“The Membranes” by Chi Ta-wei


People worried about the end of the world during the 1990s. The end of the millennium provided the perfect milestone for the superstitiously-minded, with some becoming convinced that midnight on 31st December, 1999 would not ring in the changes, but rather the apocalypse. 

Far-fetched though these theories may seem today, the 1990s was the decade when public discussion began in earnest about the potential for the Earth to become uninhabitable in the near future. These future-focused anxieties were more sobering than the sensationalist theories about what might come to pass when the world entered the year 2000. A large hole in the ozone-layer over Antarctica, caused by human pollution, was of particular concern. Scientists made dour prophecies about a future where the Earth would be stripped of this protective, gaseous casing—with ultraviolet levels soaring as a consequence.


The Membranes: A Novel, Chi Ta-wei, Ari Larissa Heinrich (trans) (Columbia University Press, May 2021)
The Membranes: A Novel, Chi Ta-wei, Ari Larissa Heinrich (trans) (Columbia University Press, May 2021)

The Membranes, Taiwanese author Chi Ta-wei’s 1995 novella, brings that ozone-less future to life. Set in the 22nd century, the story takes place in a time following a great “migration” where humanity resorts to life beneath the sea in a bid to escape the illness caused by ultraviolet radiation no longer absorbed by the ozone. We meet Momo, a thirty-year old gifted dermatologist who is at the height of her career. Her name is a purposeful play on the Japanese word for peach (momo), and her mother explains Momo’s sexless conception by telling her she was born out of that fruit, like the young boy in the Japanese fairytale Momotarō. Besides her mother, Momo is effectively alone in the world – and she likes it that way. Through a special kind of “memory skin” that she removes from her customers, Momo is able to experience life vicariously without leaving her front door:


From the privacy of her tiny room she could access the countless intimate experiences of a myriad of people. Now Momo had even less reason to fear being alone.


Thanks to the ocean of memories and experiences at her fingertips, Momo prefers voyeuristic solitude. She erects her own protective emotional casing out of biomedia, shielding herself from the abrasive hassle of socializing. As this example demonstrates, the novella returns—very effectively—to the image of the membrane time and time again. Human life underwater is facilitated through a network of oxygenated pods, Momo’s job requires her to work with skin, her mother shields her from the oddities of reproduction through a fairytale. This clever refrain allows the story to constantly consider the conditions needed for life, and humanity’s simultaneous desire to control those means and incapacity to look after them properly. As Momo reflects: “In the end, who had the right to decide what happened to a person’s body? To their life?”


So often in speculative science-fiction, especially shorter works such as this, the ingenuity of a story’s concept can drown out its narrative. The contextual backdrop—whether that be life on a distant star, or a world of perpetual darkness—is either underdeveloped to the point of feeling like a gimmick, or overdeveloped at the expense of plot and character depth. The Membranes avoids these pitfalls, and lives up to its reputation as a classic of the genre. Chi weaves a complex contextual background (the migration to a subaquatic society) into the story, providing a succinct yet satisfying rundown of political and territorial disputes, before returning to Momo. What’s more, the novella’s final third delivers a sucker-punch of a plot twist. In this climactic moment, the world of the novella and its plot overlap with such precision that it feels effortless.

The Membranes does also take on other themes beside ozone depletion. It considers the ethics of organ donation, virtual reality, surveillance capitalism, wearable technologies, data privacy—the list goes on. What makes The Membranes so compelling though, is Chi’s ability to interweave these broader issues with questions of gender, sexuality and queer identity, as we watch Momo interact with her own body and the bodies of others. It should come as no surprise that Chi brings these themes together in such a graceful communion—he is renowned for both his contribution to queer fiction and the study of Taiwanese queer literature. The addition of this cornerstone work in English is very welcome—not only as an opportunity to discover Chi’s work anew, but also as a slice (in translation) of the diverse landscape of queer sci-fi fiction published in Taiwan during the 1990s by authors such as Lucifer Hung.

Despite the serious themes explored in The Membranes, Chi’s story—and translator Ari Larissa Heinrich’s prose—never feel weighed down with didacticism or overly preoccupied with asking the “big questions”. Instead, the story is meticulously crafted to lead the reader to those questions of their own accord through a gentle crescendo of revelations about Momo and her life. If the reader, furthermore, is aware of the story’s original publication date in 1995, then reading The Membranes in 2021 provides an unsettling déjà vu, as the details of Momo’s “dystopia” have become hallmarks of our current reality. Compact enough to be read in an afternoon, the novella contains a plot so expansive that it will preoccupy the mind far longer.

Aoife Cantrill is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. She is currently working on a history of translation in 20th century Taiwan.