South Africa: Book Review | the Rosewater Trilogy

analysis

Tade Thompson's Rosewater story mashes up cyberpunk saga, scifi horror, diplomatic thriller and liberation tale in three books that pulse with anticolonial sentiment.

Every tale of alien invasion or interstellar conquest is a tale about imperialism and colonisation, consciously or not. In the foreword to his 1898 War of the Worlds, which told of a ruthless invasion from Mars, the English socialist HG Wells made his metaphor crystal-clear. "Before we judge [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought ... The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years ... Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"

British-born, Yoruba-heritage writer Tade Thompson's invaders are the Homians who, having wrecked their own planet, have scoured the universe for a new home. Rosewater, the first book of his trilogy, describes the impact of their landing in Nigeria, turning a backwater into a bustling city where their alien dome attracts pilgrims, hucksters and securocrats. The aloof alien presence offers benign healing and spews odd new life-forms and the shared-consciousness mesh of its xenosphere facilitates communication, prescience and insanity. The opening book follows first-person narrator Kaaro - slob and sometimes government agent with a Chandlerian gumshoe voice - as he bumbles through a relationship with his much sharper fellow agent Aminat and survives a xenosphere shock to become its most potent navigator.

The second book adopts multiple viewpoints as Rosewater's opportunistic mayor, Jack Jacques, fights a war of independence from the Nigerian central government and Kaaro (now retired) and Aminat learn more about how the Homians' healing is slowly transforming humanity. The concluding volume opens during an uneasy truce, as Kaaro's securocrat former boss Femi Alaagomenji ruthlessly manipulates the tensions between factions. The "redemption" of the title demands a choice between enjoying the ostensible benefits of space shared with the Homians and a radically different kind of independence.

Across the three books, Thompson mashes up a cyberpunk saga of the xenosphere, the scifi horror of zombies, monsters and carnivorous plants, the horse-trading and treachery of a diplomatic thriller and the shoot-em-up heroics of a liberation struggle. He weaves through all this some genuinely affecting love stories, and much warm, wry humour riffing on the ordinary eccentricities of people and street life in a small Nigerian town.

Accomplishing such feats of stylistic and content juggling without any literary bombast - the books are an easy, compelling read - would itself make the trilogy remarkable. It's no wonder the first volume won the 2019 Arthur C Clark prize. Even more striking, however, is the skill and subtlety with which Thompson leads us past the obvious layer of metaphor about history and colonialism - yes, sure, the Biafra War is there; the missionaries bearing treacherous gifts; the mercenary sellouts to various alien authorities - to one that is far more fundamental. For the writer and his characters, there's a key underlying question: how do we define the self (and the community of entities "like us") and the Other? Who do we rule in and out, and why - and how can that shape our ethics and actions?

Because the Homians' imported creatures and the humans they take over are not the only manufactured entities in town. Healing entails resurrection, so an army of what a cheaper story would consign to the horror junk-drawer of "zombies" (here, they're "reanimates") grows. Jacques' lawyer wife campaigns that whatever life they retain should entitle them to rights and agency. The mayor's indispensable and impeccable assistant is a repurposed sex robot, within whom the remnants of programming constantly war with a growing sense of autonomous feeling. And the mayor himself, with his fastidious attire and somewhat OCD focus on skincare, has been "made" by the experience of abuse in his own childhood. Riding in and out of all this is the truly posthuman time-traveller, the Bicycle Girl Oyin Da, no more than a collection of synaptic signals - and yet much more, because she has feelings, family, a life and hopes for a future, in a "place" she loves. Thompson's day job is psychiatrist, and his insight that we're all, to some extent, manufactured by what we undergo and encounter, infuses the book. Who are we, then, to other the Other?

So Rosewater is a planet where HG Wells meets Raymond Chandler, William Gibson, Octavia Butler and Emmanuel Dongala. (Thompson's gentler moments sent me back more than once to that last-named's 1982 first-contact fable, Jazz and Palm Wine.) Those meetings of heritage and inspiration create a more intriguing game of consequences than you can possibly imagine, assembled and narrated in a voice that is Thompson's alone. And somewhere, on a post-human wall in the distant future (or maybe the not-so-distant past) his concluding, hopeful, defiant anticolonialist message pulses neon-bright: Fuck you, Space Invaders!

Tade Thompson's Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection and The Rosewater Redemption are published by Orbit.

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