Review: The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson, at The Guardian

I have a short review of Tade Thompson's The Rosewater Redemption at The Guardian.  This is the concluding book in the Wormwood trilogy, whose first volume, Rosewater, was published as a standalone novel in 2016, then republished in the UK by Orbit last year (it went on to win the Clarke award earlier this year).  The second volume, The Rosewater Insurrection, was also published this year, which is going to cause some issues come award-nominating time.  This is a trilogy that deserves to be recognized by awards, but I'm really not sure which volume I prefer (maybe this is finally a justification for the best series Hugo category).

Since I have more space (and fewer limitations on things like spoilers) on my own blog, I'd like to elaborate a little on the review, and particularly the sense I got that the Wormwood trilogy changed as it expanded from a standalone to a series.  When I first read Rosewater (and even more so when I reread it last month, in preparation for writing this review) I was struck by how clearly it belonged to the subgenre of "zone" science fiction.  Originating with the Strugatsky brothers' 1972 novel Roadside Picnic (and the 1979 Tarkovsky film, Stalker, inspired by it), "zone" novels imagine that some segment of normal space has erupted into strangeness, a zone where the normal rules of physics, biology, and causality no longer apply, and whose residents--or anyone who wanders in--are irretrievably altered in some fundamental way.  The zone also represents a disruption to existing power structures, and the plots of zone novels often revolve around characters who have been dispatched by the state to infiltrate the zone in an attempt to control or at least understand it--an effort that is doomed to failure.  Recent examples of zone novels include Jeff VanderMeer's Area X trilogy and M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (and particularly the middle volume, Nova Swing).  I've even seen a persuasive argument that the HBO miniseries Chernobyl can be read as zone science fiction, because of its unreal, heightened depiction of the region around the exploded reactor, and because the effects that the unseen radiation it spews have on people, animals, and plant life in the surrounding areas track so closely with the subgenre's central trope of cellular-level change.

In Rosewater, the zone takes the form of an alien lifeform that has emerged in the Nigerian countryside and begun transforming the people around it.  Some it cures of illness and injury.  Some it transforms into grotesques.  And some it turns into mindless zombies.  The alien also seeds the atmosphere with spores that connect all living beings, and which some sensitive humans, like Rosewater's narrator Kaaro, can sense and manipulate.  Rosewater ultimately reveals that the purpose of the alien's actions is to transform humanity, replacing human cells with alien ones for an unknown purpose.  The novel ends on a note of ambivalence towards this process, with Kaaro resigning his position in the secret government department S45, who had wanted to use him to stop, control, or weaponize the alien transformation process, and deciding to retire quietly and await the inevitable end.

This note of resignation suits the zone subgenre, which often views the authorities outside the zone with more suspicion than the zone itself.  There's a thread of anti-imperialism running through the works in this group, with the zone representing a final bulwark the overweening power and ever-increasing control of the imperial, colonizing force.  Empires tend to assume that they can impose their own culture, worldview, and habits of thought on the regions they "discover", and the zone functions as a rebuke to that assumption.  It swallows all infiltrators--including agents of the empire--and instead of being colonized by them, it alters them so fundamentally that they often can't return to their home.  In some zone novels, the would-be infiltrators even choose this exile, because despite the cost it extracts, the zone is the only place where one can be free of the empire's influence.  (If this all sounds familiar, it's worth noting that another influence on zone novels is Conrad's Heart of Darkness.)

So it can feel a bit wrongfooting when Rosewater's sequels not only change their tone and main character (the cynical, nihilistic Kaaro becomes a secondary character, and his girlfriend Aminat, who is unthinkingly heroic, becomes the series's lead), but shift their attitude towards the aliens themselves.  Suddenly we're informed that the purpose of the aliens' transformation of human bodies is to turn us into suitable receptacles for the consciousnesses of the aliens' masters, held in storage after the ecological collapse of their world.  Though it initially seems as if humans and aliens will be able to reach a compromise in which both can inhabit the Earth, ultimately the novels' heroes decide that they need to remove the alien presence completely, a task at which they ultimately succeed.  By the end of the trilogy, all alien presence on Earth has, however implausibly, been removed, and the powers that the aliens granted some humans have receded alongside the danger they posed.

One cynical way to look at this tonal and thematic shift is that Thompson is making a commercial decision.  Stories of alien invasion and its defeat sell better than the nihilistic musings of an anti-hero who hates his government more than he hates aliens.  If Rosewater was to be expanded into a trilogy that people would buy, it needed to offer a concrete response to the aliens' plot, not the embrace of change and transformation that characterizes zone science fiction.  

That was my initial response to The Rosewater Redemption, and I have to admit that as it became clearer what the novel's trajectory was, I found myself feeling rather disappointed.  But then, as I write in the review, it occurred to me that one significant difference between the Wormwood trilogy and other works of zone science fiction is that its characters have already been colonized once.  There's a very different valence to a story about allowing yourself to be altered by a colonizer when you're not an empire, but a former victim of empire.  Thompson seems even to have anticipated reactions like mine, because he has several characters in the novel explicitly compare their current situation to the predicament of Nigerians who first met European explorers, who might have stopped the exploitation and colonization of their country before it even started if they'd acted decisively.

I'm still not sure how I feel about this ending--part of me wonders whether, in a science fiction scene in which so much literature (not the mention the readership) is still coming from the perspective of colonizers, it isn't too easy to overlook the difference inherent in telling this type of story from the perspective of the formerly-colonized.  On the other hand, you could easily make the argument that those readers (myself very much included) are not the trilogy's target audience, and it's kind of exciting that a major work of science fiction, one that draws s strongly from so many subgenres--not just the zone, but cyberpunk and noir and technothrillers--can elicit that "it's not for you" reaction.  It's a sign of the expansion of the genre, and maybe it'll spur a discussion of its core tropes that'll take us to places I can't yet imagine.


Dan M said…
Thanks for posting. I always look toward to your reviews.
Dan M said…
Sorry I hit post too soon - I've only read the first two books of Rosewater, but I can't help but see them as a sort of prequel to the xenogenesis series by Octavia Butler. Maybe the ending of Rosewater is a rebuke to Butler's vision of forced co-dependence and chemical control of humanity by aliens. I have very much enjoyed Rosewater - it combines some new perspectives on the zone genre with the trashy elements I love about action adventure stories. I got the impression from book two that the author would very much like to make a movie from the story - the writing became a lot more about exteriority and action.
Peter Hollo said…
I think you're spot on in your review that the key to the series is that it's alien invasion told from the perspective of the colonised.
I felt strongly that from the start, the series uses alien invasion explicitly as a metaphor for white colonialisation of Africa, and this should cover everything - including the apparent friendliness of the initial colonisers, the health benefits conferred by the alien biotech, the condescension of the aliens' original intention to slow-boil humanity into non-existence (a kind of "assimilation"). The fact that London is effectively wiped out before the novel starts, and the US has become completely cordoned off from the world are delicious details that make it clear that Nigeria & Africa are all of humanity. And it's not accidental that both the kinder alien Anthony and his crueller successor Alyssa take white people as their vessels.

At the same time, he takes the creativity of writing weird science fiction utterly seriously - the sci-fi setting is not just metaphor. But I think that in the context of the commentary on colonialism being baked in from the start, the arc of the series (including Kaaro's arc) makes sense as a story of rising up against colonialist oppression.
Peter Hollo said…
That was me. Is it going to say my name this time?
joycemocha said…
Oooh. Now I *want* to read this series (to be fair, I hadn't heard much about it here in the Western US), expressly because of its POV with regard to colonizers. Thank you for extending the review here.

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