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African sci-fi: body hopping, artificial wombs and angry ghosts in a future Botswana

TLOTLO Tsamaase has already proved her talent for African science fiction. Her masterly short stories, one previously shortlisted for the Caine Prize, are helping put Botswana on the literary map.

Her debut novel, Womb City, interweaves the mythological and digital expanses of Batswana culture in a dystopian fashion. We encounter a distant future world in which women remain charged with ensuring their own survival in the face of attempts to erase and control them.

As a scholar of African science fiction and speculative fiction, I explore how authors like Tsamaase are employing these global genres to ask questions about race, gender, technology and culture – in local and self-determined ways.

The latest wave of science fiction in Africa was spearheaded by South African and Nigerian authors like Lauren Beukes and Nnedi Okorafor. But over the last decade room has been made for geographic expansion across the continent and crossovers into other exciting media like films, comic books and animation.

Tsamaase is part of the newer generation of writers whose work is actively shaping African science fiction in exciting ways. It is quite a feat to translate the sparsely populated, and otherwise unassuming, southern African country of Botswana into hyperreal science fiction, but this is exactly what Womb City sets out to deliver.

What it’s about

Our main protagonist, Nelah, is a brazen, intelligent and witty Motswana woman. She owns her own company and has won numerous architectural awards for her humanitarian projects. Yet, she is also refreshingly flawed through her personal choices and the inherited body she occupies.

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In a world where people can body hop, she has lived through many life cycles, and her current body is equipped with a microchip. Residing in a microchipped body results in stigmatisation and routine screenings because only bodies that have previously committed crimes have been microchipped.

While these microchips have eliminated crime in Botswana, those who have been assigned microchipped bodies by the Body Hop Facility remain subjects of suspicion and surveillance. Tsamaane’s exploration of body hopping raises interesting questions about what it means to be human; are our bodies mere vessels for human consciousness or do they store deep-seated memories that alter the patterns of personalities? In addition, the novel implies that the prospects of body hopping will open us up to new vulnerabilities that come with body sharing, but also old problems like the neocolonial exploitation of third-world bodies that are appropriated by the rich to increase their lifespans.

Nelah has inherited not only a microchipped body but also an infertile one. As a result, her arrogant husband Elifasi traps her in a loveless marriage that yields no happiness nor the child she desperately wishes to conceive. Eventually opting to have a baby through a Wombcubator Pod, Nelah grows content as she watches her daughter develop in its artificial womb. But it is not long before she is called to defend her unborn child by making an impossible decision.

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After she lands herself in a car accident, she knows that she should save the young girl that she bumped with her car by calling an ambulance and facing arrest, but the thought of her unborn child being left with Elifasi or confiscated by the government is too painful to consider.

Much to Nelah’s dismay, the young girl, Moremi, resurrects as a terrifyingly vengeful ghost with a hitlist. The visual texture of the novel further emerges as the ghost often narrates events in cinematic terms. Placed against the fierce might of this murderous, time-space-hopping ghost, Nelah must make a plan to ensure everyone’s survival.

The narrative plays out like a manic adventure that demonstrates Tsamaase’s ability to genre-blend with enormous ease as Africanfuturism dances alongside a dark thriller that is infused with humour and romance.

A bleak future

Nelah and Moremi make for a compelling set of protagonists. They uncover secrets that lead to unexpected twists in the novel, most of which paint an exceptionally bleak picture of future Botswana.

Beneath the surface of technological change and systemic order, the country is riddled with corruption that is primarily driven by money and a masculine entitlement to women’s bodies. The scale of evil manipulation is so large that the status quo must be brought to its knees by those brave enough to challenge it.

The novel’s conclusion echoes female protagonists in earlier, prominent Africanfuturist works, like Kenyan writer and filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi and Okorafor’s Lagoon.

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But for such an independent, irreverent and bold protagonist, the ending seems sentimental and cliché. Instead of imagining trenchant solutions to imperfect African futures, it feels as if it is escaping them through Utopian feminist fantasies.

Coming in at a hefty 402 pages, Womb City crams in far too many issues and plot twists and gives the impression of authorly anxiety over leaning into long form narratives with control and confidence. Overall, however, these are the early awakenings of a vibrant career, and I look forward to what Tsamaase will write next.

NEDINE MOONSAMY, Associate Professor, University of Johannesburg

By NEDINE MOONSAMY

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