This review is a bit late. There is simply so, so much contained within Rosewater — many themes, many characters, many pages — that it took me longer than I’d anticipated to wrap my head around it well enough to talk about it. Doubtless some stones will remain unturned. I hope you get a chance to read Tade Thompson’s incredible novel so you can see what I have and more.
Kaaro is one of a handful of sensitives, people with various psychic powers thanks to xenoforms, microscopic alien organisms brought to earth by a giant blob from space. This giant blob landed in London before burrowing underground and eventually causing a giant energy dome to surface in rural Nigeria. Temporary research camps encircle the dome, forming a temporary town; when the dome is found to open once a year and mystically heal the sick, Rosewater comes to life with people from far and wide. Within this city, Kaaro uses his powers as a bank security specialist by day and a covert government operative by night, all of which goes awry when a mysterious illness starts killing sensitives. Despite his terse demeanor and narrative style, Kaaro is an insightful man with a complicated past that we learn throughout the novel’s various timejumps and interludes.
Thompson’s dedication to worldbuilding shines through in the casual details he drops about the world: a semi-cult who identify as machines and riddle their bodies with implants, the modern-but-not-innovative train that circles the dome clockwise and counterclockwise, the mysterious failed space station Nautilus that hangs in the night sky. While I did feel a bit lost sometimes with all the time skips, they always felt rooted in reality. If the events and characters are the weft, giving color and pattern to this narrative, Nigerian life and Yoruba custom are the warp that gives it structure. Thompson draws on his Yoruba heritage and upbringing in Nigeria in his depiction of Rosewater and Lagos, another Nigerian city. Through his words I tasted and smelt the suya Kaaro eats at a roadside stand, felt the heat from the smoldering remains of reanimated bodies “restored” by the dome, and sprinted down a dusty road from a killer robot. Yoruba mysticism and magic are not invalidated but reinterpreted through xenoform activity. Names and phrases in Yoruba are translated — a choice some may question, but one I believe helps to make them more impactful to those who don’t speak the language.
Rosewater is better termed as Africanfuturism than Afrofuturism. America has been dark for nearly half a century when Thompson walks us through the doors of Integrity Bank; the nation is both a distant memory and a lurking question. But Africans and African Americans are not placed in opposition; rather, America is mostly out of the question. Thompson decenters America, so often seen as the heart of science fiction, and centers Nigeria. But this is not Black Panther, with an idyllic view of a super hi-tech society divorced from the darkness in Africa’s past. Kaaro sees
“[t]he blood and sweat of slaves in a stew of their own anguish at being removed from their motherland, the guilt of slavers, the prolonged pain of colonisation, the riots, the CIA interference, the civil war, the genocide of the Igbos, the tribal pogroms, the terrorism” that are just barely belied by futuristic implants and the Internet’s three-dimensional successor, Nimbus. No, this is not Black Panther, and this is not Cyberpunk 2077, with its neon towers and flying cars. But Rosewater is an equally honest vision of the future, one that I had not considered before and that I am so glad I have found.