With #SciFiMonth getting underway, and a certain election holding our fates in the balance, my reading has turned to more political scifi themes, or maybe I’m just more attuned than ever to that dimension of so many recent books. I’m in the midst of Tade Thompson’s Wormwood trilogy and find it more engrossing with every book I read. For me its most powerful theme is about colonizing the mind.
As we learned in Rosewater, the alien entity known as Wormwood crashed to earth in London in 2012, then worked through the Earth’s crust before surfacing in Nigeria in the 2050s. The entity, known as a footholder, extends a dome around itself and offers both healing influence and electricity, encouraging humans to build the city of Rosewater around it.
The real purpose of Wormwood is to spread microscopic alien cells (the xenosphere) around the world, gradually infiltrating humans to turn them into hosts for alien minds. It’s the grand project of survival for a species that has destroyed its home planet: Colonizing the minds of Earth’s inhabitants.
Much of Rosewater is told through the viewpoint of Kaaro, a human “sensitive” who can interpret what is going on in the xenosphere. In Rosewater Insurrection Thompson vastly expands the narrative from primarily a single character’s viewpoint to embrace a half dozen other figures, including several of the alien beings behind Wormwood.
The theme of colonization sounds loudly from the outset, and Thompson rings many changes on the idea through this more action-oriented story. There’s no middle volume problem in this trilogy.
It’s an incredible experience both for its driving action and its probing – through both character and action – of many ideas about colonialism, memory, identity and rebellion. As Thompson portrays this world, politics and power relationships seep into the deepest recesses of the mind, whether human or alien.
We are introduced to a white woman named Alyssa who suddenly wakes up one day in a house with a strange man and young girl. This is her family, but the alien infiltration of her mind has become so complete that she has no sense of who they are.
It doesn’t take long before Section 45, the government agency assigned to deal with the alien intruder, assigns Aminta, Kaaro’s girlfriend, to bring her in for testing. They do this and confine her in a way that cuts her off from the influence of the xenosphere.
That triggers a crisis among the aliens, who have been waiting for the first full transition of a human to their own inner life. Anthony, the human figure who embodies Wormwood, must find Alyssa and bring her back for their alien examination so that they can be sure that the transformation of memory and selfhood is complete. That, in turn, will trigger the transfer of billions of stored alien minds into human bodies.
So here is the theme of inner colonization of the mind and personality. In Rosewater, Thompson explored the ways in which Kaaro could create his own mental spaces within the alien space of the xenosphere. He and others like him posed a threat to alien colonization, and most of the human sensitives were killed. But Kaaro was protected from that fate and continues to be able to explore the alien mental world without being lost in it.
Alyssa seems more completely cut off from her human self, but does not yet understand her role in the emerging alien world. Kaaro and Alyssa are insightful portrayals of different ways colonialism can work from within to distort and transform memories, desires and expectations about the future to produce “new” citizens. But there is nothing simplistic about these portrayals. Thompson takes each character through every level of inner and outer conflict as these changes take place.
While all this is happening, another S45 agent named Erik, who is also a sensitive, is assigned the task of assassinating the charismatic Mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, but he proves elusive. When relations with the President of Nigeria become difficult, Jack decides to declare Rosewater an independent city-state, though without consulting anyone ahead of time.
He is counting on the Wormwood dome, which has always in the past killed off attackers from outside, to defend the city, but there’s a problem with that.
Wormwood itself is under assault and deeply wounded by a strange alien plant that pulls humans into its carnivorous core and rapidly grows. It shoots out offspring plants that fly to the dome and steadily eat away at its structure.
As the Nigerian attack on Rosewater intensifies, and the Wormwood entity starts failing under bombardment, Kaaro is brought back into action to try to make contact with Anthony. He and Aminat team up to head off multiple disasters.
Tade Thompson has set a complicated adventure in motion, one that brings up multiple echoes of real Nigerian history (its British colonial past and the Biafran civil war of the 1960s) while examining colonialism on several fronts.
There is the spreading of xenosphere cells, slowly invading human minds and taking them over as they have done with Alyssa. There is the attempted Nigerian suppression of the Rosewater insurrection, and the mysterious threat to take over or destroy Wormwood. There is the human subjugation of the reanimates who have come back to life under the influence of Wormwood’s healing influence. There is also the human relationship with android constructs, like Lora, who is Jack Jacques’ closest assistant.
Walter Tanmola, a novelist, records much of the action of the Nigerian-Rosewater conflict, but Thompson doesn’t rely fully on that narrative device. He constantly reminds us of the inner tension in each character as they respond to rapidly changing events.
Rosewater Insurrection is a skillful combination of psychological and physical action providing a rich reading experience that draws me in, no matter how complicated the shifts of scene or viewpoint might be. I’m into the third novel of the trilogy and will review that next.