(2016/8) Tade Thompson, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 395pp ISBN 978-0-356-51197-9
Rosewater is an innovative, first contact novel set a few decades hence in the mid-21st century.
It is Nigeria, 2066, and a mysterious alien dome has become the centre of a human settlement, Rosewater. Periodically, a portal opens and crowds congregate to be cured (hopefully) from its emanations.
Karoo works as a telepath at a bank as part of a team that blocks telepathic hackers trying to extract data. At least as far as most people know, that is his job but actually he has another: he is a telepathic finder and interrogator for the governmental security agency S45. S45 seeks to ascertain the nature and purpose of the enigmatic dome. Karoo is not entirely happy with his S45 work but does so as it has its privileges and also he may just be able to use his position to find out more about the structure that has seemingly manifested itself.
Meanwhile, the US has gone into self-imposed isolation more rigorously enforced than anything early 21st century president the 'wall' Trump could have ever foreseen. Pos-Brexit Britain, shorn of its close ties with the European Union has become something of an irrelevance of the world stage, which is now dominated by Russia and China. Though Britain too has had an alien incursion.
Against this backdrop, events, it transpires, will lead Karoo to discover things that will affect the future of the human race
Now, the above may seem an all too brief plot teaser for a proper review. However, let me reassure you, you do not want to know more as this is such an exquisite novel you will want to discover its delights for yourself. So instead, let me make a few general comments.
From the above Rosewater may seem like a fantasy novel: it is not. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that it is science fantasy that morphs as it further continues into more firm SF territory.
The novel itself bounces from its present, 2066, to previous years (Karoo's younger days) and back like a proverbial yo-yo. Strangely, given the frequency of these oscillations, this is not too disruptive and, as we understand how Karoo came to be where he is, we learn more of the background behind the Rosewater dome, its impact on humanity and Karoo's own life story. It is all engaging stuff that leaves the SF reader enthralled.
There have been many pivotal first contact stories from Wells' early landmark War of the Worlds, Wyndham's Midwich Cuckoos, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, let alone his iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey, to modern first contact classics such as Robert Charles Wilson's Bios and Peter Watts' Blindsight. Now, Rosewater joins this select cadre.
The above is no hype, Rosewater is clearly head and shoulders above the rank and file genre works. Its Nigerian setting benefitting from the author's own connections with that country, and the science (such as it is) from his STEM background. All of which begs the question especially given that the author lives in Britain as to why it took two years to come to the attention of a major genre publisher in the UK? (Rosewater was first published in 2016 by Apex Publications in the US, and published in Britain in 2018.) What is clear is that this is the first in a trilogy. Don't let this put you off. Rosewater itself is reasonably self-contained and while not all the questions it raises are answered, sufficient are for this novel to be considered self-contained. Indeed, so robust is this compartmentalisation, I do not know whether or not the other two titles, to come in this trilogy, will have Karoo as their protagonist or even whether or not they will primarily be set in Nigeria? However, with regards to the latter, I hope that they are as the author has drawn on his own times in that country to give the story's cultural backdrop a clearly vivid feel. I also hope that he continues to write SF (apparently he has previously written a mundane/non-genre thriller): he's too good a talent to lose. And you do not have to take my word for this: Rosewater has won Africa's inaugural Nommo Award for Best African SF. This may not seem much of an accolade I remember Brian Aldiss telling me the great difficulty they had in finding candidate stories from Africa for one of his international anthologies but maybe in the early 21st century SF is growing in that continent? Perhaps more telling is that Rosewater was short-listed for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which should not be confused with the entirely different John W. Campbell Award, for best debut, which I see the publishers unfortunately have on their Rosewater cover blurb). Keep an eye on Tade Thompson.
Update: Summer 2019 and Rosewater won the Arthur C. Clarke (book) Award.
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