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.

Outpost

a review by Bob Roman

Outpost by W. Michael Gear. DAW Books, 2018. 432 pages, $26.00

outpostOutpost is the first book in a trilogy titled “Donovan” after the planet on which most of the story takes place. W. Michael Gear is an “international bestselling author” with several dozen books to his credit, some co-authored with his wife, Kathleen O’Neal Gear. This is the first of his books that I can recall reading. There’s been something about the way his books have been marketed that, for me, has been off-putting. I’m not sure what that is, but given that I’ve been a cheerful consumer of the late Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, one has to wonder. I don’t think the publisher has improved their marketing with this series. “Space Opera” they tag it. Nonsense. This trilogy is a thriller in the context of a particular subgenre of science fiction, a subgenre I would call “star colony” fiction. No galactic empires here, but Gear does throw in a little horse opera.

Star colony fiction has its own conventions, some baked into it and others optional. There are always issues regarding the colony and the colonizing entity, complications regarding communications between them. There is the planet and its locales. There is often an almost standard cast of characters, allowing for commentary and judgement: the leader, the bureaucrat, the witless crowd, the politician, the schemer… It might be interesting to revisit old books to do an inventory but not so interesting that I’d care to do it myself.

International bestseller really doesn’t mean much regarding an author or a book. People swarm en masse over unbelievable garbage… but judging by this book, Gear really does deserve the audience. He may not be much more than competent as a wordsmith, but he is an outstanding storyteller.

What Gear presents in this tale is a thriller. The essential element of a thriller is conflict. This might be violence and indeed the story begins with the hunter in peril of becoming the hunted. But violence is but one mode of conflict. It can also be opposing ambitions. It can be solving a puzzle. It can be timing as in suspense: Will backup arrive in time? This tension / release, suspense / resolution etc. is essence of drama. One way of writing a thriller is to focus mainly on plot, and it is there that holes will develop in the story: Character and locale and plausibility be damned: The story always comes first! But the reader won’t have time to think about it until it’s over.

Gear is a good deal more subtle than that. He makes use of the conflicts inherent in the science fiction set up and in the characters. And that’s another thing to admire. Star colony fiction typically comes with a cast of characters, typical to the point where sometimes they are almost archetypal. Some of Gear’s characters come from this ensemble but he makes sure that the primary characters have more than two dimensions. He does his best, IMHO, with the psychopathic Dan Wirth, who comes across as an empire builder straight out of an American western, a truly frightening personality who has major potential for disaster or for accidental glory. Gear intelligently uses the conflicts built into the personalities and not just the conflicts built into subgenre archetypes as a source of conflict.

I might add that it’s not unusual for authors of star colony fiction to use cardboard characters that come with the subgenre to vent on some perceived social ill by having a representative come to a well-deserve bad end: those damned self-important bureaucrats, for example. In this first volume, Gear mostly avoids this, but I think libertarians will have some reason for pleasure.

The universe that encompasses a science fiction tale can be counted as one or more  of the characters, and Gear effectively uses this as a source of drama as well. Better still, most of it is reasonably well thought out. His interstellar travel is plausible, or at least I was willing to accept it. The planet Donovan is supplied with a plausible and interesting and dramatic ecology and the locale around Port Authority has a plausible geology.

This is a good book and I think you can count on the next two books in the series, Abandoned and Pariah (forthcoming), to be as thoughtful and as exciting. However, I don’t think these books are for everyone. I got a few dozen pages into the next book, Abandoned, before I abandoned the project. Part of it is just me. These days I find thrillers, even ones as well done as Gear’s story, to be more tiring than fun. 500 pages – the span of Outpost – and I’m pretty well exhausted and full.

Another part of it is that as thoughtful as it is, there are holes in the story that need to be ignored. By the time I reached Abandoned, these holes were getting in front of the story. As it happens, some of these match my pet peeves regarding science fiction. Allow me to vent.

The biggest hole is one of population and community. To be fair, this hole has engulfed quite a few science fiction authors. Donovan’s population of 1,500 should be intimate. Gear does what most authors do: assume an urban level of anonymity and division of labor. With a background in archeology and anthropology, Gear has less excuse for this than, say, Arthur C. Clarke (one of the subsequent Rendezvous with Rama novels) or Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora) would have. You cannot describe a village as if it were a city.

This has plot implications. For example, Dan Wirth sets up a rigged gambling establishment as a vehicle for taking over the colony. With a population of 1,500 (who are stuck on Donovan, will or nill), just how many customers are you likely to have? What percentage of the population? There are also issues regarding money. But, hey, this wouldn’t be Tombstone without a casino. Or a bar / whorehouse. Or a gunfight showdown, though to the extent that happens in this first volume, it’s mostly off stage, accompanied by “It was a fair fight”. Oh! this brave new libertarian world that has such freedom from The State in it! Freedom from the community, too, apparently.

Another implication can be summed up by a phrase from Marx: the idiocy of rural life. The population is scarcely large enough to allow for a division of labor needed to maintain a technological outpost. Every death (and Donovan is a deadly place) is a potential catastrophe, a skill lost, a profession no longer available. Even in a less fraught environment, a population that size will have a high level of mutual dependence. Putting such mutuality into a deadly, poorly understood environment only turns the dial up to eleven: cooperate or die. The only plausible crutch would be extensive Artificial Intelligence “slavery”, automated manufacturing and a library, but while there is reference to AI on board the starships, there’s nothing in evidence on the ground. And there is no mention of printed products, inconsistent mention of mobile communication, and no mention of satellite support.

Nor is the political economy of Donovan and interstellar travel very convincing. The whole point of a colony on Donovan is said to be resource extraction. The area around Port Authority is mined for rare earths and other minerals, and a substantial percentage of the population is there to do that mining, directly and indirectly. Even allowing for their indentured servant status, why would travelling to Donovan be cheaper than mining asteroids or Mars or the Moon or the sea floor or garbage dumps or even extracting minerals from sea water? And if manned starships are so expensive (Gear talks about this as a way of ramping up suspense.), why are unmanned drones not used for freight and communication between Earth and Donovan?

Ah, the sacrifices we make for drama. Gear actually does pretty well compared to a lot of what gets published. He even does pretty well compared to some other authors who I like much better. But will I read more of Gear? Well, he’s not on my shit list so it could happen. Or maybe not. But certainly not the rest of this trilogy even though it’s good for what it is.

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…