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.

Norilsk, Russia

This from The Atlantic: “Norilsk, Russia. Population 177,000. It’s the northernmost city in the world — and the most toxic. Filmmaker Victoria Fiore spent two years trying to gain access to this closed-off city. After a dozen failed attempts at a visa, she was finally allowed to enter.”

As Hunter S. Thompson might have said: Russians are batshit crazy.

We have a lot in common…

Fukushima Revisited

It was March 11, 2011, when the reactors in Fukushima, Japan, were trashed by the earthquake and tsunami. I had found an hour long documentary on the events of that month on YouTube, but apparently the copyright police found it a few days ago. (A longer version is available for rental on Vimeo.) So instead, here is a National Geographic presentation on efforts to remediate and resettle parts of the contaminated area. This documentary isn’t very challenging, but the updates after eight years are interesting.

 

Wrong Path

I’m usually a bit of a sucker for time-lapse photography but I almost did not like this short video by Francois Vogel. But it’s just too odd to pass up and ends with a really good question.

“A man on the side of a road declares he wants to take a “break” from civilization. He then slides among the cars and finally finds himself in the open sea.”

Dunelands

Chicago’s Loyola Park is graced by an extensive beach. As large as it is, in the days before ubiquitous air conditioning, one could expect it to be heavily occupied. Think of it as a human Serengeti Plain with herds of various humans replacing African wildlife. With concerns about skin cancer and other, cooler alternatives, the traffic in the 21st Century is not so heavy.

Somewhere around the turn of the century, someone at the Chicago Park District had the bright idea of recreating the dunes that once lined the shores. With less summer traffic, there would be space to plant dune grasses that would anchor the sand from wind and water erosion, letting nature handle some of the work of beach maintenance. With less summer traffic, there would be room for dune grasses to be protected from being trampled. As it is a “green” project, much of the work of planting and weeding might be done by volunteers. In many ways, it’s a project lifted out of the pages of McHarg’s Design with Nature.

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I don’t recall the date but sometime around the turn of the century, a section of the beach was loosely fenced and dune grasses were planted. Photo by Roman.

I wish I could tell the story of how this project came to flower, but I don’t know it. And that’s not what this post is about. Rather, I want to explore the beauty of the dune grasses and the wonderful way photography can lie.

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It’s early 2003. The grasses are just beginning to remake the beach into a dune. The camera makes it look like an endless plain, but it’s no more than a few hundred feet. Photo by Roman.
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It’s July of 2006 and the grasses are becoming more various and the sand is accumulating. Once again, the camera makes it look a nearly endless expanse. Photo by Roman.
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Another look at July, 2006. Photo by Roman.
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The developing dune earlier in 2006. Photo by Roman.
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2018. Notice the roped pathway on the left; dune grasses do not tolerate much traffic. Also, this is a home for nesting birds. Photo by Roman.
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2018. Photo by Roman.
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2018. Photo by Roman.
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2018. Photo by Roman.
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2017. Photo by Roman.