FEBRUARY 29, 2020
THE WORMWOOD PLANT is ornamental and used as an ingredient in absinthe. The plant is enticing to smell and adamantly bitter to taste. It will refuse to leave your tongue even after you try to chase it away with sweeter flavors. It will stay with you, like a curse. The science fiction Wormwood Trilogy by British author Tade Thompson is aptly named — its engaging arc contains a bitter undercurrent that I find difficult to fully shake from my mind.
Then again, when a story engages the planetary disaster of the Anthropocene and histories of colonization, perhaps readers shouldn’t be able to shrug off a sense of bitterness.
Stacy Alaimo, a researcher and professor of environmental humanities, has suggested that in order “to understand the future, we need to understand the past, not just as context, but as the seeds of catastrophe.” In the Wormwood Trilogy’s concluding two novels, The Rosewater Insurrection (2019) and The Rosewater Redemption (2019), the seeds of colonial invasion, alien supposition, and systemic control planted in readers’ minds during the first novel sprout into deadly blooms. In his trilogy’s Nommo Award–winning first book, Rosewater (2016), Thompson repeatedly suggests that human colonization prepares human reactions to alien invasion. Thus postcolonial Nigerians (having survived such an apocalypse already at the hands of the British) successfully formed pockets of resistance or adapted to living with the invaders, while imperialist countries like Great Britain and the United States had less productive positioning and were quickly destroyed or driven into an isolationist retreat by the threat of alien invasion. If you’ve read Rosewater, you also know that the alien named Wormwood nestled at the heart of Nigeria’s Rosewater city has been part of a centuries-long process of “seeding” Earth’s atmosphere with alien spores, forming a biological information network called the xenosphere and effecting almost imperceptible evolutionary changes in humans. These insidious shifts are revealed — at the conclusion of Rosewater and the beginning of the second novel, Insurrection — to be a type of terraforming, preparing the world for the arrival of the actual alien species planning to colonize planet Earth.
That’s right: Wormwood, for whom the trilogy is named, is not the “big bad” after all — it’s one lowly organism in a game of second chances, a tool for the invasion-based survival of an entirely separate alien species, the Homians, whose consciousnesses will be uploaded into planet Earth’s indigenous human population. One of the delights of this series is the expanding scope of Thompson’s fictional realm — learning Wormwood’s position in the grand scheme is just the beginning of the expansion from Rosewater’s tight focus on the plight of xenosphere-sensitive Kaaro. The following books explore a transplanetary tug-of-war for land, citizenship, and selfhood rights that occurs simultaneously in the “virtual” xenosphere and on the physical Earth. By repositioning the crisis of the Anthropocene as an alien problem, Thompson explores the connection of planetary environmental disaster and the nebulous concept of “self” while continuing to probe the initial novel’s consideration of how embodied (sub)consciousness, landscapes, families, governments, aliens, animals, and humans exist as networked entities, ones mired in and propelling history.
By the start of Insurrection, the city of Rosewater is a technological wonderland with “universal health and uninterrupted power from the alien” Wormwood’s biodome in the city’s heart. This advancement is why the mayor Jack Jacques believes the city can separate from the nation of Nigeria — it is also one of the reasons why Nigeria fights back viciously against the declared split. Through Jacques’s political maneuvering, the Biafran War (also known as the Nigerian Civil War) becomes another historic seedling in Insurrection, specifically when Jacques’s assistant hands him a tablet right before he makes the declaration. On it is the Ahiara Declaration — “You know, The Principles of the Biafran Revolution. For Inspiration.”
One does not simply name-drop the Ahiara Declaration. The Biafran War did not end until the secessionists’ surrender in 1970; the war still has the power to bruise. Though Jacques turns away from that historic connection and the series does not outright reference it again, readers can see how what follows forms a speculative echo, complete with interference/support from foreign governments, chemical warfare, famous authors serving as scribes, and the Nigerian government attempting to starve out the separationist force. By invoking Biafra, and through a curated balance of live-action and secondhand reporting of wartime atrocities, Thompson encourages readers to reconsider the brutality of real Earth history as well as the justifications of the communities in conflict. This human-anchored nuancing also helps encode alien warfare with a more complicated sense of “good versus evil.” For while human mayor Jacques proclaims Rosewater’s independence, a simultaneous alien fight occurs between Wormwood, who supports life-oriented hybridization and slowly violent invasion, and an alien plant designed by Homians to curtail Wormwood if it exceeds its mission’s parameters. The book’s tantalizing titular promise occurs on two simultaneous battlefronts, one human (Nigerian versus Rosewater) and one alien (Homian Plant versus Wormwood), raging across ideological lines of self-proclaimed identity and survival. Independence, creation, and hybridity win the battle of Insurrection, and Thompson’s carefully timed revelations and action sequences propel readers while making the victory feel earned.
This gleeful triumph unravels in the trilogy’s concluding book as readers are reminded that the series has always been a narrative of colonization. Tensions of civil wars never fully heal, and the remaining conflicts about Rosewater’s self-identity, relationship to Nigeria, and growing dependence on aliens propel the action of Redemption. I was genuinely disturbed by some of the final book’s revelations — even though Thompson is careful to plant suggestive clues about the direction of the ending throughout the trilogy, once seemingly open possibilities of human-alien relations, hybridized communities, and xenosphere/self-fluidity are, necessarily, pruned off. I was startled to realize they would never come to total fruition and surprised to see what developed in their place.
If networks are formed in Rosewater and tested in Insurrection, in Redemption they are usurped, minimized, appropriated by imperialist agendas, and resettled only through severe revision. As Homian-human tensions escalate, Jacques challenges the accusation that he has had a “failure of the soul” by allowing Homians to cohabitate in Rosewater. For many, this looks like invasion by another name, not an actually hybridized community; it is a sacrifice of human bodies and land to powerful alien interests. Particularly displeased is Jacques’s shadow organization, who put him into position as mayor, as the development rebuts their Pan-African mission to operate successfully with “no foreign powers, no global corporations, no vested interests.” Jacques challenges that such an ideology isn’t feasible when compared to the utopian capabilities of the aliens, who are as dangerous as “Oil? Coal? Nuclear power? […] This is how resources work, sir. We use them, they kill us, until we find the next one, or completely fuck up the environment and all die.” As with most topics in the trilogy, Thompson ensures there are no clean answers to the questions of independence and resource-reliant existence. The question of who is included in the understanding of the threatened or empowered “we” remains at the trilogy’s core. No species abstains from viewing others as tools with specific use functions. However, the Homians are most adamant in their insistence that human agency is unimportant, which makes for particularly uncomfortable reading.
The Homian invasion, and its culpability, is also newly visible. The series speeds up from noir Rosewater’s unraveling admission of an invasion plan into political thrillers of invasion action and resistance in Insurrection and Redemption. Part of this change in tempo arises from the treaty that ends Insurrection, which allows for faster alien inhabitation of Earth. Another part arises from a shift in narration; unlike Rosewater, the middle and final novels are narrated through the rotating perspectives of several engaging characters, with familiar figures like the xenospherically sensitive human Kaaro, his secret agent girlfriend Aminat, and time-traveler Oyin Da joining new actors like mayor Jacques, his assistant Lora, and Alyssa, the first Homian alien uploaded to a human body. The rotating narration increases the speed of delivery, with readers jumping to and through different selves. The multiple perspectives also help Thompson fit in answers to the questions percolating throughout the first two books about the xenosphere’s existence and how consciousness operates in that plane, about the moral balance of alien Homian and human relations, about the status of marginalized Nigerians in an alien-altered future state, and about the fates of characters like Kaaro, Oyin Da’s home out-of-time, and Amiat’s secret agency leader Femi, who rampages through the final books like a boss.
Insurrection specifically takes advantage of this new narrative scope by allowing readers to learn alongside a disoriented Alyssa whether the Homian plan may offer a peaceful Homian-human existence. Alyssa eventually asks, “What about the possibility of aliens, hostile aliens, coming across our refuge? […] The risk of extinction rises with every solar cycle.” This question ironically applies to the status of both Homians and humans in the trilogy. Not only does the Homians’ arrival on Earth trigger intensive considerations about topics like bodily autonomy, legal and ethical citizenship, and cultural centrism, but the Homians also exhibit very recognizable drives to survive through domination.
The Homians are aptly named — they hit, proverbially, very close to home.
Redemption continues to ask if a species deserves a second chance after polluting its own planet to death and subjugating the planet’s biological organisms. We should carefully consider the possible answers to that question. The Homians are not refugees from a destroyed planet. Instead, they are unrepentant and intent colonizers, as most extremely exhibited by the subgroup called “synners,” who conduct domestic terrorism against humans because they do not view Homo sapiens as sentient beings worthy of rights, only as “aberrations of nature” to be disposed of, “making way for […] me and people like me to inherit the Earth.” From my desk, I can easily walk to the site of the 2018 antisemitic massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I did so the day I read that particular passage.
Again: The Homians are grotesquely familiar, as is the idea of existing within a system that is unable or unwilling to foreclose the opportunities of environmental and fascist violence. And that tangibility melds with the trilogy’s consideration of planetary doom and inescapable xeno-networked existence as conflicting individuals are linked together and unable to insulate themselves from connection. In Redemption, the xenosphere offers both salvation of individual characters, an answer to the unsustainable alien-human conflict, and a way for selves to be fully expressed and even bettered. Thompson takes on the formidable task of not only building a network where the idea of consciousness is explored, but also developing an intergalactic settlement plot that forces us to question what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a citizen, to be a good planetary inhabitant, and a decent galactic neighbor. By making the alien aggressors culpable for their own Homian-thropocene and coding the “solution” to planetary-murder not merely as space exploration but as colonization and genocide, Thompson forces readers to consider our actual Anthropocene as a mode of environmental and biological change and political unfeeling. It is not only our industrial priorities that doom humans, or that doomed Homians, but also the re-inscription of colonial hierarchies and the dismissal of other life forms as equally important or kin.
Isn’t it interesting, Redemption asks, how indignant the world gets when the indigenous population being systematically eradicated (by legal indolence, by violent actions, by environmental revision) is not a particular aboriginal community, but that of Homo sapiens? Other science fiction authors like Octavia E. Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, and H. G. Wells have asked this question, of course, but Thompson asks it in the context of colonial Nigerian history and of inescapable networked existence through his constructed xenosphere.
The concluding books of the Wormwood Trilogy answered most of my questions from Rosewater — I hope fellow readers also delight in getting to briefly experience Molara and Wormwood’s personal takes on the action. Fans of Kaaro and Aminat will be excited to rejoin them as the final books push the breaking point of romantic, community, and self affiliations, and those fascinated with Thompson’s Frankenstein-like reanimated human corpses will have much new information to digest. Everyone should have an opinion about the way Nike comes back. Anyone who remembers Kaaro’s adopted dog, Yaro, will be happy to learn that he appears at Kaaro’s side in the city and in the xenosphere, a detail which argues for animals’ selfhood and position within Thompson’s version of community networks. Insurrection and Redemption are wild reads. They wrap up threads and suggest new ones. They land a bit close to home.
The Wormwood plant is enticing and bitter. It stays with you. The Wormwood Trilogy is aptly named. Parts of the series keep rising to the tip of my tongue, even now, long after I’ve consumed it. I think I’ve developed a craving to taste it again in its full complexity.