The title of this book is most fitting, for Momo is all about what this calls membranes – barriers both physical and psychological.  She’s very insular and closed off; she creates membranes as she puts skin treatments only she can remove with her patent technology on to the stars and celebrity journalists she works for; she lives under a colossal membrane as the city is an underwater one; oh, and she’s just been gifted a rarity, a living non-android dog, that had to fight through an amniotic membrane courtesy of a helpless mother.
There is of course a further membrane – that between the author and the reader.  Here it can at times seem a large one, with a great welter of exposition telling us who is topside, living on the land still; what happened to cause the migration under the waves (including a lot of white-on-black race riots, as the ozone hole left a lot of skin cancers in unprotected white people, in something that really gives the fact this dates from the 1990s away); and even in one arch beat, who Microsoft had once been.  It’s quite the extended tell-not-show example, and it’s not fabulously appealing.
One phrase in particular stuck in my throat when reading this – “Put simply, imagine…”  It’s not the style of a novelist, but more of a future encyclopaedia relating things to us while failing to gain a chatty approach.  Novels should never have to ask us to “imagine”, for we should be doing that anyway.  But the saving grace, at least as regards the rest of that sentence, is that it is a sterling idea we’re asked to imagine, one that suitably marries with Momo’s seemingly non-existent sex, emotional or social life.  It’s a concept that makes you see past the fact the author had foreseen so little going digital between the book’s writing’s 1995 and the setting’s 2100, and allows you to see this author come up trumps.
However…  That concept is concerning the character’s present, yet the story dives into her past – a time when she was ten years old and woke up after major surgery without a penis.  Here sci-fi ideas that are quite well-trodden, such as the cyborg, avatar or golem growing alongside us to provide replacement organs etc, come to the fore.  And it’s only when you see later on how all these ideas, old and new, gender-concerned and not, merge together, that the sheer power of this piece comes to the fore.  The rug-pulling has been so subtle no seismometer would ever have sensed it, but by the end we’re upended by it all in quite dramatic fashion.  I can see why people would dislike such an approach, especially with the expository style carried throughout, but for me this is the definition of a slow-burner, and proves a success in the end.
Review by John Lloyd

Published by Columbia University Press (1 Jun. 2021)
Paperback, ISBN 978-0231195713