Cover Image: The Membranes

The Membranes

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Member Reviews

The Membranes” by Chi Ta-Wei (Taiwan, 1995) is a mind-blowing book. Described as queer speculative fiction, is the dystopian story of Momo. She’s a skin-treatment technician in the XXII century, when after devastating the environment, humanity has moved to the bottom of the sea. She is estranged from her mother, a successful executive at a global publisher (we are all into ebooks then btw), and misses her childhood friend, Andy, who was an android (sort of a humanoid robot). 

There are lots to think about in this book on gender. If your parents raised you as a girl though it was not your assigned gender at birth and then submitted you to gender reassignment surgery before you’re even conscious about it, thus you never had a chance to create your own gender identity, are you still transgender? Isn’t it the same otherwise? When we never had the chance to create our own gender identity and something other than cis has never been an option? Is it also violence having gender imposed on us ? How much our gender identity is conscious? 

And who are you as a person? Is that the sum of your body parts or is it solely how you see yourself? What makes us “us”? 

I also found it incredibly interesting (and loved it) how the normative sexual/romantic relationships are queer. Being in a heterosexual relationship is an statistical rarity. There’s only one male character with a super minor role and he’s basically a hedonistic creep. I loved that particularly since the author is male. This is a world where women are the dominant force, the “default option”. Isn’t that something?

Half of the book goes pretty slowly as the reader is stuck in Momo’s mind, and lives through her loneliness and anxiety. But then there’s a major plot twist and everything is turned on it’s head. It’s just pretty amazing for a lack of a better word. 

I have NEVER read anything like it, and I sure hope that @columbiauniversitypress translates more of his work because I don’t think I can get enough of his mind-bending fiction.
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It's 2100, the Earth is basically on fire, and most of humanity has moved to cities on the bottom of the ocean. Rich people can have cyborg copies of themselves or their children created, organic robots that are an almost perfect copy, so that when the person or child falls ill they can take the required organ or body part from that cyborg.

Momo, our main character, is a thirty year old Chinese woman, living in one of these underwater cities. She is the daughter of the CEO of an ebook and software magnate called MegaHard (and yes, MicroSoft also still exists). Momo doesn't like her mother, she feels she has been abandoned by her. Momo spends most of her days as a skincare and massage therapists - in fact, she's one of the very best. She can apply an extremely thin layer of a membrane over a client's skin, supposedly for extra protection, so thin the client instantly forgets it's there. Next time they visit Momo, she carefully removes the membrane - turns out the membrane is a recording device, and Momo can play back those recordings on her computer.

That's only really the starting setup of the story. Momo isn't a character who is easy to like - she's a bit of an indie literature cliche, the younggirl who seems devoid of emotion and is averse to social contact (the book was written in the '90s). And the story pootles along, until there is a big TWIST, which I genuinely didn't see coming.

The book is a quick, easy read, but I do think the storytelling could've been handled more interestingly, with a more active role for Momo. The aformentioned twist is interesting, but then that's pretty much it, nothing is really done with this new information.

The book includes a lengthy, interesting essay by translator Ari Larissa Heinrich, that explores the cultural and historical context of the book.
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Will be coming back to this one as the cover is great, the premise is super intriguing and I'm really excited to give it a read, but I don't have the focus for it right now. Not a DNF, just a not-for-now.
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Thank you, Netgalley, for this digital ARC. The opinions expressed within this review are my own and unbiased.

Androids, cyborgs, and laserdiscs! Oh my!

Taiwanese queer science fiction from the 90s? Sign me up! I was thrilled to receive this review copy from Netgalley and I was not disappointed. This novel kept me enraptured from page one. I was fascinated with Momo, the main character, and wanted to understand the strange world she lived in. First we are treated to what seems to be a portrait of a life in the late twenty first century in which the human race has been forced to live at the bottom of the sea. The pollution and climate change that lead to this situation are sadly believable, as is the picture of Momo's life that we are initially given. Of course there is a twist, which I will not spoil. Highly, highly recommended.
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Chi Ta-wei's The Membranes, from what I've learned, is considered a queer sci-fi classic from Taiwanese literature. I was in awe to find so much representation and complexity in such a short book, especially for a work that was written in 1996. 

While I can't speak for the accuracy of the translation, I find the way it was interpreted was mesmerizing. Researches were done, efforts were made. Kudos to the translator. I was amazed by how the author perceived the future of humanity, here it stretched from many aspects: environment, healthcare, economy, race, sexuality, etc. Many years have gone by, some predictions were proven to be false, but they weren't without based facts. The queer visibility was the highlight of this book IMO. For a dated work, it seemed unbelievable to tell you that the rep precedes many beloved LGBTQ+ books in the recent time, but it does. 

Compliments aside, there were many details that didn't sit right with me while reading this. Most of them were to do with Momo's upbringing, or her Mother's decisions (if you read it, you'll get it), because I don't see how it was necessary to be portrayed here. As questionable as it was, the later revelation made this even more confusing to me. And on another note, I wished the book had stopped using the term "a dear friendship" to describe "lesbian moms." 

TL;DR: A very interesting take on the future society with zero (0) cishets, but you might be uncomfortable with some details.
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Wow, this book was quite the trip! In the beginning, I was very confused and kept having to reread passages for comprehension, which dampened my enjoyment. But as details were revealed, I found myself getting hooked, and by the end I was absolutely SHOOK!

This book made me uncomfortable at times and includes some graphic descriptions. All the characters are morally questionable. But dang, this book touches on so many topics and is perfect for hours of discussion. I’m so amazed that this was written in 1995; Chi Ta-Wei was truly ahead of his time.
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I read The Membranes (膜) in both Chinese and English with one immediately following another, at first scene-by-scene, and as the story picked up pace, chapter-by-chapter. Both versions have very similar feels, and I am amazed at Heinrich keeping the translation so atmospherically close to the Chinese writing. There were a few differences here and there, whether to fit the English language, the present time (this work was originally published in 1995/1996), or simply because Heinrich felt that these fit their translation better, I am not sure, but I love a lot of Heinrich’s decisions. Also, from my understanding of the Chinese original, there were minor misinterpretations and overlooking some of Chi’s deliberate word choices, but fortunately these did not affect the overall picture.

The story follows a thirty-year-old aesthetician Momo as she reunites with her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years since she recovered from a major surgery. Throughout the story, bits and bits of information is slowly revealed, and we learn about Momo’s past as she learns it herself. The Membranes is a disturbing read that questions perceptions, experiences, reality, gender, and sexuality within the thin volume of 136 pages.

As a language nerd, I love Chi’s play on Momo’s name. Meaning peach (桃, momo) in Japanese, the fruit has a gay connotation (no, not because of CMBYN) since “peach sharing” (分桃, fēntáo) is a story between an ancient emperor and his male lover. “Momo” also means quiet in Chinese (默默, mòmò), which Heinrich aptly translated as “murmur.” In a way, she is also the namesake of the book, since The Membranes (note that the word also starts with the letter “M”) was titled 膜 (mó) in Chinese. There are a lot of words that begin with “M” in this sci-fi set in year 2100 underwater T City (“T City” often means Taipei in Taiwanese sci-fi): Megahard (a dig on Microsoft), memory, mirror, master, etc., all closely related to Momo’s mysterious life. 

There are no human male characters in The Membranes and most characters are casually queer—trans, sapphic, achillean, etc., with almost everyone being Taiwanese, one Japanese, and one Indian. The main storyline isn’t focused on sapphic identities—I cannot even be sure if Momo is sapphic—but this novella is queer to the core. It is almost unbelievable that this was written in 1995 by a twenty-three-year-old queer Taiwanese man, that he chose to write this sci-fi that explores sexuality between women and also touches upon female masturbation.

The Membranes raises a lot of questions that is extremely relevant in the current world, even though it was written back when posthumanism wasn’t a widespread concept. When every action is based on previous interactions and socialization, adding technological advancements to the mixture, what is free will? And when perceptions are possibly altered, how does one know what is real and what is not? I recently tried Virtual Reality for the first time, and while the graphics were far from terrifying, it was truly disorienting—if I can be physically somewhere doing nothing yet virtually engaged in activities in another, where am I? Which experience is the real one? What do we trust?

The Membranes is the first Chinese-to-English translated book I have ever read, and I couldn’t have picked a better book. This 1995 Taiwanese sci-fi with casual queer characters is a short read, but the plot is intense, fast-paced, and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Way after finishing the story, the questions it posed still linger, surely to haunt me for a long time to come.
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I am having conflicted feelings about this book. It was originally published in Taiwan in 1995 and has just been translated into English. The author has predicted quite a few technological advances that we use nowadays, which is quite impressive. The book also features almost exclusively LGBTQ characters. There is a gigantic plot twist towards the end of the book that I did not expect and was very impressed with. But this book has been described as having transgender themes, and I strongly disagree with this. Momo is not trans, and I don’t understand how anyone who’s read this book could think that she is. There are also several incidents involving sexual activity while Momo was a child, and these are deeply uncomfortable to read. I know in many parts of the world sexual discussions are more lax around children, but I’m sure that they don’t actually involve the children. In addition, there is almost a total lack of empathy from the characters, both towards humans and animals. So while I think the overall plot of the book was promising the actual delivery did not live up to expectations.

Thank you to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for this advanced reader copy. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.
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Note: trigger warnings for non-consensual gender reassignment and child molestation

Originally published in China back in 1995, Chi Ta-Wei’s novella The Membranes is a complicated story about what it is to be alive, to be human, and to what the freedom to live as one wants truly means. The dystopian world created almost 30 years ago touches on a lot of what is happening today and translator Ari Larissa Heinrich did an incredible job bringing this complex story to English readers.

I know very little about what the queer cultures (or lack there of in some cases) are like in the majority of Asian countries, but I know that it tends to be frowned upon at the very least and criminalised at the most. The fact that this was published in 1995 was so mind blowing to me given what little I’ve heard about censorship rules. Books have been criminalised and banned for far less than the blatantly queer content that fills the pages of this novella. Topics such as lesbian/wlw relationships and gender reassignment surprised me but it was fascinating to read them knowing it came from a Taiwanese writer.

While slightly triggering to me as a trans person, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to picking up a finished copy upon release.
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This is an adamant book to get through if you won't enjoy the narrative or voice. I had a hard time getting into this one; it was quite weird right off the bat. I think some sections are more intense information, and it can be quite intense. Overall it was fine, not my particular taste.
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Let’s talk about the many applications of membranes: for one they visibly keep the sea out of the underwater city, but they also invisibly filter one’s perspective of the world. The dermal layer that Momo applies to the skin of her clients is a tangible layer, but when this layer is scanned, the experience of the person that scans the skin is very much intangible.

It is the year 2100. Humans have moved to underwater cities to protect themselves from the power of the sun. Intermezzos explain in some detail how this happened, including the political and economical aspects of the transformation. In 1995, Chi Ta-wei predicted our failure at solving the environmental issues that we are facing. There is still reason to rejoice: apparently, humans succeeded at finding an answer to other pressing debates. In Membranes, one’s identity and gender are very fluid: it is something you can change anytime. I should mention that the author teaches about queer theory and disability at a university in Taiwan.

The main character, Momo, fights a constant battle with herself. She has a job reliant on intimacy and yet shuns intimacy in her private life. She wonders whom her body belongs to; is it to medicine, your job, yourself, or a partner? When you read about the memory skin she puts on her clients’ skin and later uses as a virtual reality experience for all senses, you’ll fully understand her thoughts about these subjects. Do take some time to think about that one finger that she surgically replaces… and imagine that you are living like a canary locked inside a beautiful cage.

The narrative is quite distant without any suspense. The Membranes doesn’t focus on worldbuilding but instead focuses on the meaning of identity and the value of life. What role do memories and experiences play in this? In an interesting afterword, the translator Ari Larissa Heinrich sheds more light on the background of the story. She also mentions that the author says this book is like a cyborg body. 

I’d like to add my comparison to this: although the main character Momo is named after a peach that fell from a tree, she looks more like a canary released from a bird cage. This book is literally food for thought. 

The Membranes by Chi Ta-wei shows a future in which intimacy, experiences, and identity are fluid. Though in the end, the membranes still keep everything in its rightful place. I recommend this book to people who like sci-fi and dystopian novels, and to whoever loves stories that make you think rather than feel immersed.
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This is the weirdest book I've read in a while. I really hated some parts and liked others for the originality and foresight, which is impressive for a book written in 1996. 

There were a couple of chapters that were an infodump from beginning to end. The majority of the world building was completely irrelevant to the story, and the creepy, uncomfortable sex scenes also felt unnecessary. Of course, the fact that something was off with Momo's story and that she's an unreliable narrator becomes obvious only after you find out what's really going on.

I enjoyed the concept explored and the twist, but I think the writing style really did a disservice to the story.
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I requested this one because it might be a 2021 title I would like to review on my Youtube Channel. However, after reading the first several chapters I have determined that this book is not my tastes. So I decided to DNF this one rather than push myself to finish it only to give it a poor review.
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Wow,  I wasn't expecting to enjoy this book so much. Originally published in Taiwan in 1995 and now translated into English, I feel like it has aged so well, and oftentimes more progressive than so much of the literature that is published now.
We follow the story of Momo (coincidentally my favourite Nepali food so that was an added plus!) and her life in 2100 where all beings live underwater. 
There are plenty of twists that occur and there are themes of queerness, friendship, mother/daughter dynamics, climate change and so much more.
This was a fun, absorbing read and even though it was onlya short read (~136 pages) I feel it managed to tackle a lot of different concepts.
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So this is a novella about Momo, a dermal care technician whose work is in touching and manipulating and penetrating skin, and who has a complicated relationships with intimacy and her mother, choosing to live and work alone, feeling abandoned and forgotten. Above her, there is sea and she dreams about breaching the surface; nations and corporations have been rebuilt underwater, the ozone layer so depleted that existence on land is no longer possible for non-mechanised forms of life. Brands and media conglomerates shape the undersea reality, while androids and cyborgs work in their factories and fight in their wars on the surface. It's a surreal & claustrophobic premise, to be trapped in a sequence of bubbles whose membranes you want desperately to break & whose destruction would kill you, from your personhood, to your skin, to the walls of your home, to your corporate function, to the surface of the water overhead. And as the novella progresses, the given understanding of these barriers, these membranes, shifts. 

I think this is a genuinely brilliant piece of speculative fiction, & specifically a brilliant work of defamiliarisation, where the experience of having a body, of being a consciousness in a body, & of bodily autonomy and transformation is made weird & new, not only by the context but by the shape of the narrative, the startling, jolting movements it makes. I was paying more attention to that element, & the v interesting treatment of sexuality & gender that came of it, than to what Chi was doing with labour exploitation & technology & capital, but I would love to come back & re-read in the future!

Very glad to have the final critical essay by the translator to help me sort through my scrambled thoughts after finishing, and very glad that this work has been translated into English -- it's weird and grim and brilliant, & I think will stick with me.
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I am genuinely unsure how to rate this book. I appreciated the way much of our present technology was so accurately predicted in this 1995 speculative, sci-fi, dystopian novella. However on a personal level, this book did not work for me. There were some very uncomfortable sexual situations that were just not enjoyable for me to read. And unfortunately, this novella tells rather than shows. There are so many info dumps that I wish had been more descriptive and instead turned out to be boring. I really wanted to like this and on an objective level I can appreciate how important this book is, and I am glad it’s finally been translated into English. But on a subjective enjoyment level, it didn’t work for me. 2.5 stars.
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