Saturday, July 20, 2024

Imagining Nigeria as ground zero in an alien invasion -Dlight News

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I’m about to lie to you. I’m going to tell you all the lofty reasons why I wrote my book Rosewater, like interrogating the usual setting of alien invasions in the Global North, and the loss of the colonial metaphor for alien invasions, and what’s the Black African perspective on these things, anyway?

These are only partially true and, to be honest, are post-hoc explanations of the journey my subconscious took me on.

In point of fact, I wrote Rosewater after I read about two conjoined twins who shared a brain and seemed able to read each other’s thoughts. I thought this would be a great conceit for telepathy and from there, a book about a telepath. It was in working out the biology of such a thing that issues of who and why came into it. How would such a person negotiate their social environment? What is a romantic relationship like if one person can read the mind of the other? What ethics apply? Personally, I thought knowing the inner thoughts of people around you would be an isolating ability, absolutely horrifying. Hence Kaaro, my unheroic protagonist. Hence Aminat, his love interest, and so much more.

In other words, I followed my intellectual curiosity. That curiosity sucked in a childhood spent reading about CIA psi experiments and MKULTRA/MKDELTA; The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton; an (at the time) obscure Argentine graphic novel called El Eternauta by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López; and at tent revivals.

Let’s linger here for a minute. Imagine a wide field – it might be grassy, but it’s more likely to be bare red earth due to persistent trampling. Now think of a vast tent that can house hundreds. Let’s go inside. There are very few seats, and everybody who can stand does. Up front, there’s a preacher, usually (but not exclusively) a man, armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Bible verses and eyes fevered with the Holy Ghost. When I was a kid in Nigeria, this kind of thing happened all the time. The most striking image was on the outside: piles of wheelchairs, walking sticks, gurneys and broken up plaster-of-Paris, all discarded by the newly healed who no longer needed them.

This imagery inspired the alien biodome in Rosewater, that and a similar dome in El Eternauta. I couldn’t read Spanish when I came across the book (still can’t), but there was a dome in the middle of town, and they clearly suffered from an alien invasion. This probably cemented the link between aliens and domes in my childhood mind. Oesterheld, like so many others with Leftist views, was disappeared by Argentina’s military government.

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Inspiration aside, Rosewater subverts the expectations of invasion narratives and what the cost of survival for humanity might be, while at the same time being a story about people, not technology or fantastical set pieces.

The premise? Nigeria as ground zero in an alien invasion. Our main character, Kaaro, gets powers from the aliens, but people like him are dying. Why? How to stop this? The answer has consequences for humanity.

It’s a Trojan horse story where the wooden horse is universal healthcare and unlimited power supply; at the same time, it’s a story of alien invasion as a slow, unrecognised pandemic. I’m a doctor, and I can’t help thinking in pestilential modes.

I harkened back to the symbolism of empire in H. G. Wells, but I didn’t think aliens would come in ships or utilise tripods. Space travel is expensive. What would we have that would make it worth the travel for extraterrestrials?

And who are the aliens? What do they represent? These questions came later, in revision, and in the following two volumes, The Rosewater Insurrection and The Rosewater Redemption. Rosewater became more about neocolonialism. What has happened to us? Who pre-thinks our thoughts for us? What if there were Orwellian thought police?

I like to write science fiction that non-fans can read. I try to avoid neologisms and any science that can’t be extrapolated from today. I don’t enjoy fiction that needs a glossary.

Whatever the reasons for writing it, I had to set the story in a believable world. The kind of world that interested me involved the social reaction to localised unlimited resources like health and electricity. How would that change what we think of as society?

The book won and was nominated for prizes, notably the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Winning that was a kind of homecoming, since my childhood spent watching Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World was part of what fired my interest in science fiction. The trilogy of books was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Series. That was somewhat gratifying, because it meant someone other than my mother thought this story was affecting.


I hope you enjoy your visit to Rosewater. I hope it challenges what you think of as science fiction. I hope it delights and horrifies you.

Rosewater, published by Orbit Books, is available now. It is the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club: sign up here to read along with our members

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