Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Orbit, December 2017 (Kindle Edition) / September 2018 (Paperback)*
Tade Thompson is an author I’ve been meaning to try for a while, and I was very pleased to get an advanced reading copy of this from the publisher in advance of its new (and very attractive looking!) paperback release later this year. Having already won the Nommo Award for best novel from the African Science Fiction Society, I was confident I’d be in for a treat with this and I was not disappointed by the science fictional aspects, although my enjoyment was tempered a little by the rather unpleasant main character.
In Rosewater, human technological progress has continued alongside inequality and poverty well into the 21st century, with people using implanted communications devices and . Eleven years ago, humanity was also confronted with an apparently alien object, a giant biodome covering a place called Utopicity, located in what was formerly a swamp in Nigeria. The dome emits a great deal of electricity, is impenetrable to outsiders and once a year opens with a “healing” burst of energy that cures many afflictions but can also go terribly wrong: knees might heal backwards, tumours may grow even more enthusiastically and recently dead bodies in the vicinity reanimate as mindless zombies. Naturally, many people see only the positive side to this, and a large city (named “Rosewater” as a joke over early stench before the installation of sewage pipes) has sprung up within a decade in a ring surrounding Utopicity. It’s an obvious point, but it’s great to read a story where first contact is dealt with not in Washington D.C. or Europe (in fact, Thompson takes the US almost entirely out of the equation by indicating the nation “went dark” after the dome arose), but in a random location in Nigeria that suddenly becomes one of the most important places in the world.
Our main character, Kaare, has apparently been dealing with supernatural, alien abilities since well before the appearance of the dome, and at the time we first meet him in 2066 he’s a weary, middle-aged man who quickly downplays his apparent claim to fame as the only person who has ever been inside the Utopicity dome. Kaare clearly knows a lot more than he lets on about the origins and true nature of Utopicity, but his first person narration is not going to give up its secrets easily. Instead, we get a non-linear narrative which alternates between events in 2066, where Kaare is a reluctant agent for a government department known as Section 45 (a role which seems to mainly involve psychic torture and interrogation), and his past as a kid with telepathic powers who grows up to be a thief, misogynist and all-around dickhead who initially comes to the attention of the authorities when his mother, of all people, reports him to the police.
The narration in both of these sections is present tense, by Kaare, and can occasionally be difficult to untangle (particularly if, like me, you are in the habit of putting your book down mid-chapter). While Kaare is a somewhat older and wiser person by 2066 – notably in his ability to maintain somewhat decent relationships with the people around him, including a woman called Aminat who he is introduced to early in the “present” chapters – his narration is similarly self-absorbed in both time periods, and the same characters and parallel events occasionally pop up in both the past and the present. The biggest difference is in the development of Kaare’s powers, and particularly his use of the “xenosphere”, an alternate space controlled by alien microorganisms that live on everyone but is only accessible to sensitives, who can manipulate their appearance, talk to each other and read the minds of non-sensitive individuals by using their connection. We see early on that this is not a power entirely in Kaare’s control, as the emotions and memories of others regularly spill into his daily life. The combination of temporal disjointedness and Kaare’s own decoupling from reality – both in his use of the xenosphere and his inhabiting of other people’s lives and emotions – gives the story in Rosewater a very detached and ominous feel, increasing the sense that humans are coming up against powers well beyond their control or understanding in what Utopicity represents.
There’s nothing wrong with Kaare’s characterisation from a technical perspective, but his narration and, by extension, the lack of likeable characters (because Kaare is an asshole and everyone else is being filtered through his self-absorbed asshole lens) was the part of this book I liked least. Fortunately, the alien mystery is well worth sticking it out for, and comes together through both the past and present strands of narrative in a well-paced and satisfying way. Rereading early sections of the book, I was struck by how clear Kaare makes it that he knows a lot more than anyone around him, and that his disinterest in current events is highly motivated by his experiences when the dome came up eleven years ago; I suspect this is a book that would benefit greatly from a full second read, although that’s sadly not something I can commit to in the middle of Hugo reading season. Rosewater’s alien menace, and its impact on humanity, is subtle but terrifying, and the parallels drawn about colonisation and the futility of resisting its effects are very well done.
I understand that there are two more books coming out in this series, and I’ll be interested to see where they take the story next – there is a strong sense by the end that Kaare’s story has been told, and I’d be cautious about picking up further volumes from his point of view, but there’s definitely more to this world and I’d love to see a new point of view take us through the next steps in its future.
Score: 7 weird Xenosphere interactions out of 10
* Rosewater was originally Published by Apex in 2016