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“But young Momo, sitting there on the Rapid Transit, had never even touched real sea water. She pressed her tiny palm against the window of the compartment and looked through the glass to the protective water membrane beyond it, and beyond that to the ocean. The ocean: just a membrane on the surface of a giant apple.” Originally published in Complex Chinese in 1995, Chi Ta-Wei’s The Membranes is known in Taiwan as an iconic piece of queer speculative fiction. Last year, Professor Ari Larissa Heinrich translated Chi’s work for the English-speaking world, giving readers a unique insight into the post-martial law Taiwanese imagination. Setting the story within a dystopian future, Chi explores a variety of themes: sexuality and gender, personal identity, the ethics of climate change, the ethics of war, bodily autonomy, and the enduring human spirit in an age of pervasive technology. Because of the scope of themes explored, and the narrative methods Chi uses to explore them, determining what The Membranes is about depends on the lens through which it’s viewed. What knits the 168-page science/climate fiction novella together is the theme of isolation vs togetherness, particularly in relation to technology.
In the 22nd century, humanity has scorched the earth. The hole in the ozone has increased to such a degree that skin cancers become the leading cause of death. Attempts to undo the catastrophic results of global warming were futile, so a new kind of “Noah’s Ark” was created. But instead of an ark to ride the rising seas, it took humans deep under the protective membrane of the ocean. There, a new society develops, and the earth’s surface becomes a wasteland, the only way to navigate it without burning alive being elaborate, full-body UV protective gear. Due to skin sensitivity from the lack of exposure in the bubble world under the ocean (and the ever-increasing importance of youth and physical perfection), skin care is a highly prized profession. Enter Chi’s protagonist, a dermal care specialist, Momo.
Although Momo (the name means “peach” in Japanese) could live a highly social life if she wanted to, she instead spends all her time alone in her clinic, where she lives and works. Except for her clients, from whom she only takes advance bookings, she has no social interactions, and no friendships or romantic relationships. Initially, Chi’s descriptions of her daily life sound like descriptions of modern isolation: anything that could once be done in person, can now be done digitally – in some cases, there is no other choice – and the line between an introvert and a recluse has become blurred. Her lifestyle is remarked upon by a client who gifts her a small dog: “Momo, you’re a like a freak walled off by membranes and clinging desperately to your routines!”
We soon learn that Momo’s isolated life is not so much the cause of her loneliness, but a reaction to it. When Momo was a young child, she caught a virus that required a lengthy hospitalization, followed by multiple organ transplants. Because of her compromised immune system, she was kept in total isolation while she awaited her surgery. Her only contact with her mother (called only “Mother” throughout the book) was through screens and glass barriers. Momo is angry and feels that her mother has betrayed and abandoned her. (These feelings remain and become a fixture in Momo’s life long after the surgery.) One day, she’s given a playmate, a girl her age called Andy. It’s explained that Andy has been completely sterilized, and therefore poses no threat to Momo’s immune system. The reality is that Andy is a cyborg and it’s her organs which will be used for Momo’s transplants. Although the girls are only 10 years old, they develop a close, sexually explorative relationship. It’s during this time that we learn that Momo was born intersex, and a secondary purpose of her transplant surgery is to turn her into a biological girl.
Momo isn’t very identified with her body nor does she display any kind of attachment to her gender. It’s viewed more as a childlike fascination. In the hospital, Andy and Momo enjoy playing “doctor” together. During this time of sexual awakening, Momo gets the sense that she would like to “eat Andy up until she was in her belly, and she wanted Andy to eat her up too.” She tries to satisfy the urge by biting off Andy’s finger. Of course, unbeknownst to Momo, Andy is a cyborg and doesn’t experience pain, and Momo doesn’t seem to expect her to. Has Momo been so isolated that she can’t intuit another person’s primal physical reactions? Do we anticipate the reactions of others based on learned experience, or a biological connection? Or is Momo missing something essential: “Momo believed the human body contained a kind of hormone-releasing gland or organ. [She] felt she’d been placed on the operating table and had her hormone-producing gland plucked out at some point without her knowing it.” Many readers might understand the urge to devour as sexual in nature, but Momo’s reaction, after attempting to eat Andy’s finger, is to ask Andy to bite off her penis. Instead of sexual pleasure, Momo experiences intense pain and Andy is unsuccessful at even breaking the skin. Does biology play a role – and to what extent – in linking sexual urge and sexual expression? (Additionally, behavior like this between two human children would be considered disturbed and disordered. But when the doctors discover what Momo and Andy – which is short for “android” – have been “playing at”, it’s considered exactly that: play. Chi brushes on the connection between sexuality and violence, blending them and thereby, in this futuristic context, negating them.)
In this future, the human body is modular; out of necessity or preference, anything about a person’s body can be changed and augmented, often using cyborg parts. This poses larger questions than those related to the ethics of sexual reassignment, questions such as: what about us is us? In what part of the human body does human nature lie? And if a human is augmented with artificial body parts, to what extent does that change the nature of a person? Does technology corrupt the human body, or is human nature powerful enough to alter whatever technology is placed inside it? In the end, Chi does answer these questions, and in the most unexpected of ways.
Momo’s relationship with Andy raises questions about the nature of togetherness, feeling connected to another person, and feeling connected to oneself. If the first big abandonment in Momo’s life was Mother leaving her alone in the hospital, the second was when she woke up from her surgery and discovered that Andy was missing. After her time in the hospital, Mother had told Momo that her body and Andy’s body were one, and that Andy was always with her. “She loved the togetherness of reading with Andy, but even if she was now reading literally through Andy’s eyes, it could never compare to that feeling of togetherness. Now, even though she and Andy had been fully merged – like coffee with coffee creamer, where she was the coffee and Andy was the powder – she couldn’t talk with her anymore.” To experience togetherness, must there be some element of distance, of separateness? And does a connection without boundary result in a blurry concept of who we are as individuals?
In a sense, The Membranes is not only about the layers of separation that surround a person, but also those that surround humanity, and what happens when those layers are disrupted. There is the ozone layer, a vital membrane which allows humans to live on the surface of the earth, largely unharmed by UV radiation. Once that was compromised, humans moved under the ocean – another membrane of protection. But within that, barriers – political and environmental – were needed to maintain an atmosphere in which humans could live. The sea and its creatures, always visible to Momo, was permanently out of reach. Just like Mother on the computer screen – both while Momo was in the hospital and in the years following, as their relationship remained estranged. In adulthood, sexual experiences were only available to Momo through “M-skin”, a protective “smart” membrane used in her dermal care practice, which recorded everything that happened physically to a client. This barrier enabled Momo to stay isolated and experience her clients’ sexual experiences virtually: a kind of futuristic voyeurism. M-skin has other intended uses, which prompt readers to contemplate the reach of technology into a human life, and the ethics associated with that. Finally, Momo often experiences herself as being “a canary in a cage.” She’s unable to define this barrier within herself, this membrane which makes her feel separate and isolated from others. And it’s only when this membrane is compromised – in a twist near the end of the novella – that she’s able to discover the truth about her past.
The Membranes is a kind of meta-novella. To understand this, it helps to reflect on the time it was written. Chi, a Taiwanese scholar and professor, composed this work less than 10 years after martial law ended in Taiwan. He made use of the influx of global cultural influences, frequently referencing philosophers, artists, writers, and film directors throughout the book. In doing so, he mirrored himself in Momo: Chi used the expanded cultural vocabulary to create something entirely new within Taiwanese literature. In his main character, Momo, it’s her access to cultural history (which has been entirely digitized) that helps her create meaning from her feelings and experiences. Even within the text itself there’s a kind of mise-en-abyme (a term Chi uses later in the book)causing the reader to wonder if the infinite mirroring effect was intentional. In one scene, Momo refers to a quote by Nietzsche as referenced by Stephen King. But we also realize that it isn’t Momo making this reference, but the author himself. And lastly, another level exits: that of the reader. Through the individual lens of the person reading – including everything they’ve experienced, the culture and time they live in, and their inherent persuasions – translucent “membranes” of meaning are discovered, each one changing in the progression of discovery.
Chi Ta-Wei’s classic novella is almost overwhelming in the complexity of its themes. To look at it just on the level of the plot, it would be easy to simply label the book as science fiction. But it’s within the setting of the dystopian future that Chi takes us on a journey, membrane through membrane, each one posing its own kind of question. To what extent is biology linked to destiny? Does personal identity live in the body, or is it more elusive? Is there a point when intimacy becomes excessive, breaking down any feeling of togetherness? Is it possible for technology to reach a point where it cancels out human nature entirely? And lastly, if our lived experiences – as authors of a book, as protagonists in a book, as readers of a book – are influenced by the memory of everything that has come before, are those experiences simply reflections of themselves, extending forever into an abyss? Chi successfully guides readers through these questions, delivering a shocking, almost horrific ending. The Membranes is a treasure in that it offers readers something new in each subsequent reading, and it is certain to increase in relevance as we move into our own future.
by Chi Ta-wei
Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich
Columbia University Press, 168 pages
Eleanor is an American writer and graduate student. Originally from New York and Hawaii, she spent 10 years working in Czechia, Poland, and China as an EFL teacher before settling in Austria. She holds a Bachelor’s of Liberal Arts from The New School, studied French at the Alliance Française, and speaks fluent German. Her short stories and essays have appeared on 21-magazine.org and the Sunday Writer's Club blog. She publishes weekly flash fiction on Instagram. When she's not reading, writing, or studying, she cooks, hikes, and tries to make friends with stray cats.