Tade Thompson, whose novel Rosewater was reviewed in Vector earlier this year (see below), has just published a new work of fiction. The Murders of Molly Southbourne is set to appear on screen as well, which is not surprising given the beautifully harrowing images that the novel fosters. It is a work of science fiction which reads like a thriller. It might be bloodier than Cormac McCarthy, yet it has the sweetness of a coming-of-age romance. The emotional confrontation with one’s reading self that ensues (‘should I be enjoying this scene?’), as well as all other inner conflicts, are put into perspective by the novel’s narrative of self-destruction. The science-fictional world of Molly Southbourne is a combination of Cold War past and a low-fertility future. The latter is particularly refreshing given the dominance of overpopulation scenarios in both science fiction and everyday conversations. Tade Thompson’s medical and psychiatric knowledge is always put to good use in his novels, the characters are entirely plausible in their contradictions, and the science is internally consistent and evidently very carefully thought through.
Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Apex, 2016) reviewed by Polina Levontin
Rosewater is Tade Thompson’s second novel, set in Nigeria, which in 2066 is the epicenter of an alien invasion. Loss of sovereignty is the subject of the novel – the serious heart of a narrative that artfully masquerades as thriller, romance, and detective fiction, recalling Nollywood slapstick at some points and Dante’s Divine Comedy at others. In Rosewater, we encounter aliens, homunculi, zombies, a phoenix, a griffin, and an even more mythical – a flawlessly beautiful, stiletto-wearing secret agent. Below this exuberant surface of a fast moving first person narrative, ‘invasion’ is examined, from both the perspective of the intruders and the colonized. The parallels of aliens landing in London, absorbing the consciousness of an Italian immigrant, and then making their way to Nigeria to establish a colonial base compresses the history of the Roman and British Empires. More presciently, Rosewater comments not just on the history of colonization on Earth but insightfully portrays the scientific scenario of a possible future colonization of space by intelligent, human-designed nanotechnology – a scenario Yuval Harari finds likely in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In Rosewater, the aliens got to us first.
The ability to invade minds is the scientific innovation explored most in depth. The treatment of this subject is clearly benefiting from the author’s scientific expertise as a psychiatrist. The aliens rely on a quantum network of nano-filaments that can transmit and store information – this xenosphere extends through space and time. The aliens in Rosewater are more like intelligent biotech mushrooms spreading through the universe, capable of mimicry and adaptation via symbiotic relationships to local forms and conditions. On earth, they learn to take human form and develop individual, almost human-like selfhoods, which leads to human-like problems – for example, disagreements over policy towards ‘natives’ emerge.
Like anthropology in the age of European colonialism, a system of collecting knowledge about the colonized is invaluable to the aliens. The government keeps the existence of this network and a few ‘sensitives’ who develop abilities to interact with the xenosphere a secret. Kaaro, the narrator, is the most skilled of the sensitives. The two-way connection to the xenosphere means that not only can he intrude into other people’s minds, but he is vulnerable to being inundated with memories, experiences and feelings that belong to others, threatening his sense of identity. His psychic abilities are a burden, trapping him in jobs he hates and despises, such as interrogating prisoners for the government.
Rosewater is both insightful and entertaining. Tade Thompson’s understanding of both history and the human mind gives the story a solid core. The structure of the novel reflects its other theme of time-travel: several storylines starting at various points in the mid-21st century are interwoven but in a way that enhances the understanding of Kaaro’s personal journey. Kaaro lives in millenarian times – history, human history at least, is coming to an end. The apocalypse creeps with an ecological pace. Kaaro has his entire lifetime to develop understanding and perhaps acceptance of the change. Nothing forces one to reconsider how one should live than the approaching end of the world. Even though Kaaro’s answers are predictable – love, kindness, and respect for liberty – it does not make them less profound or less valuable.
If Rosewater’s vision is flawed it is in predictions rather than analysis. Sometimes, the pessimism about the future is depressing: it is 2066 and homosexuality laws are still on the books in Nigeria and people still read Ayn Rand. Sometimes, predictions are hard to believe – would clubs in 2045 still sound like they did in the 1990s? Kaaro is not always a likable character, but his music taste is on point, if a little antiquated for his times. He listens to Miles Davis, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. But if I had to compile a mixtape for the apocalypse, I’d include them too.