Sunday 24 July 2022

Rosewater - Tade Thompson (2016)


Rating: Excellent

Firstly, I can totally relate to Thompson, as it mentions on the small biographical blurb on the back cover that "...he battles an addiction to books." Secondly, Rosewater is an enticing proposition, a novel that explores typical science fiction tropes (alien invasion, future technologies), but subverts the norm by making Nigeria the central setting of the novel, with African characters as the main protagonists, removing the narrative from typical western settings. Thematically, the novel critiques colonialism and American isolationism, as well as the tendency for humans to remain divided, despite facing a common problem. I wasn't surprised when I learnt the Thompson is a trained psychiatrist, as his characterisations reveal a particular insight into the human condition, a good example being Kaaro, the main protagonist who displays both moral and amoral tendencies. Kaaro works as an agent for a shadowy government organisation called S45, who has hired Kaaro due to his exceptional abilities as a sensitive. The alien presence in Rosewater is an entity named Wormwood, which crash-landed initially in London, before burrowing through the Earth's crust to emerge in Nigeria. A bio-dome covers the entity and Rosewater is a shanty-town that has grown up around the site, mainly due to the fact that periodically the dome opens and releases spores that has the ability to heal humans. It is also responsible for the xenosphere, which enables sensitives to interact with each-other (like a biological internet) and influence other humans.

Thompson really has crammed a great deal into Rosewater, including horror elements, bio-punk, cyber-punk and Afro-futurism. His writing style is propulsive, consistently compelling and often makes abrupt changes of pace, which works more often than not. The amalgam of cross-genre elements makes for an intriguing blend and the Nigerian setting is refreshing in the same manner as the Asian settings in recent Chinese science fiction. The narrative is set between 2012 and 2066, and jumps back and forth between various times in past and the present (2066). This enables Thompson to explore Kaaro's origins, therefore fleshing out his character, and the story of Wormwood, which is totally intriguing. Kaaro's ability as a sensitive is explored via these time-jumps and this was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Rosewater. The xenosphere is like a connective virtual reality that sensitives can slip into, assuming different guises and encountering exotic and nefarious entities. It's psychedelic, disturbing and dangerous, giving the novel a shot of extra frisson. I'm not surprised that Rosewater won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2019 and an award for African science fiction called The Nommo Award. Rosewater is the first part of a trilogy, the other two books were published in 2019 (as usual I'm late to the party) - Rosewater Insurrection and Rosewater Redemption. As it is now my policy to make sure I finish trilogies, I'll be tracking these novels down. I just spent a week in Melbourne, where I managed to find Thompson's latest novel, Far From the Light of Heaven (2021), but these two were nowhere to be seen. I'll have to hook up to the xenosphere to buy them...or nose around in a library.

Tuesday 12 July 2022

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic - Tom Holland (2003)


Rating: Excellent

At the tail-end of my recovery from a hip replacement I felt that some hard-core history reading was in order, and in fact that is a good modern phrase to sum-up the Roman Republic - hard-core. Rubicon takes us from the foundation of Rome in 753 BCE to 14 ACE, and throughout the Roman Republic is revealed as an intense example of all of humanity's worst attributes; hubris, arrogance, cruelty, a whole litany of negative attributes basically, but it is not all bad, as Rome helped give Western culture a fine political and societal framework to improve upon. It's pointless here it try to go into Roman history, but what really stood out is just how similar the modern world is to that of Rome's, in particular the USA. Both feature ego-driven political figures bent on stamping their authority on the world, expecting to bask in the glory of success and have the populous love them for it. A Roman figure such as Pompey has a modern equivalent in Donald Trump (except the Pompey actually did some work, like subduing Asia Minor). In fact there were plenty of Trumps in the Roman world, whipping up mobs to intimidate political rivals and attempting to use the law to bend the republic to their will. Both civilisations feature political back-stabbing, military might, the use of the court of law for political ends, vast inequality, unchecked hubris and assassinations. Would we really expect much to change in just two and a half thousand years? It's long been a historical cliche, but essentially we are Romans, just with better technology with more checks and balances in place that give us some higher ground morally.

Pompey the Great, Rockstar General

As for the quality of the book itself? It's right up there with the best I've ever read in terms of history books. Holland delivers the story of the Republic in great detail, but with a verve that reflects the drama of such a dynamic and tumultuous civilisation. His writing is not overly academic, but is nowhere near being dumbed down for popular consumption, it's classy writing basically. Holland delves deeply into such matters as the Roman Senate, populated with the significant historical figures from that period, such as Cicero, Sulla (whom I was unfamiliar with) and Augustus Caesar, who led the way forward out of the Republic and into Empire after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Aside from the Republic's political life, Holland does an excellent job at placing you in the heart of Rome, in its streets teeming with citizens and slaves, from the exalted individuals from noble families and the peasants living in squalor in the narrow market thoroughfares. One aspect that really stood out was the status of military generals, such as Pompey, who were tasked with taking out leaders from neighbouring regions before they could pose a threat to the Republic, if successful they were like rockstars or celebrities, treated on their return to Rome with parades and granted status and wealth. Despite this Holland reveals that whilst the Republic needed figures such as Pompey to build their empire, there existed inherent boundaries that kept such figures from becoming too powerful and endangering what was ultimately a democracy, until, that is, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy and swept all before him, beginning the end of the Roman Republic. Once again here lies historical echoes of present day America, caught in a fight between fascism and democracy on its own soil. What will future students of history be reading about our current time and will they be musing over historical parallels with the ancient world? Unfortunately it looks probable at the moment.