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After snapping up the Nommo Award and the Prix Julia Verlanger, his novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne recently won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, a French literary award covering the science fiction and fantasy genres. Rosewater, from his Wormword sci-fi trilogy, was the winner of the highly prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2019.
Born in London to Yoruba parents from Nigeria, the prolific author – he also writes crime thrillers, most notably Making Wolf – has a day job as a psychiatrist in Portsmouth, England. Thompson deftly draws on these myriad experiences in Rosewater, a gripping novel set in Nigeria in the near future, after Earth has been colonised by mysterious aliens.
The city of Rosewater was built in the wake of the appearance of a strange dome rising “into the sky like a blanket of flesh”. Once a year an opening forms in the imposing structure and sick people are mysteriously healed: “All gone. No TB, no HIV, no nothing,” one such cured character rejoices.
This annual miracle also brings some of the dead back to life, creating a cohort of soulless “reanimates” who wander around the streets and have to be killed. The opening sometimes “restores” the injured, with random, if not downright monstrous results. “A guy”, for instance, ends up with “five left hands and three feet” and “[a] single, desperate eye”.
‘Bootleg psychic adult with money’
But the alien presence manifests itself in other ways – not just dramatically grotesque transformations. For example, the main character, Kaaro – whose name means “good morning” in Yoruba – is given the power to read other people’s thoughts.
He becomes a “finder”, or someone who searches for objects people have lost. “I do not think the ability is alien – I think it is a mystical thing, spiritual or juju-based,” he explains.
Kaaro goes “from [being] an unfocused psychic teenager” to a “bootleg psychic adult with money”, and eventually the powerful Femi Alaagomeji recruits him as an agent for Section Forty-Five (S45), a secret government police force.
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To read other people’s minds, he enters the xenosphere, “a global store of information in the very atmosphere” accessible through a psychic link “made up of strands of alien fungi-like filaments and neurotransmitters”, filaments that “form multiple links with the natural fungi on human skin”.
In the writer’s words, “Rosewater is about an extremely slow alien invasion … by microbes. Most people don’t know about it; the world changed in several imperceptible ways.”
One of the novel’s characters describes the invasion in the following terms: “When Wormwood [the name humans use to refer to the unknown being that lands on Earth] surges into awareness, we are unimpressed, even in our knowledge that it is the most significant event in Earth’s history. We’ve seen colonisers before, and they are similar, whether intercontinental or interplanetary.”
Africans erased from science fiction
The character’s reaction is worlds apart from that of the United States, a country “[n]obody has heard anything from […] for 45 years”, and it signals an interesting narrative turn given that science fiction has been dominated by Americans since the genre’s early days.
“[I]n science fiction, Africans have been erased,” Thompson says. “Except as examples of the primitive, the brutish, the ‘Magical Negro’ with folk wisdom who exists only to help the white protagonist on his journey.”
Though he has “a strong ambivalence about being called an African writer” because “[i]t creates a subcategory” and these very “categories exist because of oppression”, the author says he wants to explore Africa through “the extrapolation of science”, as he has not “read that much outright science fiction coming from Africa”.
In Rosewater, Thompson leads his narrator through the “detritus of the nation’s communal consciousness […]. The blood and sweat of slaves in a stew of their own anguish at being removed from their motherland, the guilt of slavers, the prolonged pain of colonisation, the riots, the CIA interference, the civil war, the genocide of the Igbos, the tribal pogroms, the terrorism”.
Yoruba gods and tech wizards
Thompson, who grew up in Nigeria, features his mother country prominently in the story and taps into his Yoruba culture to create the Rosewater universe, where readers encounter an eclectic mix of Yoruba gods, “tech wizards” and cyborg birds. There is even an “ectoplasm. The real kind, with neurotransmitters and xenoforms” (xenoforms are the alien microorganisms secretly changing the world).
A phenomenon usually chalked up to witchcraft is explained in fully rational terms. The writer stresses that “Rosewater is outright science fiction, no magic, nothing is not scientifically explained, none of it is magic realism”.
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He draws a clear line between himself and fellow science fiction author N.K. Jemisin, an African American best known for her Broken Earth series of books.
A psychiatrist by profession, Thompson projects the human psyche into extremely realistic images within the confines[HE3] of this extra-terrestrial realm that is the xenosphere.
In this “thoughtspace”, the S45 agent sees “ideas spreading out into alternatives before one is selected”, whereas those who do not think exist in that same space “suspended unmoving as if in amber”.
Each “sensitive” navigates the thoughtspace through an avatar, which come in an array of forms, including “a puddle of peach-coloured liquid”, a serpent “nearly twelve feet long” or a “a monk with his cowl pulled up and darkness where a face should be”. Kaaro’s own avatar is a gryphon.
Thompson’s work often explores themes like identity and alienation, and questions each individual’s place in the world. “He never writes straight genre, he bends it, always subverting things,” says Luke Speed, the author’s film and TV agent at Curtis Brown.
Thompson’s curiosity is boundless. “I want to write everything. I want to do my crime fiction, my fantasy, my horror, my science fiction, my painting,” he says.
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