OCTOBER 27, 2018
WHEN FINISHING Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, I had a visceral flashback. One summer, I went to the beach boardwalk with my college roommate. There was a new ride towering over the beloved, but outgrown, kiddie-sized swings. At least two stories tall, painted orange and fuchsia, the new ride was a gyroscopic wheel made up of two-seater cars that could tilt independently forward and back as the whole wheel lifted and hinged at an angle. As we stood in line, I scoped it out. Tilting, hoisting, and rotating were all ride mechanics I’d experienced before — easily managed. My roommate and I climbed aboard our car, were locked into the harness by the attendant, and joked as the wheel began to lift and slowly rotate. We tilted back a bit. We tilted forward. And then my roommate rocked our car entirely backward into a dedicated independent full-spin of at least six rotations.
About the third time around, I realized that I hadn’t actually known what the heck I was getting into. By the fifth rotation, I decided that what the ride actually was, though unexpected, was far better than the ride I had anticipated.
So when I tell you that Rosewater is a science fiction mystery that is simultaneously about an alien invasion and a man trying to avoid being murdered, I do so knowing that each of those elements may conjure familiar generic conventions. If you add them up, you’ll have a relatively good sense of what reading Thompson’s first novel in the Wormwood Trilogy is like. But at a certain point in the book, you may find yourself dramatically reassessing those assumptions while spinning backward and cringing with horror-tinged delight. I urge you to throw your hands up and enjoy the ride.
For readers unfamiliar with the recent outpouring of global science fiction, the first necessary reorientation might be that Rosewater is not only the beginning of a new trilogy, it is also already a literary landmark. Tade Thompson is a devoted genre writer whose work spans the realm of speculative fiction: his accomplishments include a Rosewater-adjacent ghost story, “Slip Road” (2009); an alternative-history crime novel, Making Wolf (2015); a superhero novella, The Last Pantheon, written with Nick Wood for AfroSFv2 (2015); and the horror novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne (2017). His writing pushes the tensile strength of genres: Rosewater is an alien invasion novel that begins with the invading already well underway, like Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987). The novel is also a near-future science fiction story with strong overlays of detective mystery. It is not surprising that the African Speculative Fiction Society took notice of such a work: when it debuted in 2017, Rosewater won their inaugural Nommo Award for Best Novel.
Don’t haze through that last sentence. The Nommo Awards are African literary awards for speculative works by African authors, an award structure emblematic of a particular literary moment. Since 2000, the science fiction community has increasingly turned attention toward the diverse offerings of writers around the world (including Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Liu Cixin, and Lauren Beukes), learning how to celebrate long-overdue stories and storytellers. The establishment of an African literary award specifically for — and to encourage — African speculative writers is glorious. As a Nommo Award–winning novel, Rosewater points to a key moment in the history of African science fiction, and it positions Thompson’s name among several notable 21st-century genre-shifting authors.
We experience the story of Rosewater from the perspective of Kaaro, the narrator and protagonist. Known as a “sensitive,” Kaaro is capable of accessing people’s emotions, thoughts, and memories via an alien-seeded living informational network called the xenosphere. This xenosphere connects anyone with microscopic fungal-styled alien xenoforms growing on their skin — since everyone has xenoforms, Kaaro can access anyone within range. These abilities make Kaaro and other sensitives prime agents for S45, a shadowy government organization that infiltrates opposition parties and extracts confessions from criminals. The money and clout of his position keeps a self-centered Kaaro happy enough until he discovers that someone is murdering sensitives. If he doesn’t want to end up dead, he must figure out what’s going on.
There’s a lot going on. A man with wings of fire flies in the sky. A folk hero can travel through time. The multiform alien Wormwood, for whom the trilogy is named, creates a forbidden domed city, Utopicity. It shines out light that heals the sick and raises the dead (Thompson is a self-proclaimed Mary Shelley fan). Then there are the regular humans: Kaaro operates in the surrounding megacity of Rosewater, built by people who worship, study, and cash in on Utopicity. Uncovering the way all these details connect in Rosewater is one of the thrills of Thompson’s writing.
As we read, we experience different sections of Kaaro’s life. Chapters loosely cycle through Kaaro’s past (during the founding of Utopicity, Rosewater, and S45 in the 2040s), Kaaro’s present quest for self-preservation (in 2066), and “Interludes” that recount Kaaro’s government missions. Thompson organizes these shifting chapters with growing purpose, using juxtaposition to encourage readers to follow Kaaro through time and space. Seeing the transformations in Kaaro as he ages reminds us that even our single narrator is multitudinous. Humans regularly lie to themselves — Kaaro certainly tries to — but they also grow and change with experience. This is useful since Kaaro, like most hard-boiled detectives, has unsavory qualities. He objectifies the women around him — especially women in positions of power, who easily rebuff his juvenile advances. He abuses his sensitive capabilities for personal gain as he tries to find his own, very loose code of ethics. Kaaro is not a hero; although at times his morals push him toward heroic action, he refuses to be the one to “solve” the problem of the alien invasion. It is ultimately enough that he is able — and we, with him — to discern some aspects of the alien Wormwood’s relationship to Earth. This hinges upon the important, and alien-dividing question: what do invading aliens decide to do with their favorite humans?
At its heart (can a book about a multiform alien have only one heart?), Rosewater lets readers think about the perils and powers of connection. As people question whether it is possible to disconnect from social media and nations reevaluate the impact of immigration, tariffs, and isolationism, it often feels like Tade Thompson has given us a gift in this prescient novel: it provides readers with the opportunity to consider these emotionally taxing topics from a cushioned fictional distance. In Rosewater, the United States has locked itself away, and no word of what is happening within its borders reaches the rest of the world. Residents of the United States are not even accessible through the xenospheric network. Archive-worthy American magazines, archaic military gear, and refugees caught outside the border make appearances in Kaaro’s world as lingering remnants of a superpower that no longer engages with the rest of the globe. This move feels particularly resonant in light of President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda: at one point, Kaaro is told that “China and Russia are squabbling over who will be the new United States and everybody is scared, man.” Thompson has Kaaro and his affiliates consistently muse about what the Americans might be doing during their self-imposed isolation, perhaps hinting that the United States has an important role in the following novels. In Rosewater, however, what is most important is that the United States is largely, and self-determinedly, offstage.
Although the rest of the trilogy promises to be more global in scope, Thompson firmly anchors the start of the Wormwood Trilogy in Nigeria. The alien Wormwood seems able to engage with Nigerians differently — as one time-and-space-traveling character, colloquially known as Bicycle Girl, says to a British consultant:
We have more experience than any Western country in dealing with first contact. What do you think we experienced when your people carved up Africa at the Berlin Conference? You arrived with a different intelligence, a different civilisation, and you raped us. But we’re still here.
While Nigerians may have the skills needed to survive the alien invasion, they are still fallible. Thompson makes a point to show that contemporary problems have continued into this alien-shaped future. A major one: Nigeria’s 2013 law criminalizing homosexuality is upheld in Rosewater’s world of 2066. This continuance is offered as horrifically mundane, a detail appearing sporadically throughout the book, often in relation to Kaaro’s gay foster family. Though Kaaro has personal and alien-political problems to focus on, this human law of intolerance is an acerbic background issue. In one brief scene, a teenage Kaaro watches a televised football (soccer) match and ignores his foster guardians while they chat with him about Bicycle Girl. Unobtrusively, his guardians also verify the successful removal of their sexual-orientation biotech signals, a defensive maneuver made necessary when the government breaks encryption identifiers of the queer community. Even in a storyworld with an inescapable network like the xenosphere, marginalized populations are forced to hide.
Although not part of a marginalized community, Kaaro’s rare ability to actively manipulate the xenosphere means his individual-identity is vulnerable to a different mode of aggression. To access such an intense network without becoming lost or attacked, each sensitive uses individual visualizations as a defense. Kaaro protects himself by navigating as a fierce gryphon and hiding his personal information in a labyrinth:
My space is a tall, hedged maze, with cloud formations in the sky and complex combinations of wind, breeze, light and dark. There are rotating sequences of sounds from seagulls, bats, dogs and crickets. I beat my wings and rise into the maze, and to demonstrate, I negotiate the maze through the single multisensory line. Taking a wrong turn, pausing when you should move or moving when you should pause, would cause the entire construct to collapse and lock the mind from an invader.
Forays into the xenosphere allow Thompson to exhibit his talent for evocative descriptions, as other mindscapes are even more lush: a dying sensitive’s xenospace is experienced as a rotting temple of flesh. Akin to the fictional evolution of cyberpunk’s cyberspace, in Rosewater the humans cannot resist structuring seemingly unbound networked connections by enfolding them in physicality. The tendency spreads: an alien presence in the xenosphere coalesces into a butterfly-winged femme fatale and names herself Molara only after Kaaro instigates these actions by insisting on the need for demarcated self-identity. There is an echo of this tactic in the form of the novel itself, as Thompson world-builds unapologetically, reveling in temporary sensatory overload as readers orient themselves to each new development in the intangible systems Kaaro navigates. Even when moments of dialogue feels stiff — often due to the demeanor of government officials — Kaaro’s experiences and insights return us to the richness of Thompson’s world. Phlegmy throats, bruises, and sexual ejaculations — when reading Thompson, one never forgets that part of being human is being tethered to physical bodies.
Speaking of individuality and connection: though Rosewater is only the first novel of a trilogy, it can stand alone, since Kaaro finds the answer to his mystery. However, there are lingering questions that set up the macroscopic scale of the following books: What will happen to the humans enmeshed in Wormwood’s network? What might full network immersion entail? Other hard-earned pieces of Thompson’s storyworld lay off to the side, waiting to be put into place: the role of the United States and their possible xenoform-free community; the time-and-space-travel escapades of the scientist folk hero Bicycle Girl; the full story of Aminat, Kaaro’s girlfriend and — more interestingly — a secret agent. Toward the end of the novel, Aminat quotes Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855) to Kaaro, saying, “I too am untranslatable.”
The ending of Rosewater suggests that another line from Whitman’s consideration of the multitudinous individual might be useful to remember: “[T]o die is different from what any one supposed.” This challenge to human mortality may feel unsurprising, considering Wormwood is a powerful multiform that can reanimate the dead, heal the sick, and transform all of the biological life on Earth to suit its own desires, but the alien’s interaction with humans is never so straightforward. Though Wormwood is not fully unveiled at the end of the novel, the alien is still insistently present in a manner that also feels particularly Whitman: the humans of Thompson’s world “will hardly know who I am or what I mean, / But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, / And filter and fibre your blood” (“Song of Myself,” canto 52).
Readers will have to wait for the next two novels to see if Wormwood’s insistent mode of connection is a promise, a threat — or both.