2016’s Rosewater is Tade Thompson’s second novel; it follows 2015’s (unrelated) mystery Making Wolf.
Kaaro was once a talented thief. Now he’s a very reluctant member of Nigeria’s Section Forty-five, an obscure branch of the Ministry of Agriculture. S45 specializes in the odd and weird, the occult phenomena that have become all too real in the world created by the alien incursion of 2015.Nowhere on the world is the strange as present as it is in Kaaro’s hometown of Rosewater, which formed around an alien dome (known as Utopicity) in the 2050s.
Utopicity seems happy to remain sealed and indifferent to humanity but the lifeforms it released have spread quietly across the world. A lucky few have been transformed. Kaaro is one of those changed ; that’s why he has ESP. Which in turn makes him valuable to S45.
Kaaro is a reluctant draftee, but he’s also too lazy to do anything strenuous to escape his bureaucratic servitude. He limits his protest to habitual insubordination. Happily for Kaaro, adventure is coming for him.
Kaaro would be the first to admit that he is missing some vital element of humanity, that is, morality. In the past, he used his abilities to steal, whereby to fund a lifestyle of immediate gratification: prostitutes, drugs, and alcohol. He feels no gratitude for any kindness; if he helps anyone, it’s only because he wants something in return. Still, he knows that he is outside, wistfully looking into human community.
Fellow psychic Bola plots to entice bachelor Kaaro back into that community, hoping that love will thaw his frozen heart. She arranges date after unrequested date for the indifferent Kaaro. He continues impervious … until he meets Aminat. Aminat and Kaaro form an unexpected and entirely genuine bond. Love is entirely new to Kaaro and, as one might expect, he has few applicable skills.
While Kaaro is busy learning how to be a reliable boyfriend and dealing with Aminat’s own interesting baggage, S45 presents him with a new mystery to solve. He’s not all that interested. He would be if he knew what his superiors at S45 had hidden from him. One by one, Sensitives like Kaaro are dying off. The die-off is slow but seemingly unstoppable. S45 has no idea what is killing the Sensitives nor any ability to prevent or cure it.
In fact, of his entire cohort of Sensitives, Kaaro is the only survivor. And he’s developed a nagging cough….
I usually discuss the author’s missteps early in the review so that I can build from the negative to the positive. Rosewater is deplorably deficient in such missteps.
The aliens responsible for Utopicity arrived on Earth in 2015, half a century before the events of the novel take place. This might indicate that Rosewater took some time to get to print; however, I think it more likely that the author is writing alternate history. The 2015 arrival was not the first time the aliens landed on Earth; it was only the first time they managed to establish a foothold.
This is also a hard SF novel, in that there is a physical mechanism that facilitates telepathy and it isn’t just quantum woo. The details of how exactly ESP works in Thompson’s world affect how it can be used. Anyone familiar with the biology involved could invent some fairly straightforward countermeasures1 . Some people may find the details a bit horrific … but after all, this is no worse than the possibility that millions of people around the world are T. gondii’s meat puppets.
As intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic go, Earth’s new masters don’t seem like such a bad lot … at least if you compare them to conventional human colonialists. True, they control everything that matters to them; their long-term plans are not in our best interests; and there is absolutely nothing any human can do about it2 . Most humans are free to ignore all that, at least for the moment; it’s no more relevant to their daily lives than climate change. It’s not as if the aliens have turned severed human hands into a currency.
Kaaro could very easily have been an extremely unsympathetic character. His rudimentary sense that he lacks something important makes him something other than a selfish sociopath, as does his disinclination to knowingly harm other people without a good reason. (Although the fact that he doesn’t set out to hurt people does not mean he has not hurt people. In fact, he has left a trail of dead and damaged people in his wake, as a consequence of his crimes. All of which he eventually realizes, to his horror.) His struggle to become worthy of Aminat also helps redeem him.
Whether Kaaro’s struggle matters given his context, I could not say. But really, he is no more and no less doomed than any of us: the one guarantee in this world is total oblivion: in a billion years it won’t matter what decisions anyone makes today. Or in 2066.
Rosewater is available here.
1: Shades of one roleplaying game wherein one of the first things my telepath did was work out the physics of telepathy, followed in short order by monetizing that information. He invented and sold affordably priced mind-screens.
2: Well, the US managed to sequester their entire nation. The glimpse we get of the US suggests that the costs of that strategy may outweigh the benefits.