Cover Image: The Membranes

The Membranes

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

How many times do I start a review with the phrase "unlike anything I'd ever read before"?  Pretty much a given, and that speaks to the richness of a magnificent cast of mostly new writers that has been finding themselves published lately.  But this book was written over a quarter a century ago, and is perhaps even more relevant today than ever.  And damned prescient. 

"Membranes" is a first novel by a 23 year old Taiwanese author with a sense of pacing, a sense of humor, and a sense of what makes compelling science fiction in a world that, to my generation at least, is already steeped in a science fiction-based reality.  The book takes place in the year 2100, and the Earth's inhabitants live in a number of vast enclosures under the sea (thank you, climate change), the land no longer inhabitable.  The protagonist, Momo, a 30-something "aesthetician," is invited by her mother for a reunion some 20 years after their separation.  As we approach and then live through the pages of the reunion, we're starting to see pieces of Momo that she possibly could not have imagined, but we readers begin to strongly suspect - not everything in Momo's complicated life story is a walk in the park.  There are reasons for the estrangement.  Strong reasons.

A book of fiction could arguably be considered nothing BUT fiction, from start to finish, so why not extend that to the author's name, biography and the publication?  Because frankly, the author was too young to write this engagingly, the book too fresh, too new to be written in 1995. But yeah.

I'm told that the translator did a bang-up job; I can tell by the smooth read of the text that I agree, but another reviewer who speaks Chinese and English pointed to a large number of pieces of wordplay that even more firmly secure Ari Larissa Heinrich in my Translator Hall of Fame.  

Okay enough gushing. The book was very good, but not without its faults.  There are tons of triggers here that should be taken into account before reading it, some quite graphic - blood, organ harvesting, animal abuse, non-consensual medical procedures, murder, gaslighting, child molestation, sexual harrassment, parental rejection for starters.

A good read, mostly fun, and worth its four star rating I'm offering. 

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a free digital ARC; neither my rating nor review were impacted by this.
Was this review helpful?
Originally published 1995, Chi Ta-Wei’s The Membranes jumps forward a little over a hundred years and depicts (predicts?) a world defined by a queer sensibility. Membranes – viscous layers that simultaneously separate and engulf reality are present everywhere in this narrative. Ari Larissa Heinrich’s English translation feels particularly apt during a time of isolation, social distancing, and protective masking. A pre-cursor to posthumanism in literature, The Membranes asks important questions about consent, embodiment, ethics, and technology. The ontology of human is challenged and tested; cartesian dualism warped beyond recognition.

The protagonist, Mimo’s, life is a series of contradictions. As a dermal care technician, her work necessitates physical intimacy but in her private life, she feels no desire for human connection. Similarly, she values her own privacy to the point of disliking video calls but applies an M-skin – a membrane like layer – to her clients’ skin which records and relays their every tactile experience to her. As Mimo’s thirtieth birthday approaches, she looks forward to her mother’s return into her life and recalls her unusual childhood. Mimo’s mother is a marketing executive for a ebook manufacturer MegaHard (no connection to MicroSoft, I’m sure). Information is reveal like onion – each membrane peeling back to get the reader closer to the core of reality, if not necessarily the truth until the final twist rattles our understanding of what it means to be human.

Representation is a key draw of this text. Departing from traditional dystopian tropes, there are no cishet human men to be found. Each character is queer is a deeply casual sense. Queerness is normalized and pervasive within this text. But that doesn’t mean the book shies away from ethical concerns surrounding queerness in the real world. Echoing recent public debates surrounding puberty blockers and HRT for trans children, The Membranes depicts a world where the wealthy can build cyborgs and replace body parts for themselves or their children – including genitals. Just as Mimo’s body is modified without her consent, her mind is further signed away to a techno-capitalist company: the ISM Corporation. As the narrator notes, thore three letters “can be found in many of the world’s most provocative hegemonic concepts: concepts such as imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, fascism, nationalism, sexism, heterosexism, racism, fundamentalism, postmodernism” and so on.

Spoiler alert: In a move that “saves” Mimo’s life, her mother licenses Mimo’s mind to a company for twenty years. Mimo’s home office is actually a repair center and when she thinks she is giving facials and dermal care to her human clients, she is actually repairing cyborg soldiers. Her perception of everything is being controlled by her licencees and is specifically designed to keep her oblivious and thus, complacent in this manufactured reality.

The tone and structure of the plot are tight and quietly reflective. World-building is not the focus; instead the book spends a considerable amount of time in Mimo’s interiority – a move that pays off at the big reveal towards the end. True to the author’s background as a professor of LGBT and disability studies, The Membranes functions as a syllabus and encourages deep reflection on a wide variety of themes.

Effectively a modern fable, The Membranes creates a punk, dystopian novella set in the near future. It is ideal for anyone who wishes to immerse themselves in a queer future which interrogates the very nature of authentic humanism.
Was this review helpful?
There are so many themes that the author explores in this novella are remarkable and becomes very hard to keep up with them. In a bleak dystopian future where much of the humanity is living under ocean, androids are used for surface level jobs - like combat, warfare, manufacturing, etc. Cyborgs exists side by side to humans and are harvested for their organs. They are made to look and talk like humans.

Momo, a thirty year old woman, is a celebrity aesthetician who has her own special trick in the business. She applies a membrane, a special membrane that's so neat and fine that people don't even realize that it exists. Only that they don't know that membrane also records their most intimate moments that Momo has complete access to when she removes them during their future sessions. 

On her thirtieth birthday, her mother visits and everything changes. That's perhaps the big twist and there is a heavy sadness to it. <i>The Membranes</i> then becomes a semi-nightmare exploration of Momo's childhood and her expanded medical conditions for which she had to undergo multiple surgeries as a child. The author plucks these brilliants notes, ideas, of sexuality, of gender, of identity and puts it all on this one character to Momo. However, unfortunately, the length of the book is too short for the character to shoulder this responsibility. Its a very enjoyable read but when the character doesn't get enough space to grow and explore before the twist in the tale changes the plot.

<i>Thank you to Netgalley and Columbia University Press for providing me with a free copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review. </i>
Was this review helpful?
THE MEMBRANES by Chi Ta-wei and translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich is a fantastic book! This is a queer dystopian fiction novel about Momo who lives underwater in the future and is reuniting with her mother after 20 years. This book was first published in Taiwan in 1995 and the central themes were very forward thinking then and still extremely relevant today. It was great to read how these characters attitudes toward gender and sexuality were so fluid. I loved the twist to the plot and how it was all revealed. So much is packed into this short novel and I loved it!
Thank you to Columbia University Press for my advance review copy!
Was this review helpful?
It is blowing my mind that this was published in 1995 in Taiwan, but only because it feels so completely fresh and relevant in 2021 with this English translation. This tight little novella is so many things it's hard to describe my absolute love for it...the immediate way you're drawn into Momo's life, the story's own construction and revelation, and the translator's note at the end is a perfect addition to make even the most clean-slate readers relax because all the context you need is there (only AFTER you finish the novella, of course.) I am so looking happy to add this to my collection and repertoire of recommendations.
Was this review helpful?
[3.5 Stars]

This was really interesting.  It was odd that different plot points were explained over and over, but overall it had a lot of intrigue and brought up some really cool questions.
Was this review helpful?
The Membranes is a novella first published in Taiwan back in 1995, which was remarkable for being a queer piece of Science Fiction dealing with cyberpunk themes.  It's a piece of literature held up as a classic of Taiwanese/Chinese SF, and this June it's being translated into English in a publication from Columbia University Press, complete with an analysis of the novella and its themes attached to the end.  

It's a really nice package honestly, of a novella I would not have gotten to otherwise, and that shows its age in some respects but in others is still very relevant.  Dealing with themes of privacy, of body transplants, of cyborgs and androids, of growing up in a world environmentally ruined, etc.  Just as importantly, it's a story about isolation and growing up, in a world where gender and sexuality is not a big deal (nearly every relevant character is a woman and one major character is trans).  And it's really interesting even now and well worth your time if you haven't encountered it before.  

Quick Plot Summary:  As she turns 30, Momo is the most celebrated dermal care technician in T City, the underwater territory of Taiwan in the 22nd Century.  But she's a woman who always seems to see everything and everyone from a distance, without any individual affections, without any romantic attachments, and estranged from her famous mother for the last 20 years.  But unknown to her clients, Momo uses her special skin product to spy on all their experiences, and to experience their own pleasures for herself.  And so when her mother decides to visit for the first time in 20 years, Momo - still not over what her mother agreed to to save her life 23 years ago - decides to use that product to spy on her mother....but what she finds will upend everything she knows about her past and herself.....

Thoughts:  An essay could be written about The Membranes and in fact, such an essay is included in this published translated edition, which is really well done in exploring the themes and context of this novella when published and its relevance now.  So I'll stick in this review to my own thoughts (although they're obviously colored by that essay).

It's impressive really how relevant and interesting The Membranes is today, even with its dated elements from being published in 1995 (most notably is the belief that Laser Disks would be the data format of the future, but semblances of email and the internet are prominent here which are pretty impressive guesses for 1995).  We have here a cyberpunk-esque story of privacy and privacy violations and feeling one's own feelings through spy devices and particularly of the growing of artificial humans, referred here to as cyborgs, who have clear sentience but are used specifically as organ donors....even though that involves killing the cyborgs.   And for a girl like Momo was at 7 years old, who is asked to and does become friends with her cyborg Andy before her own operation, the revelation that her friend was being killed to replace her own body parts is traumatic for herself, to say nothing of being unfair for the cyborg girl (this is explored through another Andy later in the novella).  And then of course there's the reveal which I won't spoil, which shows how the process takes an even more corporate spin in the end, in which even humans are exploited for corporations and for the purposes of war without even their own knowledge.  

There's also some interesting bits here in the context of this novel in how queer it is, i should mention.  Nearly every character (except for one Andy cyborg I believe) is a woman in the novella, and Momo's mother is a lesbian (Momo's birth is described as coming from the splitting of a peach by Momo's mother and her lover, which is some classic symbolism of a lesbian relationship) and Momo is approached as a teen by another girl, and none of it is ever remarked on as a thing that's unusual.  Momo herself is trans, although there's some consent issues with how that comes about by her mother's decision for her rather than as by her own decision (although Momo expresses little interest in her male parts when she had them and has no regret for them being gone).  It's a context that was very impressive in 1995, and still stands out today.  

So yeah, The Membranes is a pretty solid novella in its themes and ideas, even now 26 years later, and well worth your time if this translation is the first chance you get to read it in English.
Was this review helpful?
This was a really interesting read on two fronts; both in and of itself as queer Taiwanese sci-fi, and also as a way to discover trends and themes in sci-fi 25 years ago. One of my favourite things about reading older sci-fi is seeing how authors thought society could progress, the things we would invent and the way the world would change. They often end up being oddly prescient, which is both fun and chilling.

In this, Momo is a dermal aesthetician, one of the best in her city. Almost all of the world's population has moved to underwater countries after devastating climate change has left the surface uninhabitable. The novella follows Momo's preparations to meet with her mother for the first time in 20 years, and a lot of the time passes in flashbacks, as Momo reflects on an illness in her childhood that led up to her and her mother's estrangement. 

There's a lot to love about this, a lot to unpack and chew over. I loved the casual queerness (though I don't feel qualified to comment on all of the rep here), all the depth of the world-building, the creativity of the society that the author created. It's a novella, so a lot of the issues it tackles, it does so quickly. Still, it was interesting to read about the dissolution and reassembling of society, the way mores have changed, revolution in technology, the invention of cyborgs and androids and the usual questions of autonomy that arise from that. The themes deal a lot with interiority and the self, free will and the way one experiences life, and it went places that definitely surprised me.

While I usually love character-driven novels, and would happily read a book full of introspection if it's interestingly-told, there were just so many flashbacks and so little actual action in this. I liked the story very well, but the vehicle for telling it sorta lost me. Lots and lots of passages of exposition and info-dumping, which wasn't super appealing. I can't judge the quality of the translation, but nothing about the writing ever really struck me.

An enjoyable read, just a bit on the lacklustre side, in terms of execution. 

Content warnings: <spoiler>major surgery, animal abuse, non-consensual medical procedures, voyeurism, child molestation.</spoiler>
Was this review helpful?
4.5 stars

Unexpected, tragic, and holds up well after all this time.

I am grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

This book was originally published in 1995 in Taiwan, and this English translation is in now going to be available for us to experience this foundational piece of Taiwanese LGBT fiction. This is an excellent post-apocalyptic sci-fi which exists in an expansive future Earth, but really focuses in on the individual and on how life and relationships have been changed. The world in this story is in the middle of a climate apocalypse, and we get to see two sides of how humanity has changed and also how certain things have stayed the same.

The mother-daughter relationship in this book was my favourite part. It was touching and interesting, and raised so many moral questions. Momo is such an interesting character, and following her thoughts felt real, and in some ways she felt relatable. There was also discussion about humanity and what it means, who gets to be considered "real" and who is expendable, who is allowed to have an identity. This book also speaks about privacy and what that means in a world with certain technological changes. The feminist themes in this book were also woven into this story in interesting ways which added depth to the world and the story in general.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book is how well the actual science fiction is balanced with the other aspects of the story. This managed to be a beautiful character study while still being a solid science fiction. I would recommend this for fans of science fiction and cultural/societal themes.
Was this review helpful?
Thank you to Columbia University Press and Netgalley for the e-ARC.

I’ll be honest: I really wasn’t too keen on this for the first hour or so. Skip ahead another hour, and my eyes are misty reading the final chapters.

All the things that I was unsure of in the beginning turned out to be the biggest strengths once things began to come together, and all in all this is one the easiest five stars I’ve given in quite a while.

There is an incredible level of intent in the authorial voice; I found it slightly stilted at first, perhaps even overly simplistic, but as things progressed and began clicking more into place, it dawned on me just how deliberately the prose is penned, and how well it complements the story. By extension, the same can be said for Momo, our main character. Odd to follow and figure out, all completely on purpose, and that revelation hit me, hard.

Technology is often one of the hardest sells of sci-fi for me, but this definitely hit a sweet spot, where the many gadgets have both purpose to the story and thematic depth, as well as very interesting parallels to our world as it is now. The world itself is a nice little slice of environmental anxiety, especially reading in 2021, and doesn’t take up too much space, with only one chapter really dedicated to what’s happened and what that means.

As a small side note, it was also delightfully refreshing to see intertextuality utilised so competently, and not just as throwaway flavour text. Finally, I had a blast reading the translator’s afterword, and thought it did a stellar job unpacking the time in which this was originally written, as well as just providing a pretty kick ass analysis in general.

Introspective with a capital ‘I’, existentialist as hell, queer and counterculture from start to finish, this is a very special little read, and I can’t wait to add it to my shelf in physical form.
Was this review helpful?
3 stars. I've found it difficult to form my opinion on The Membranes. The concept is interesting, and I loved exploring this futuristic world, mainly because it's been over two decades since the author first wrote it. It's a character-driven story, which is where I had some difficulty getting through it. Most of the book explores Momo's character, but I had trouble getting a complete handle on her personality and was a little confused at parts. That being said, the ending ties the whole thing together wonderfully. It's shocking and also so fascinating; I admire the author for coming up with it.
Was this review helpful?
An English translation of a short Taiwanese dystopian novel from 1996, this is a genuine science fiction classic, touching on identity, consciousness, and the nature of reality - objective and virtual. It's remarkably prescient of our current world, from climate change to our wired relationships to corporate hegemony.

The English of the translation is lucid and very readable, and the translator includes an illuminating afterword on the story, the author, and Taiwanese culture in the 90's.

Highly recommended.
Was this review helpful?
An interesting Eastern novel with many messages appropriate for our troubled times. I would gladly read more translations from this author's work.
Was this review helpful?
A really prescient and heart-wrenching book. I wonder what it would’ve been like to read this when it first came out in 1995 and return to it now to see how much of the world Chi Ta-wei envisioned has come true.

But it’s not just the intrigue and familiarity of the dystopia—the story is also very engaging and full of emotion. There were two plot points where I literally gasped out loud (if you’ve read it, you know what they are). At the end, I sat and re-read the last few pages, letting the feeling sink in. 

I haven’t read very much queer speculative fiction yet, but I think The Membranes uses metaphor to explore queer themes in a really incisive way. It’s also very beautifully translated, both in terms of language and perspective. It didn’t feel translated at all and I’d love to read both Chi Ta-wei and Ari Larissa Heinrich again.

(This copy did have some formatting errors that were a little distracting—numbers in the middle of sentences, the first letter of each chapter being out of place, footnote issues, and possibly unintentional line breaks.)
Was this review helpful?
This was a fantastic book because it is thought-provoking. I read another review where the reader mentioned that the translation was excellent. I enjoyed the writing but really wished it had more of a show vs. tell. However, I think that the way it was written added to the overall atmosphere of the book. 5/5 stars for story and atmosphere and the ability to make you think. 2 stars for personal taste. 

NetGalley gave me this copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.
Was this review helpful?
✨🌟 8.5 out of 10 🌟✨
Wow. This book is hard to review.

Keywords: novella, scifi, dystopia, near future(?), climate crisis, family drama, cyberpunk(???), gender and sexuality, english translation
Trigger warning: non-consensual gender reassignment (medical reason),  child sexual abuse(?)
Rep: LGBT (transgender? wlw relationship, queer figurants), poc (Taiwanese, Japanese, Indian)

The Membranes is scifi novella written by a queer Taiwanese in 1995. It tells about Momo and her estranged mother whom she hate yet also yearned for in underwater society of near future earth. The story mostly revolved around loneliness, sexuality, and family while explored the speculative elements like technological advances, free will, and consciousness.

The good:
- An ok worldbuilding
The story is set in year 2100 where earth surface is not habitable and people migrated to underwater cities. The worldbuilding is not unique but I like how it meld and provide important plot point in the story. Sometimes the worldbuilding feels infodumpy but it finally made sense in the end. There's also talks about climate crisis awareness and discussion about tech morality. And I think it's pretty cool how the novella is written far years ago but the author predicted some tech that came true nowadays.

- Interesting takes about woman exploring sexuality
I like how the book delved about our main character exploring her body and sexuality. It is originally published when such topic is frowned upon. Not to mention almost all of the characters in this book are queer.

- Mindblowing
This is what I like the most from this novella. It has such a great unexpected plot that my mind was blown. I like how the plot slowly reveal there's something wrong throughout the book and yet we're still amazed in the end.

What I don't like:
- Some scenes made me uncomfortable
There are parts that I think disturbing and uncomfortable to read, especially regarding the trigger warning I mentioned before. The circumstance is a bit vague and up to interpretation so I can't comment much on the topics. To be honest if those scenes doesnt exist I would have rate this way higher.

Recommended for fans of scifi lit and those looking for short read that's not too heavy but still substantial. 

Thank you Netgalley for lending me the arc of this book in exchange of honest review.
Was this review helpful?
Unexpected! It took me a little effort to get into this, because the writing felt a little stilted (due to the fact that it’s a translation, perhaps? I don’t know), but once I grasped the story, I was amazed over and over that it was written 25 years ago, with some concepts feeling very modern. There’s a touch of cli-fi about it, as most humans now live under the ocean. There are also a lot of interesting medical/biological and transhumanist concepts, as well as some thoughts about identity. The central theme is the relationship between a mother and a daughter, with a touching (I felt) twist.

Read for: The other-worldliness of it all, an exploration of queerness, and some questions about what it means to be human. Also definitely read because it is something that is not out of the Western canon (thank God), although there are numerous Western cultural references.
Was this review helpful?
Thank you to Netgalley and the Publishers for giving me an ARC!

I... am astounded by the power of the reveal in this book. It feels so sudden but makes everything else in the novel feel so clear. And makes the repetition make sense, since that was one of my few complaints about it.  Like I think most of my "issues" I had while reading make so much sense once you finally finish it and everything finally clicks into place. So if you are not enjoying it, I recommend you just finish it because everything will make sense. 

This was trippy and scifi in the ways that I love. While still feeling very focused on our main character. This was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. I honestly can't tell you anything more without spoiling the plot, so just read the synopsis and you'll know if you want to read it. 

I did not LOVE this, but I did really like it and can see myself rereading it in the future. Also we love to support queer authors, especially queer men. And we love to support translated works! 

While there are essays in the back that ask on why/how this should be called a queer work, I think it should not only because of the author's own identity but also I think the fact that the work is not overly explicit in its queerness only makes it more queer. In fact the overarching  questioning of the main character and their past and identity adds to the queerness.
Was this review helpful?
Well, this was certainly an interesting book.

I became interested in The Membranes upon finding out that it was a queer SFF book by a Taiwanese author and, after reading it, I am glad that I found this book, however, I'm not too sure exactly how I feel about it.

The Membranes is hard to describe, but the thing that stood out to me most about this book was the ideas and concepts it presented. Everything in this book was so weird and original and I really enjoyed getting to explore this world. Where this book didn't necessarily draw me in, though, was with... most other things. Because it was so short and idea-focused, the characters and plot felt a little lacking. I can't speak to how the translation compares to the original, but the writing in this book was also rather mediocre. There wasn't anything I didn't like about this book, it's just that nothing aside from the worldbuilding/concepts stood out to me.

Regardless, I still think it's a worthy read if you're into sci-fi books that heavily focus on concepts, or if, like me, you just want to read more translated Taiwanese literature.
Was this review helpful?
This dystopian sci-fi book was a thought provoking look at memories and connection. 

This book is not one telling a linear, clear story, but forcing your to confront yourself and think about topics you might not otherwise consider. It tackles queerness, identity, connection, and the idea of boundaries (or membranes) that keep you safe but also keep you distanced. 

Moma is a main character that is hard to know, but her questionable choices lead to consequences that you are unable to look away from. This book isn't for everyone, but if you want an end-of-the world almost dream-like mind bender, look no further. 

Thank you Netgalley for this ebook arc in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?