Meet the hotly tipped author with a new spin on alien invasions
The award-winning Rosewater author tells us all about his brilliant Nigeria-set novel.
Popular culture has already told us how the alien invasion will pan out. Following reconnaissance missions, unwelcome visitors will bring an armada through the void of space and, using ray guns and other advanced technologies, try to take over the Earth. Only later will a small flaw in planning or execution undermine the aliens’ efforts. Except will things really work out like that? Tade Thompson for one doesn’t think so. “I’ve never really bought the idea of some spinning disc crash-landing in Kansas and doing anal probes to some farmboy,” he says. “Why would aliens travel light years, expend all that energy, just to come here?” he asks, offering a rhetorical question also advanced by the late Iain M Banks. “What is special about human beings? Why would they need to come here?”
But a resource-efficient effort to reach another planet, that might be worth the effort, which is precisely the scenario Thompson explores in Rosewater, a debut novel that rests on the idea of aliens sending organisms “up into space at random” in the hope they might land on a planet where there’s life. One of these organisms, described as “a gigantic amoebic blob”, lands in Nigeria, and sets up shop as, inevitably, a settlement grows around it. “The book is about the reasons for it being here and how it affects the human race,” says Thompson, “and how it affects one person in particular.”
If that sounds like a dry set-up, the reality of the book is quite different, as Thompson weaves a multilayered future-thriller encompassing telepathy, high politics and the low cunning of a government agent, Kaaro, who has a shady past. The first volume in a trilogy, Rosewater marks the emergence of a singular new talent, and the book has attracted plaudits from the likes of MR Carey, Ann Leckie and Adrian Tchaikovsky.
“It’s kind of validation, so it is exciting, but I try not to let it get to me too much because there’s always more work to do,” says Thompson of the fuss surrounding the book. “If you think, ‘Oh, hey, everything is great now,’ it can sometimes inhibit you from the work you have to do now.”
Rosewater is a novel that vividly evokes Nigeria, which is partly due to Thompson’s own life experience living there. While he was born in the UK and now lives in Portsmouth, he spent part of his childhood in the country. As Thompson tells it, he arrived home from school one day to find his Yoruba-Nigerian parents had packed, telling him that it was time to go to the airport.
“To go a little anthropological, in a lot of African societies, children are not actually people until they reach a certain age and you have to acquire your personhood,” Thompson explains. “So you exist but you’re not a person just yet and you’re just meant to do whatever you’re told and be quiet when anyone else is about. You’re supposed to learn by osmosis, learn by listening to people talk and not saying anything yourself. The idea of asking your child, or telling your child, ‘Hey we’re going to be going to Nigeria in a few weeks,’ nobody would do that, it’s just not done.”
age of experience
In a Nigeria then in turmoil, bleak sights awaited. When he was 12, Thompson saw his first dead body. It wouldn’t be the last in a country where you could be burnt to death if you were suspected of being a thief, or because of politics.
The details still linger. “If a person has been burnt to death, the usual way they do it is by putting a rubber tyre around their necks and then dousing them in petrol or some other kind of accelerant,” says Thompson. “Anyway, what happens is when the fire has gone and it’s all been depleted, there will be metal rings around the person’s neck because there are rings in the tyres.” The heat twists bodies, he adds, and when SFX suggests there must be a distinctive scent, he replies simply: “Yes, the scent does stay with you and as you say that even now I’m having a Proustian response, I can actually smell it right now.”
Still, Thompson seems remarkably sanguine about being made to emigrate, although he’s still miffed that he had to leave London without returning a borrowed Superman comic to a friend. “I didn’t enjoy it when it happened, but it does give me several points of view when I’m considering anything, so for that I’m grateful,” he says.
As a young man, Thompson returned to London (“I’m not asking your permission [he said to his parents], I’m just telling you so you know where I am”) and these days he works on the south coast as a psychiatrist, but Africa is still central to his fiction. Nonetheless, Thompson is wary of being defined as an Arfofuturist writer, a term he suspects could quickly “become a limiting label for writers of African descent” for all that he wants people to be able to find future-African stories beyond those featuring Black Panther.
“I don’t want to be considered a prefix writer,” he says, “I want to be considered a writer, period, so the rest of my background happens to be my background.”
Rosewater is published by Orbit. Thompson is among the guests at SFX Book Con 2 on 10 November. Details on p21!