First Contact in Nigeria: a Review of Tade Thompson’s Rosewater (2018)

In these troubled times when some of the more worrying possibilities from science fiction seem close to reality – personally I was hoping for jet-packs and utopian cities on Mars but hey – there are those who wish to continue reading about fictional apocalypse, plagues and viruses, and others who definitely do not! 

Well Rosewater, Tade Thompson’s debut from 2018, would make a good half-way house. It contains enough fast-paced, cyber-tech, thriller action to stop you focussing too much on uncomfortably-familiar plotlines such as the rapid spread of alien fungal spores or the disease killing off a team of secret government telepaths. 

Still with me? Cool. Rosewater won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2019, the most prestigious science fiction award in the UK, so it’s far from just me recommending this one. Thompson was born in London, and grew up in Nigeria, returning to study medicine and social anthropology at Brunel University, which is local to us here in Hillingdon. 

A vision of Nigeria in 2066 forms the setting for Rosewater, in which London has been engulfed and the US rendered out-of-communication by a global alien appearance. These mysterious extraterrestrials have built a dome around a city in rural Nigeria, which causes people in its vicinity to be miraculously healed and even the dead to reawaken into a kind of zombie-state. Our protagonist Kaaro is a “sensitive”, one of those government telepaths I mentioned, who is out to interrogate terrorist suspects using his special skills and find out why his colleagues are dying off. Along the way he gets tangled up in some strange virtual worlds, a plot to colonise humankind, and some kidnapping, for good measure.   

If this all sounds complex… well, it is. But Thompson’s writing is gritty and fluid, and his characters are convincing and complex, so I was definitely hooked from the outset and more than willing to piece it all together. I found myself waiting for some key revelations about the nature of the aliens which didn’t arrive in this novel – so I immediately bought the sequel, Rosewater: Insurrection. If you love your cyberpunk, then Thompson’s book will certainly appeal to fans of William Gibson and Altered Carbon, while there’s plenty here for lovers of hard science fiction, space opera, and weird science fiction. Kaaro’s role is part-spy, part-hitman, and there’s plenty of tropes from the crime thriller, so I’d say that Thompson’s success can be partly attributed to his ability to effortlessly combine many genres and styles into an enticing story. 

Thompson is one of many sci-fi writers with African heritage whose work has came to global prominence in the last few years, such as Nnedi Okarafor, Lauren Beukes and Nalo Hopkinson, and the field of Afrofuturism or African-futurism is booming.

The writer Geoff Ryman recently published a massive and detailed list of 100 African writers of science fiction that is essential reading for anyone interested in this aspect of the rising interest in global speculative fiction.  

If you want a fascinating, strange and unique book that you can escape into without entirely leaving the real-world behind, then Rosewater comes highly recommended.