In the near future, an alien object has appeared outside of Lagos, Nigeria—an alien dome blocks out entry and creates the mystery of what’s held inside, as a shantytown springs up around it. At different intervals, the dome opens just enough to emit “healing” powers which manifest in strange and inhuman ways, creating small groups of misshapen but “cured” individuals. It’s also created the sensitives, those with a kind of telepathic power which allows them to manipulate or read the minds of others or to tap into the xenosphere, a shared consciousness dream-world. People continued to flock to that shantytown until it became Rosewater, a gritty but booming city here in the late 2060s.
Kaaro was a thief as a child and a sensitive as an adult. His day job is working at a bank, reading classical fiction in the xenosphere as a kind of living firewall to prevent intrusions. His night job is working for Section 45, an elite group of secret government agents who use their sensitive skills to interrogate suspects and keep tabs on known criminal enterprises. Kaaro’s listless life starts to pick up when he starts dating a woman named Aminat, until it’s thrown upside-down by changes within Section 45 and a sickness that’s killing off sensitives. As the narrative jumps between Kaaro’s present and his past—from his life of crime to his first S45 investigation of the nomadic activist called Bicycle Girl—the secrets uncovered in Kaaro’s past may also be keys to divining his future. If only he can stay alive…
There’s a lot in Rosewater that will attract the attention of SF fans—the blending of post-cyberpunk/biopunk elements with a “first contact” story; the creative depiction of these alien invaders; the mysteriously isolationist United States (that’s not timely at all). And it had enough strong spy-thriller/neo-noir elements to attract my interest. But what made the novel stand out so vividly to me was its setting. Science fiction doesn’t have the best track record of putting “foreign” works in the US genre market, and it’s only been a decade or so that SF written by African writers has become readily available. So there’s still a kind of exotic uniqueness from Thompson’s knowledgeable depiction of Nigerian peoples and customs, and that perspective makes a first contact story with a heavy postcolonial bent much more poignant. Most of Africa has had firsthand experience with “alien” cultures occupying land and indoctrinating culture, and making that connection sharpens every one of the novel’s implications.
And it’s that evocative, gritty, and utterly realistic backdrop that makes the novel so effective and immersive. Thompson has a wonderful writing style and sense of plotting that makes Rosewater an engaging read; it’s a book where the dense and layered plot is presented in such a way that you want to keep reading, to see more and more secrets unraveled. And the well never runs dry on Thompson’s fascinating characters or brilliant concepts. The characters and beings mutated by the biological, fungal-like alien infection start to sound ludicrous or comic book-esque—Bicycle Girl, who stole away an entire village across space and time; Aminat’s brother Layi, who bursts into flames on occasion and has to be chained to the house so he doesn’t float away; the dead Reanimates brought back by the dome’s healing rays. But trust me when I say these far-out and divergent plot elements are melded into smart, capable, and mature narrative. And as much as the alien invasion grabs your attention, at its heart Rosewater is a story about people, focused on its very human characters.
Rosewater is a unique and compelling vision, one of the most distinctive science fiction novels in recent times. It takes everything you knew about the “first contact” and “alien invasion” themes and inverts them into a radical new postcolonial perspective. Lavie Tidhar blurbed that Rosewater is “reminiscent at times of both Roger Zelazny and Nnedi Okorafor” and I think that sums up the strengths of the novel, its literary weirdness and postcolonial symbolism. It is the hardboiled Nigerian SF novel I didn’t know I needed, and now can’t do without, confirming that I need to read Thompson’s Making Wolf later this year. I’ll be very disappointed if Rosewater doesn’t get some critical acknowledgement—perhaps it’s not commercial enough for most SF awards, but it ought to be in contention. Tade Thompson has written a fantastic novel, one that I enjoyed every minute of reading, and it has my highest recommendation.
Author: Tade Thompson
First Published: 14 November 2016
What I Read: Apex ebook, 2016
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley and Apex)
MSRP: $16.95 pb / $6.99 ebook
ISBN: 1937009297 / B01N8VTS76