Tade Thompson (The Murders of Molly Southbourne) begins a fascinating, wonderfully challenging new trilogy with Rosewater, a book that is, on the surface, a detective story involving a psychic government agent and a mysterious alien structure that appears in a remote part of Nigeria in the near future. What emerges from the soil beneath is a complex story of politics and societal shifts in the face of world-changing upheaval.
In the Nigeria of the mid-21st century, a makeshift town has sprung up around a mysterious dome that inexplicably appeared there some time in the recent past. Though the structure is alien in origin, its purpose is unclear—its influences can be malign, but also dramatically beneficial. Approximately once a year, people come from far and wide to take advantage of the healing powers released by the structure, but the effects aren’t entirely predictable, and sometimes leave pilgrims mangled and malformed—and those who die are left vulnerable to soulless reanimation. Still, HIV and cancer are completely curable in this altered world, and that alone makes the journey worth the risk.
This is all the backdrop for the story of Kaaro, a former thief and sometimes rogue government agent, first recruited for his unique sensitivity to the minds of others. For in the new world of the dome, a small portion of humans have developed empathic and telepathic powers, to greater and lesser degrees, and Kaaro is near the top of the scale. As a young man, he used his abilities to hunt down his neighbors’ valuables. As an adult, he’s tasked with interrogating subversives and potential public enemies, even as turbulent political waters leave those categories clouded.
Though generally mercenary in his considerations, Kaaro is ultimately pushed too far by his handlers in Section 45, threads of classic noir run thread through the story. A reluctant hero (when he’s being heroic at all), there’s a strong sense throughout that Kaaro’s sins and flaws might ultimately be his undoing, and it can be hard to like him even as he narrates his own story. Over the course of decades, Thompson lays out Kaaro’s life in a strictly non-linear fashion, with the alien dome in Rosewater always lurking in the background and growing in significance as its mysteries (and connections to Kaaro’s abilities) are laid bare. Two main threads are gradually woven together: in the present of 2066, Kaaro’s fellow “Sensitives” are getting ill and dying; and just over 10 years prior, he hunts for the political activist known as Bicycle Girl—once believed to be an urban legend, but now very much on the government’s radar.
Despite the alien technology, the telepathy, the walking corpses, Thompson’s has crafted a future Nigeria that’s surprisingly believable. This isn’t an entirely optimistic future, nor is it one of unfettered space travel or in which technology has solved every problem. Fifty years hence, computer implants are commonplace, but they’re as often used for tracking by government officials as they are for recreation or communications. The tech may change but people remain largely the same.
Nigeria has been fertile soil for groundbreaking, broadly popular science fiction at least as far back as when Nnedi Okorafor’s aliens landed off the coast of Lagos in Lagoon. Thompson situates the fictional town of Rosewater, and Nigeria more broadly, as the center of Kaaro’s universe, and smartly avoids hand-holding for American or European readers. In fact, by 2066, America seems to be a non-entity: at some point, the US cut itself off from the rest of the world entirely. Thompson’s future Nigeria is a country in which the scars of colonialism are fading but still visible, in which an imposing alien structure offers new opportunities for growth and hope, but also for greed. The alien dome, which people refer to as Wormwood, appeared first in London before settling in the African nation, a fairly straightforward allusion to the country’s colonial past—still only a century past by the novel’s beginning.
Thompson’s style of storytelling can be daunting: the book tracks multiple threads over multiple timeframes, revealing Kaaro’s past alongside his present. At the outset, it reads as a deeply esoteric and complex bit of science fiction, but quickly comes down to earth as the story of Kaaro comes into focus. Thompson is adept at juggling all of it, and each plotline is engaging on its own, laden with carefully placed cliffhangers that propel the story forward. Still, this is one to read closely and with consideration. It is, on one level, an engaging future noir about a flawed protagonist falling into the role of reluctant hero while coming to grips with an alien mystery, and that alone would make for a solid read. But Thompson’s ambitions are greater, and alongside the complex puzzles and multiple mysteries, he has a great deal to say about the ways in which individuals, whatever their nations of origin, respond to oppressive governments. Though often jet-black in tone, Rosewater suggests that hope for the future isn’t in technology, but in the unlikely heroism of people pushed too far.