Friday, February 9, 2024

Review: Womb City by Tlotlo Tsamaase

Womb City is a fusion of body horror, cyberpunk, dystopia, and a crime thriller all wrapped in an Afrofuturist setting. Think Handmaid's Tale meets Minority Report meets Get Out. (No spoilers).

In Womb City, we meet Nelah, an architect who lives in a futuristic Botswana with her police officer husband, Eli. Things aren't so copacetic, however. Implanted in the back of her head à la Johnny Mnenomic (and the now real-life Neuralink) lives a microchip that records everything she does and sees. 

Her husband reviews this tape daily, but not necessarily for the reasons you think (glimpses into potential affairs and lying are icing on the cake). Instead, it's because Nelah's body isn't the one she was born with. Nelah — her living personality and soul — currently inhabits a different body, and this one used to be a criminal. 

The world-building is top-tier

In this society, body-hopping is a frequent occurrence, but if your consciousness finds itself in a body that used to be "bad," you'll be monitored for recidivism, both by your family and by the state in a yearly criminal evaluation that can predict if you'll commit a crime. 

Because of the microchips and the subsequent 24/7 surveillance, crime is not common in this dystopia, but the price people pay is privacy and free will. 

A brief plot summary

Nelah and Eli are trying to conceive a child, but she is seemingly barren, so the couple turn to a Wombcubator, an external uterus that can grow a child to full-term. Because it's a dystopia, however, there's a catch. If you don't make every payment, the plug is pulled on the Wombcubator quickly and callously. (The Wombcubator made me think of the uterine replicators in Bujold's Barrayar.)

Nelah and Eli are accordingly stressed. Adding to their waning marriage is the fact that she is also having an affair with a rich businessman. One evening, on a wild night filled with sex and drugs in a fast car, the two hit and kill a woman, then bury the body instead of going to the police. 

The rest of the novel deals with the fallout from this enormous mistake, and it involves revenge, mythology (I had no familiarity with Botswanian history before reading this book, but the mirroring of the country's history of religious reincarnation with scientific body-hopping reincarnation is a fresh and fascinating take on sci-fi trope), supernatural forces, and a huge society-wide conspiracy regarding the mysterious Murder Trials (yes, that sounds like the Hunger Games, and yes, it's not an entirely unrelated concept). 

Even just typing all this out is difficult — the book does a lot in a short amount of time, and it can get confusing. There are also multiple plot twists around several corners, and these serve to tie a few plot strands together, even if they don't always need to be related.

Our bodies and who inhabit them — I can't stop thinking about this idea

There have been tons of books, movies, and TV shows about body hopping through the years, but Womb City really got me thinking for a few days about the mind-body duality. That, to me, is a sign of a great book. I turn to sci-fi for new ideas and predictions about the future, and Womb City definitely delivers. 

Nelah's inhabited her most recent body for about 10 years, and she still maintains ties with the body's original family. This relationship is fraught, however, as you could probably expect. She shows up on her family's doorstep on the day of the body's funeral. Just imagine burying your daughter, then a few hours later, she shows up alive with the personality and soul of a stranger. And then, you take her in as part of your family. 

I texted my mom if she'd want to hang out my body if someone else's soul was in it, and she thought for a minute and replied, "I think I would. I love your smile." Meanwhile, when I asked friends the same question, they said no, and I believe this reveals something Tsamaase was trying to get at in the novel. Mothers tend to have a strong corporeal connection to their child, considering that children literally come from a mother's body. Friends, on the other hand, are drawn to a person's personality and thoughts, generally speaking.

It's a question that's been thrown around society for thousands of years — Plato was talking about it in ancient Greece — but Womb City is adding more nuance to the debate, and it works extremely well.

For a first novel, it's very ambitious, but I was along for the ride

Womb City won't be for everyone, but if you're interested in a novel chock full of ideas and takes on the future in a futuristic Africa and don't mind the thriller-like pace and tons of body horror, you'll enjoy it. I can't wait to see what else Tlotlo Tsamaase brings us next. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: Intriguing ideas that harken back to classic sci-fi ideas but are presented in new and very engaging ways; incredible suspense and body horror; twists that keep on coming; the cover is going to be one of the coolest of the year, I'm sure.

Penalties: Perhaps too many twists and plot changes; there's a lot going on in this book and it may be too much for some folks.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.