WARNING: numerous spoilers, since I cannot really discuss the novel without them
Tade Thompson’s extraordinary new SF novel Rosewater is the second recent book I have read with the premise of extraterrestrials arriving in Nigeria. The first is Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, equally wonderful, but in an entirely different way. Both novels go explicitly against the common tendency to set such narratives in big cities of the Global North. Of course, there is always the danger that a white anglophone reader from a hegemonic country and culture (i.e., somebody like myself) might find any such futuristic depiction of the developing world to be alluringly “exotic,” if only on account of its unfamiliarity. However, both Thompson and Okorafor guard against this tendency by immersing us in the social background, without any special explanations. The underlying state of Nigerian society is simply taken for granted in both novels — which forces the reader (no matter his or her own background) to take it for granted as well. Lagoon and Rosewater both expose the provincialism of the very North American, British, and European readers who tend to congratulate themselves on their supposed cosmopolitanism. The fact is, both authors (and many of their characters) are far more cosmopolitan than I am, because they are intimately familiar both with Western (US/UK) society and with societies in Nigeria and elsewhere.
In any case, Rosewater is set some fifty years in the future (2066, with flashbacks to earlier dates in the mid-21st-century). In Thompson’s future Nigeria and future world, computing technologies have been pushed — mostly for reasons of political control — well beyond their actual state today. For instance, people all have implants that allow them to broadcast their location — or to be tracked by the police and by others, even when they do not want to be. Many (but not all) people also have implants that allow them to access the phone and data networks, without the need for an external device. There are also ubiquitous mobile surveillance mechanisms, often lodged in the bodies of animals like birds and cats. The novel doesn’t make all that much of these new technologies; they are fairly linear extrapolations from devices that we already have today. They simply form part of the everyday background of the novel. Surveillance as it exists today has been both expanded, and completely routinized and “normalized.”
The same can be said for the social and political dimensions of Rosewater. The extrapolation remains fairly linear. The world of 2066, in Nigeria and elsewhere, is riven by the same inequalities of class, the same rampant capitalism (and the same downscale version of it, rampant criminal organizations), the same violent prejudices (e.g. against gays and lesbians), and the same governmental corruption and deep-state surveillance and control that we already have today. “Neoliberalism” is never named as such in the text, but despite its complete failure as an economic and social program, it evidently remains as the hegemonic — indeed, as the only — social form. No collective movement for change seems possible. Social, political, and economic forms of oppression therefore exist as obstacles that each individual must navigate on his or her own. In this way, Thompson keeps us aware of the constrictions of what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: the situation in which we find it easier to imagine the end of the world, than any concrete alternative to globalized neoliberal capitalism.
There is one ironic exception to this situation. At some point in the half century between today and the novel’s future projection, America “goes dark,” shutting off all contact with the rest of the world. There is no trade, and no communication. This is perhaps the triumph of Trumpism, born in reaction to neoliberalism’s utter failure. From the very little information people in the rest of the world have managed to get, America seems to have become a completely closed and regimented society. In any case, neither in America nor elsewhere is there any indication of any movement towards a more equitable social system.
The novum (science fictional novelty) that drives Rosewater is something entirely different from this incremental development of human technologies and social arrangements. It is rather the presence of entirely alien (extraterrestrial) life forms and artifacts. We are introduced, early in the book, to what people call Utopicity: an enormous biodome, of alien construction, that is closed off to all human access. Utopicity is opaque to all outside inquiry; but it crackles with electricity, and it seems to possess almost supernatural powers. Once a year, the gates of Utopicity open for just a few hours: the dome emits radiation that almost instantly cures the illnesses (from cancer and HIV down to the common cold) of anyone who is exposed to it. Because of this, the new city of Rosewater, forming a ring all around the biodome, has grown, in just a decade, from uninhabited savannah to a major metropolis. (The name “Rosewater” is an ironic allusion to the foul river smells of the city, whose sewage treatment facilities have not kept up with its swelling population).
The alien technology of Utopicity is so advanced as to be (in the words of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law) indistinguishable from magic. Importantly, though, this technology is not infallible. For instance, the beings in the dome sometimes get the details of human anatomy wrong. The radiation from the dome cures all sorts of ailments, but it sometimes leaves the patients with “knees which point backwards,” or with “multiple and displaced orifices.” The radiation also affects recently dead bodies, reanimating them as shambling, mindless zombies — which then have to be dispatched by the police and the army.
We only learn gradually, in the course of the novel, about the aliens and their actual powers. In Rosebud‘s timeline, an enormous intelligent living entity falls from outer space, and lands in central London, in 2012. People call it Wormwood. It is not the first of its kind to come to our planet, but it is the first to survive. All the previous ones die soon after entry. But Wormwood sinks into the earth, and spends several decades burrowing through the crust. It finally re-emerges in Nigeria in the 2050s. When government forces attack it, it builds Utopicity for self-protection.
Apparently, Wormwood is not quite a single, unified organism, at least in the way that we understand such things on Earth. It seems to contain multitudes within itself. Portions split off and take on a quasi-independent existence. For instance, in order to communicate with human beings, some portions assume a more or less humanoid shape, while others emulate the fantastic appearance of cyberspace avatars. Still other aspects of Wormwood are monstrous and directly threatening, like the floaters: carnivorous flying vampiric entities released from the dome into the surrounding environment. In any case, these different aspects of Wormwood “are not all the same.” They often work at cross-purposes; at times, they even seem to be arguing with one another.
Wormwood also generates an enormous mass of microscopic fungal spores, which it releases into the Earth’s atmosphere. These spores are ubiquitous; apparently they work to gather information about the environment and organisms of Earth. These spores grow in — or better, they infect — nearly everything in the world, living or not. They also form a worldwide transmission network called the xenosphere, through which they funnel data back to Wormwood. The xenosphere can be blocked temporarily, through the use of antifungal medications. But sooner or later, it always grows back.
Most human beings are oblivious to the xenosphere; it gathers data from them without their knowledge. But a small number of people are able to feel the xenosphere directly; they are known as sensitives. They develop psychic powers as an acccidental side-effect of the alien incursion. One of these sensitives is Kaaro, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. He is able to plug into the xenosphere, and use it to access other people’s minds. Kaaro explores the network: he goes into a trance, takes on an avatar, and encounters complex informational structures, together with the avatars of other sensitives. At times, he even encounters aspects of Wormwood itself. The way that Kaaro moves through the xenosphere is quite similar to the way that people surf cyberspace in classic cyberpunk novels (e.g. William Gibson’s Neuromancer). But even without such deep immersion, Kaaro is able to read the hidden thoughts of ordinary people, and also to manipulate those people by implanting suggestions into their minds.
Kaaro is the novel’s sole narrator. We only experience things from his perspective. This means that the reader needs to remain vigilant, because Kaaro is not an entirely reliable narrator. It’s not that he is deceptive in what he tells us; but he is a bit selective and slanted in what he chooses to reveal, and when. Also, Kaaro is not a particularly sympathetic character. At least he isn’t an outright sociopath: he fears and avoids violence, and he sometimes tries to do right by people he cares about. But Kaaro is still basically a grifter: he is sleazy and sexist, and always seems to be looking out for the main chance. Even when his conscience gets the better of him, he insists that he is “not the saving-the-world type.”
When Kaaro first develops his telepathic powers, in adolescence, he quickly becomes a thief. He reads people’s minds in order to discover where they stash their valuable items. And he spends the money acquired in this way on sex, drugs, and partying. When Kaaro finally gets caught, he is forced to accept a deal from the cops. In lieu of punishment, he is drafted into the Nigerian secret police. His job is to scan the minds of political prisoners, after they have been tortured, in order to extract their secrets. He doesn’t enjoy doing this, but he has no choice. Kaaro is perpetually disaffected, alienated, and anti-social; but he never imagines that this somehow puts him outside the system. He knows that he’s a tool, and a fairly limited one at that.
The novel finally turns upon the implications of the alien presence on Earth. But the details only get filled in obliquely, and quite slowly. The book has a complicated temporal structure: in between the chapters happening in the present moment (2066), there are also chapters set in 2055, and still others set at a few other times. These flashback chapters give us Kaaro’s backstory, and his earlier experiences with Wormwood and with the secret police. Within each time sequence, events are linear from one chapter to the next. But these timelines interfere with one another as we weave back and forth among them. Each chapter, regardless of which portion of the timeline it comes from, is narrated in the present tense, and made to feel viscerally immediate. This results in an odd sense of displacement. (I couldn’t help thinking, at least a bit, about David Wittenberg’s powerful discussion of time travel narratives, even though it is only the reader, and not the narrator, who actually shifts back and forth between one time and another). In fact, it is only by grasping what happened in 2055 that we can make full sense of what happens in 2066; but we don’t achieve this grasp until almost the end of the novel. The book’s narrative is therefore a slow burn; at the end, we need to look back and revise our understanding of earlier incidents, in the light of what has finally been revealed.
Thompson’s oblique narrative strategy obviously works to keep the reader enthralled. But there is more to it than that: if the narration is oblique, this is really because the events being narrated are themselves oblique. As Seo-Young Chu argues in her general theory of science fiction narrative, so for this novel in particular: it’s not that Rosewater cognitively estranges the process of representation, so much as that it straightforwardly represents a state of affairs (or a referent) that is in and of itself cognitively estranging. Wormwood’s presence on the Earth is neither simple nor straightforward. It doesn’t have a single identity, and its effects on the planet are multiple and inconsistent. This has a lot to do with the formal complexity of the xenosphere. In recent years, we have become accustomed to think that everything is entangled in dense and diffuse networks, so that we cannot isolate individual entities (but also so that we can’t find unity or identity on the level of the network as a whole). Things are separated from one another, and yet entangled with one another, all at the same time. Causality is not arbitrary, but it is also not linear.
Rosewater takes our emerging understanding of networks, and raises it, as it were, to a higher power. Wormwood is radically alien to us, and yet we find ourselves more and more implicated in what it is doing. The xenosphere, with its powers of connection and disconnection and its incessant work of surveillance, both mimics and takes its distance from the social, political, and technological networks that we are already accustomed to, and that have become even more virulent in 2066 than they were in 2016. Wormwood may be seen as an allegory of colonialization; and its ubiquitous surveillance may be seen to reflect that of the neoliberal State. But Wormwood must also be taken as something entirely apart from such power relations; both its autonomy and its dependency on us, and we on it, work in another dimension than that of neoliberal economics and governmentality. Wormwood’s logic is essentially biological, but in a very different manner than the one characterized by our usual understandings of neoliberal biopower and biopolitics. Wormwood’s alien strangeness is what the novel effectively communicates, both in its story and in its form of narration.
Finally, Kaaro worries about alien invasion, and its potential effacement of everything that we have previously understood as human — both for good and for ill. It seems that, when Wormwood heals people with ailments, and when it opens human contact to the xenosphere, it is taking the opportunity to replace our DNA with its own. This is not a biological shift in lieu of a social or cultural one — because it is both, inextricably, at once. Wormwood is taking over, alike by insinuating itself within our cells, and by changing our conceptions and our feelings. Other people, besides Kaaro, feel and experience this. For instance, there is his girlfriend’s half-brother Layi, who seems to be able to fly, and to ignite spontaneous fires; these are evidently powers given to him by Wormword (or more precisely, by some portion of Wormwood); but people in Lagos and Rosewater — in accordance with the heavy influence of evangelical Christianity in Nigeria — presume that his mother was made pregnant by an angel. In fact, by the end of the novel all human beings have had some percentage of their cells “replaced by xenoforms.” This parallels the way that also “we are all part machine,” due to the various technologies that are embedded in our bodies. We are already cyborgs in 2016; this will be all the more the case in 2066. “How human am I?”, Kaaro wonders, and he has no way to tell.
There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Kaaro thinks at times that perhaps this transformation is only “what humanity deserves.” People already have been “conquered and killed by invaders” without knowing it; and the saddest part is that they don’t even care. “Humans don’t care about anything as long as their TVs and microwaves work.” For its part, the government doesn’t care either; after the catastrophic failure of its efforts to destroy Wormwood, it cynically uses whatever advantage it gets from the entity in order to maintain and increase its own power. (Kaaro’s last assignment, which he refuses, is to monitor the mind of an opposition politician, so that the party in power will be better able to win the next election). As for the few people and groups who know about the alien invasion, and try to do something about it: they themselves are ironically also dependent upon Wormwood, for it protects them from the official authorities. The only thing to do, then, is simultaneously to “work with and against the xenoforms.”
At the end of the book Kaaro compares the xeno-invasion of Earth life to such catastrophes as global warming, or an asteroid crashing into the Earth, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. But “the alien in me” tells him that this isn’t quite the case. The coming disaster is, and will continue to be, an intimate one. It will be something for which “we will all be present,” even as we are devastated by it.