ROSEWATER: A XENO-FORTEAN FICTION

I have just finished reading ROSEWATER, an excellent science fiction novel written by Tade Thompson, published last year. It is a compelling read, and I highly recommend it.

In a near future (2066) a mysterious “biodome” of alien origin occupies the center of the city of Rosewater in Nigeria, a space which none can enter. Once a year a small opening or “pore” appears and people in proximity around it are healed of their illnesses (good, usually) or “reconstructed” along other lines (bad, usually). Mysteries, espionage, secrets, violence, virtual alien sex and human love, angelic and god-like extraterrestrials, fungal infected human telepaths quantum accessing the noosphere composed of all sentients’ thoughts and thought forms.

ROSEWATER synthesises many different sf influences and ideas, combining a weird sff treatment of an alien ecological-based invasion with a post-post-cyberpunk near future setting. The two recent novels that I would compare ROSEWATER to are SWEET DREAMS by Tricia Sullivan, and ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer.

ROSEWATER reads like a (provisionally, as there will be a sequel) eucatastrophic version of ANNIHILATION, told in a seemingly more straightforward style that manages to attain the same degree of complexity.

The “xenosphere” (or thought-world) in ROSEWATER recalls the use that SWEET DREAMS makes of what one could call the “oneirosphere” (a term not used in the book), a virtual world composed out of the cybernetically assisted dreams of an increasingly plugged-in humanity.

In both cases humans begin to have access to a virtual realm that makes ordinary virtual reality seem like a manipulative caricature.

Narratively, the chapters alternate between the protagonist Kaaro’s nascent discovery of his abilities to draw on the thoughts of others to find objects, and to avoid detection as he launches into a life of theft, is caught, survives to be mentored, and trained to be a secret government operative. Most of the action on this thread takes place in 2055. The “now” of the narration is 2066, and someone or some force is killing the telepathic “sensitives” like Kaaros. His struggle for survival and his effort to learn what is happening and why make up the bulk of this second thread.

Thematically, the novel is more complex than it may seem at first. The themes of anxiety, uncertainty, duplicity, identity and alterity, morality and responsibility, wonder and trust are omnipresent. The story is one of individuation as the protagonist Kaaro progresses from cynicism, an amoral thief devoid of empathy, to engagement and a limited form of altruism.

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SIX WAKES ON THE DORMIRE: space clone murder mystery

This is the perfect crime fiction with clones in space. Told with an economy of means at a galloping pace, it is impossible to put down. There is just enough world-building to get on with the story, and the diverse details we learn on the fly, from surprising turns of events and multiple flashbacks, all converge on the character-driven dénouement.

The novel constitutes a very interesting thought experiment concerning all the variations that cloning plus hacking (both genetic and psychic) can generate. The metaphysical theme of identity is cleverly inter-twined with the ethical theme of our responsibility for our unowned or unconscious past.

The style is flatly narrative rather than literary, but the intrigue and the suspense are very skilfully handled.

All in all not a ground-breaking work, but a quick and enjoyable read.

LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS: A Retro-Futurist Love Story

A bitter-sweet tale focused on the conflicting demands of conjugal love and of passionate vocation. Love is not only an emotion but also a set of life choices together. To be faithful to love is to be faithful to those choices, not always to be faithful to our image of love.

Mary Robinette Kowal manages to convey a lot of emotional complexity in such a short space. Elma, an aging astronaut, in fact the first lady astronaut on Mars, lives in a human settlement on Mars with her elderly husband, pining to get back into space. Miraculously, she is offered a new mission, her last chance to live her passion.

Elma longs to accept, as she has no ties, except her husband, as they chose to have no children. Unfortunately her husband is sick and getting progressively helpless, dying slowly. She does not want to leave him.

It’s a hard thing to look at something you want and to know that the right choice is to turn it down.

These are the cold equations of life, wherever you may live. But where is the sense of wonder? For Elma it was in the voyage out, in space. The wonder of being on another planet is diminished by having to live in a dome on Mars:

The natural night sky on Mars is spectacular, because the atmosphere is so thin. But where humans live, under the dome, all you can see are the lights of the town reflecting against the dark curve.

Wonder is relative, and even migrating to another planet may come to seem a limiting experience, instead of a limit-experience.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the mission. “He knows it’s the only way I’ll get back into space.” Garrett Biggs frowned like I’d said the sky was green, instead of the pale Martian amber. “You’re in space.” “I’m on Mars. It’s still a planet.”

I found this a quite enjoyable story, but the more I think about it the richer it seems. It is about how we may devote ourselves to an absolute, despite the sometimes disappointing nitty gritty details of its effectuation. Elma gets to be an astronaut, but she is selected also as a pretty smiling face to advertise the mission. She is selected decades later for the new mission for both practical and PR reasons. Her love too is absolute, despite being mired in difficult materiality. The contradictions between the ideal and its realisations are well handled.

This story explores the impossible reconciliation of these contradictions and conflicting desires. The end provides us with a lop-sided synthesis, half motivated by the rest of the story, half tacked on.