Meet the hotly tipped au­thor with a new spin on alien in­va­sions

SFX - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Olly Cur­tis

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!

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