Review of ‘Rosewater”s Alien Fable

Disturbing, engrossing, enormous fun. No wonder Tade Thompson’s Rosewater won the Arthur C Clarke Sci-Fi award for 2019. I haven’t read such a compelling invasion story since HG Wells’ War of the Worlds scared the bejasus out of us. But whereas Wells’ 1898 fable imagines the British Empire crumbling under alien assault in Woking, Rosewater speaks to a post-colonial and even post-Trumpian world of 2066. America has disappeared off the radar under its Drawbridge policy. Britain has torn itself apart. But these developments matter little to citizens of a Nigerian suburb centred around an alien biodome. When a white man from London appears to offer his expertise, he’s efficiently dressed down by a young anarchist: ‘We have more experience than any Western country of first contact. You arrived with a different intelligence, a different civilisation, and you raped us. But we’re still here.’ You could read Thompson’s story as a metaphor for colonisation. But the way Rosewater folk adapt to alien incursion as the new ‘normal’ says as much about how humanity is facing current perils: ‘it’s like climate change or that asteroid that will collide with the Earth … We all think we’ll be dead and gone by the time the carnage begins.’

So although there is new technology, hawk-drones and cyborg cats, humans upgrading body implants and so on, Rosewater’s near-future landscape is familiar enough. The violence that erupts is usually the result of government corruption and social dysfunction. Gangsters keep carnivorous alien pets called ‘floaters’ instead of attack dogs. Mobs still necklace thieves with burning tyres and secret military bodies routinely torture suspects. In a reversal of Wells’ Martian fable, the monsters may be humans in need of ‘reconstruction’ from an alien virus. ‘Maybe humankind was meant to be sick,’ one citizen muses, ‘maybe there’s something to be learned from illness.’ Appropriately, the alien presence is a diffuse infiltration of ‘xenoform’ spores that attach to human cells. These micro-organisms have the power to heal diseases and resurrect the dead. Rosewater begins as a shanty town of AIDS sufferers and others, pilgrims come to avail themselves of the biodome’s ‘gifts’. The side-effects are often enchanting: an angel given to spontaneous combustion, an invisible moving village of dissidents, human ‘sensitives’ who read minds through the ‘xenosphere’. When we encounter an avuncular alien called Anthony, we might be more in the realm of The Day The Earth Stood Still than The Thing.

Our narrator Kaaro, embodies the novel’s unsettling tonal ambiguity. Living at the mystery’s ground zero, he’s a ‘sensitive’ often lacking in empathy or moral instincts. He charges the novel with its cynicism and wise-cracking humour. Having formerly used his telepathy for petty larceny, he now works for a murky government organisation called S45. This includes assisting interrogations, once torture has ‘softened up’ the suspects. In their investigations of all things alien, S45 might the cavalry or they might be Big Brother’s cousin. Either way, Kaaro’s heart’s not in it. His handler notes he’s ‘sexist, greedy, amoral … and as far as I know, does not live for anything.’ Dulled by his life in Rosewater, his saving graces are his sarcasm, his instinct to disobey orders, a distaste for physical confrontations and a talent for poor decisions. In other words, he’s a signed up anti-hero who insists ‘I’m not the world-saving kind.’ Yet two things push him out of his undercover stasis. He surprises himself by falling for a young woman his colleague sets him up with. And he learns that sensitives are dying for reasons no-one can figure out. Inaction is not an option.

Revelling in his Lagos setting, Thompson weaves in African culture and mythology. Kaaro favours Yoruba proverbs and often teases out etymology to convey a hidden sub-text in names. His own means both ‘Good morning, you’ve woken up well’ (rarely true for Kaaro) and ‘all Yoruba-speaking peoples or lands’, which perhaps evokes an Everyman figure. While he embarks on a quest that’s dangerous even by the standards of a secret agent, Thompson achieves a complex layering to the narrative through his structure. Alternative chapters throw up flashbacks that jumble up the time-line. Like a half-informed conspiracy theorist, the reader assembles the backstory. Along the way we glimpse past events, often traumatic, that have shaped Kaaro’s cynicism and vulnerability. We also glean insights into previous incursions by alien organisms on Earth. As these multiple narrative strands intersect, Kaaro peels away the underlying relationship between the aliens and their human hosts. In its resolution, a compromised Kaaro wrestles with a need for personal redemption against the chilling urgency of the species’ predicament. Rosewater’s fable of existential crisis resonates deeply in our own doom-laden moment. I will certainly be seeking out the sequel in this Wormwood Trilogy. Here’s hoping that humanity can transcend its track record of dodgy decision making and random violence in The Rosewater Insurrection. Happily, this is already available and requires no bodily implant to download.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson, Orbit Books, 2018