The Wormwood Trilogy

a review by Bob Roman

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Rosewater by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2018
The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2019
The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2019

“Trilogy” is not a sales hook for me. My knee-jerk reaction is that I’m likely to be spending a great deal of time with characters who will become tiresome and with stories that grow boring long before closure. It doesn’t matter much that the author of The Wormwood Trilogy also disdains the idea. What counts is that Tade Thompson has produced a work that kept my interest across two sizeable volumes. The third volume is to be published in the Autumn of 2019 and I’m very much looking forward to its release.

First, a thumbnail sketch of the author: Thompson was born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents. The family moved back to Nigeria in 1976. Thompson returned to the United Kingdom in 1998. He studied medicine and social anthropology and finally specialized in psychiatry. He’s also something of a compulsive writer.

While Thompson has written horror and fantasy as well as science fiction, The Wormwood Trilogy belongs firmly in the science fiction corner of the general speculative fiction genre. The main plot device is the old war-of-the-worlds-alien-invasion scenario (hello, H. G. Wells!) but in this instance the invasion is largely non-violent except that the aliens, on occasion, do pretty much whatever they need to do without much effective resistance from humans. But who is fighting? However disruptive it may be, the alien presence has set off a technological revolution and provides almost magical additions to human society around the alien enclaves: healing illness, for example, though the results sometimes resembles comic mistranslations. Rosewater, indeed, is a city that has grown up around an enigmatic alien enclave in rural Nigeria, much like a shanty town around a port. The alien invasion is not by force of arms but by the gradual displacement of Earth’s native biology and ecology, a process at once beneficial and existential, gradually turning Earth into a version of “Home” and ending life, particularly humans, As We Know It. You can indeed take this as a metaphor for colonialism as experienced by the colonized.

There are other familiar plot devices. Thompson borrows heavily from William Gibson’s imagery of the web, though by Thompson’s mid-21st Century the web has been mostly supplanted another info-space (not to mention the info-space brought by the aliens). Thompson also throws in secret societies, secret and somewhat siloed government bureaucracies, zombies, surveillance and hyper-competent individuals. He even comes up with a MacGuffin in the second volume.

One of the hyper-competent is Kaaro. I would describe Kaaro as a Nigerian slacker living in Rosewater. The first volume, Rosewater, is told in first person by Kaaro. First person story telling is always of interest. How will the author handle it? To whom is the narrator speaking? To a chronicler who is or pretends to be the author? To a general audience, breaking the “fourth wall”? To the narrator himself? In this case, it’s probably the last, but I’m not sure. Kaaro may also be a weak spot in the storytelling. If you actively dislike Kaaro then you may have some difficulty finishing the first volume, although it is written with very short chapters around multiple flashback stories, making a long book bite-sized.

Thompson says that he is assiduous plotting the books. Even so, there are plot holes suggesting that his vision of Rosewater and its universe changed in the writing of it.

The second volume, The Rosewater Insurrection, demotes Kaaro to a secondary character. Several secondary characters from the first volume become primary characters, along with a few new characters. It is told almost exclusively in third person, mostly in the present of the year 2066, and it retains the short chapter format, each chapter following a particular character. But if Kaaro was telling the story in the first volume, who is the omniscient narrator in the second?

It was surprise to me that I was okay with the politician, Mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques. Politics and politicians are difficult to portray these days because so many readers view politics, if at all, as spectators. Artists can tell their audience anything about politics and the profession of it, the more cynical the more plausible it seems. But in The Rosewater Insurrection, the role of gossip in politics and obsessive grooming and self-presentation were close enough to keep me happy.

In my old age, I complain and complain about genre fiction and how it uses, uses, and reuses so many common plot devices, characters, and clichés. That Thompson does this with some care and thoughtfulness would not exempt him from my whining except that readers here in the States have an additional bonus. The story takes place in Nigeria, a future Nigeria that has to be recognizable even if still foreign to a Nigerian of 2019. To a Nigerian, this might bring into play a whole series of familiar plot elements and characters – not to mention ethnic stereotypes – but to most American readers, this will be fresh air.

I’m reduced to complaining that the final volume won’t be out until October…

For more information

I’d really recommend this interview of Tade Thompson by Nick Wood at Short Story Day Africa.
Jessica FitzPatrick had an insightful review of Rosewater at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Franklin’s Brain

The idea of uploading one’s consciousness into a computer has been a science fiction trope for… how long? Quite a while, though back in mid-20th Century the initial idea was keeping one’s brain alive separate from the body: think Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak (1942) or C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (1946). This was generally portrayed as a horrible, no-good thing because, well, just consider the yuck factor. No way to make that pretty! But computers are considerably less yuckie and, after all, might simulate more than just a mind.

Franklin’s Brain by Scott Quinn takes the upload trope in quite the original direction and places together two losers: one human, Tom, imprisoned by failure and fear and the other an early experimental A.I. simulation of a real person’s mind, Franklin, now confined to the wreckage of a desktop and imprisoned by his obsession with his human original.

I don’t know that the two of them find their balm in Gilead, but there is a key…

Max Headroom

Let’s go back 20 minutes in the future… of 1985. For those of you for whom 1985 is more-or-less pre-history, the Max Headroom character was a scanned digital simulacrum of “hard hitting” TV journalist, Edison Carter. Despite being a copy, Max Headroom is rather different in character than his fictional human original, particularly in Max’s role in both the U.S. and British television series “Max Headroom”. Edison Carter was a classic muck-raker journalist. Max Headroom was an “edgy” (because, after all, he isn’t real and so: what standards should apply?) talk-show host and corporate shill.headrest1

I missed most of this back in the 1980s, understand, as my last television set died around 1981 or 1982, never to be replaced. My main exposure to Max Headroom was Garry Trudeau’s use of him in the Doonesbury comic-strip as a satire on Ronald Reagan (Ron Headrest), implying that if President Reagan were replaced by a digital automaton, no one would notice. On the other hand, one of Garry Trudeau’s characters, television reporter Roland Hedley, resembles and predates Edison Carter. Maybe there’s some British borrowing there, or maybe it’s just a mutual stereotype.

The program was a British import, and like many such, it was remanufactured for the American audience, with possibly less violence to the original concept than is typical. But there are differences. Here is the original British pilot, an hour long, from which the whole enterprise sprang… sort of a punk Dr. Who. Hold on to your TRON.

 

(Be sure to watch all the way through the credits.)

Red Moon

a review by Bob Roman

Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit Books, 2018. 446 pages, $27.00

RedMoon
Image from Orbis Books

I have a mental list of authors who have annoyed or bored me enough that I really do not care to read any more of their work. Despite being a more than competent writer who shares a good deal of my politics, Kim Stanley Robinson keeps coming close to being added to the list. For me, his latest work, Red Moon, was partly an adventure in seeing whether he would end on it or off it. But that’s just me.

Some of my problems with Robinson are more generally relevant, though. His novels, after his first few, have acquired a distinctly didactic quality to them. He’s not at all unique in this, even in science fiction and fantasy. From the other end of the political spectrum, Robert Heinlein comes to mind, and Heinlein even did one about the moon: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. But you do need to be a very good writer to make didacticism palatable to readers who do not share your perspective. There is also the temptation, for any artist, to play to the true believers, trusting in their instinct to give a hurrah for our side, whatever side that may be and however lame the execution. Whatever sells, after all. Robinson is good enough, usually, to keep it interesting while having enough integrity to not simply pander.

But that gets rather more difficult when one writes what should be a thriller, as Red Moon should be: Sometime around the middle of this century, Fred Fredericks travels to the moon, specifically to a Chinese research settlement at the south pole. His job is to deliver to his employer’s customer, the head administrator of the research settlement, an encrypted cell phone. This turns out to be the occasion for an assassination plot directed at the head administrator with Fredericks as the means of delivery. It very nearly kills Fredericks as well, but he ends up on the run with another person on the run, Chan Qi, a highly privileged (and pregnant) daughter of a top rank Chinese Communist Party and government official. Her dad is indeed one of the candidates for the top job at the pending Congress. She’s not having any of it and has slipped her leash, both from Daddy and the Party. Throw in a highly siloed government and Communist Party (rogue bureaucracy on the loose!), a chase across the Moon and across China, an emergent artificial intelligence, nonviolent citizen uprisings in both China and the United States (sort of a cross between Occupy and the various “color revolutions”), block chain alternative currency, diplomatic intrigue, and you should get a roller coaster thriller, a page turning experience where one does not notice the plot holes until they are long past, indeed probably after you close the covers of the book.

Instead, what is delivered to the reader is more akin to a 19th Century visit to utopia, where the protagonist (and thus the reader) is given a tour of a brave new world… Think of Aldous Huxley’s Island (granted, a 1930s novel) or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Most of those utopias, even the most classic, are pretty lame examples of story-telling. Robinson, at least, can use the conflicts built into his plot to keep things moving with some drama, but he doesn’t really enter the thriller mode of story-telling until the end of the novel. And the ending is either brilliant or a set-up for volume two. If it is the latter, it is not brilliant and I think I’ll take a pass.

A lot of science fiction really ought to be called science fantasy. Robinson does stick pretty close to the real world in his speculation. If there’s much speculative violence done to science, it may be in biology rather than the usual suspects of physics or information science.  Robinson’s Moon has far more in common with modern Antarctica than it does with a nostalgic fantasy of the American (or the Siberian, for that matter) frontier: a dangerous, expensive place mostly only good for research or for novelty. And if Robinson’s Mars trilogy had mountain climbing as a visceral experience, Red Moon has the simple difficulty humans will have learning to maneuver in the Moon’s low gravity.

I think Robinson has gotten the Moon approximately correct, or at least he compliments my prejudices. China is this book’s other big obsession. If he’s gotten the Moon about right, what about China? I haven’t much basis for judging that except that anything written about China, even in the present never mind several decades from now, is likely to be wrong at least in part. And I suspect Robinson would agree. In a space.com interview, he noted: “China is really interesting and important and nobody understands it — and I mean not just Americans, who definitely don’t understand it, but even the Chinese people themselves. It’s a big, powerful society in rapid flux. It’s unstable and dynamic and it’s super interesting.” And more to the point, anything happening there will have consequences here, but if you need Red Moon to make that point, you haven’t been paying attention.

Caught between being a thriller and a visit to Erewhon, I don’t think this is one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s more successful efforts. But I liked it well enough that Robinson is not yet on my shit list and I liked Red Moon well enough to write this modest review of it. And he does have some interesting things to say about the future of humans on the Moon and about China. But I don’t like it well enough to hope for a sequel.