appeared from Apex a couple of years ago and subsequently won the inaugural Nommo award and became a Campbell Award finalist. Since then, it’s generated quite a bit of discussion, not only for its inventive and ambitious plot, but because it seemed to represent yet another major contribution to the small but growing number of SF works reflecting Nigerian culture, along with those by Nnedi Okorafor, Deji Bryce Olukotun, and others. It deserves attention on both counts, and now Orbit is republishing it as the first volume in the Wormwood trilogy, taking its name from the mysterious alien object which first appears in London in 2012, sinks into the Earth, and ends up erupting decades later as a giant, 3-mile-wide impenetrable biodome in Nigeria, a few miles from Lagos. Since the dome occasionally opens up briefly and seems to cure the ailments of anyone nearby, a makeshift, doughnut-shaped community grows up around it, eventually be­coming a city that sounds like a bizarre amalgam of Vegas and Lourdes. But there are unfortunate side effects to its magical cures (which turn out to be far from magical): sometimes people are just reconstructed in awkward ways (a man expecting his goiter to disappear simply finds it improved), and sometimes the recently deceased are reanimated, turned into mostly harmless but troublesome zombies. It’s not hard to figure out that Wormwood is meant to echo the star Worm­wood from the Book of Revelations, turning the waters bitter and portending the end.

The effects of the alien presence go far beyond miracle healings and accidental resurrections, though; it also seems to have released spores in the atmosphere that create a “xenosphere,” a kind of global information utility. While Thompson takes some pains to develop an SF rationale involving “strands of alien fungi-like filaments and neurotransmitters” which link with fungi on human skin, narratively the xenosphere might as well be called the ether or the astral plane, since it can only be accessed by a few “sensitives,” or, for all intents and purposes, psychics. (In a rather clever aside that hints at Thompson’s attention to detail, we learn that a way to protect against the xenosphere is through over-the-counter antifun­gal creams like clotrimazole.) The protagonist Kaaro is one of these psychics, and we first meet him in 2066 working in his day job in a security firm which tries to protect against astral hacking by flooding the xenosphere with random texts like Plato or Virginia Woolf – but also working as an operative and interrogator for a secretive government agency called S45. Kaaro is a won­derfully complex character, a former thief who is described even by his trainer as “sexist, material­istic, greedy, insolent, and amoral,” part African trickster and part Elmore Leonard grifter, and just as ingratiating. Despite his chronic mistrust of everyone, he manages to get a girlfriend, Aminat, who has problems of her own (her brother has a troublesome habit of bursting into flames, for example). But even his relationship with Aminat turns out to have its secrets.

As the novel switches back and forth between 2066 and earlier periods as far back as the 2030s, we learn something of Kaaro’s background, how he discovered his powers (which he initially assumed were a kind of juju), and how he got recruited by the government to help them track down the tale’s other most appealing character, a notorious resistance figure who is known initially as the Bicycle Girl, and who seems to have the ability to appear and disappear at will in different locations, bringing her whole ersatz village with her. We also learn more details about the history of the 21st century, such as the fact that North America has gone completely dark – by 2066, no one has heard from it in 45 years – in what some other countries view as “the ultimate Trumpian fuck-you to the world” (one of the novel’s few pointed contemporary political references). As we piece together Kaaro’s development and his true relationship with the aliens, and learn how those alien “cures” and the xenosphere actually work, we begin to see the outlines of the broader, possibly posthuman canvas which Thompson will presum­ably explore in the subsequent volumes of his tril­ogy. Far from being a traditional invasion tale of resisting temperamental alien overlords who simply want our water or our real estate, Rosewater ends as a novel of transformation and metamorphosis, and it is, as several folks helpfully told me last year, one of the most thoughtful and inventive alien contact tales of recent decades.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the October 2018 issue of Locus.

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