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The Rosetta Mind by Claire McCague

Reviewed by Robert Runté

Before reviewing Book 2, allow me a paragraph or two about Book 1: The Rosette Man. I managed to miss it entirely when it first came out (amid the ongoing avalanche of new Canadian SF&F), but was later fortunate to catch McCague giving a reading. I was so impressed, I bought and downloaded the novel within the first five minutes of her reading the opening.

The Rosetta Man is among the cleverest, most riveting first-contact adventures ever. The aliens are intriguingly alien, the hero is neuro-diverse, and the cast of dozens are all wonderfully at odds with each other on how to respond to the aliens' arrival. McCague casually destroys first-contact cliches by having the aliens land in a park in Wellington, New Zealand, rather than on the White House lawn; our protagonist is an unassuming Canadian reluctantly caught up in events, rather than the typical American alpha male winning his way to goals of his choosing; and there are no flying saucers, Gort-like robots, or drooling monsters. McCague’s real genius, however, is using the theatre of the absurd to create an edge-of-the-seat spy-thriller/end-of-days actioner. I cannot recommend The Rosetta Man strongly enough: more fun than any Marvel blockbuster.

Anyone who read The Rosetta Man probably had The Rosetta Mind on pre-order because readers need to find out what happens next. If you haven’t already read The Rosetta Man, though, you should probably hold off until you have. Some sequels can stand on their own, but in this instance, without Book 1, Book 2 would simply be . . . incomprehensible.

Not that McCague doesn’t attempt to ease the reader into the situation—nice try with the prologue—but there are way too many characters to sort out, and even if one could, knowing what happened previously isn’t remotely helpful. It’s not the knowing, but the believing that’s at issue. The only way a reader could accept where Book 2 starts is to have followed McCague’s meticulously taking the reader, step by logical step, through the sequence of events that leads, as if inevitably, to the ridiculous situation in which our hero now finds himself. The Governor General of Canada negotiating with a tree full of cuttlefish? A ghost in the living room? That’s the sort of nonsense up with which a discerning reader would not put.

Unless they read Book 1, in which case, yeah, of course, should have seen that coming.

Book 2, The Rosetta Mind, is in no way a disappointment—but it’s entirely different in structure and content from Book 1. There’s no running about in Book 2; everything takes place in the hero’s Picture Butte home (albeit now occupied by aliens in the upstairs cupboard). Instead, the two dozen characters from the first book, along with half a dozen new ones like the Governor General, stand around discussing science, philosophy, and options.

I can’t decide if the science is cutting-edge, scientific speculation, or if McCague is just making stuff up. Take for example, this exposition on the nature of diamonds used in the alien micro-fusion generators:

“Diamonds have exquisite properties,” he said. “They have a near-magical role in quantum technology. They are used in magnetic sensors—the kind that can read the signal from a single neuron. Complete transparency across visible wavelengths. Extremely high thermal conductivity. Low thermal expansion. Extreme radiation hardness. High melting point which increases under pressure. Density that increases when it melts.”

“And we use them for rings and pretty things,” Troughton said.

“Because they are magical,” Sanford answered.

Okay, is that true? Did we just learn something about diamonds? I mean, McCague is an actual materials engineering, nanotech, sustainable power source scientist—so, yes? But there are dozens of pages of this sort of exposition, at least some of which must be pure alien fantasy.

Weirdly, McCague’s talking heads sequences all work, as do the equally complicated philosophical explorations of how the unique environments of different lifeforms lead to divergent understandings of the meaning, purpose, and ethics of life. Weirder still are the frequent telepathic dream sequences, which you would think would be hopelessly tedious, but really aren’t.

And there’s still the underlying tension over who should get access to the aliens and who must not, and does anyone really trust the Canadians to be fully transparent and not to hold some advantages back?

However absurd any of it gets, McCague makes every character, their motivations and actions, entirely believable. The Governor General isn’t some off-the-shelf stereotype, she’s exactly who we need for the next GG. Our hero isn’t some Hollywood leading man but more the cat lady from down the block. You’ve met all these people, and you completely get why they’re doing what they’re doing. You haven’t met the aliens or the cuttlefish before, but it’s good to be open to new things.

So, maybe don’t read this more philosophical book before Book 1—but there is nothing stopping you from buying it now, so it’s at hand when you finish The Rosetta Man.

The Rosetta Series is published by Edge Publishing, Calgary.


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