On Chi Ta-wei's The Membranes
We’ve crested the 2021 Du Mois cycle’s midway point with Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich, being anointed as the Official June ‘21 Du Mois Selection and, gang, I couldn’t be more pleased.
While The Membranes, now over twenty-five years removed from its original publication, might today read like a retrofuturistic amalgam of cataclysmic events (in the form of extreme ozone depletion) and technological isolation (disc-based media is all the rage in the year 2100), there is also an unmistakable presentness to this immediate classic of queer Taiwanese sci-fi in translation. Momo, an introverted aesthetician servicing a cosmopolitan clientele in the underwater metropolis of T City, floats in an amniotic sac of guarded solitude, adhering to a strict regimen of social seclusion and muddled introspection. A needle in the haystack of her own paradoxical persona, Chi’s protagonist remains something of a cipher even to herself as she slowly peels back the veil of uncertainty surrounding her identity, origins, and ongoing existence in an Atlantean reverie.
Joining me to discuss The Membranes, currently available from Columbia University Press, is unlicensed talismanic jeweler Spencer Ruchti.
Justin Walls: Though Chi’s slippery prophesying may scan as decidedly “of its time” at first glance, it quickly becomes apparent that this vision of tomorrow as seen through the cultural lens of the 1990s harmonizes remarkably well with contemporary concerns—environmental crises, epidemiological unease, omnipresent megacorporations. Beyond that, The Membranes manages to tap into the modern archetype of the cloistered urban hyper-consumer, an app-reliant WFH tech professional whose interactions are largely mediated by the lubricated prophylactic of the internet. In many ways, Momo represents a muted approximation of the dreaded “bugman” figure, alienated from anything resembling a meaningful sense of community while absorbing borrowed experiences through swipes and gestures. It is absolutely a novel with plenty to say about both the Before and After.
What stood out in your reading of The Membranes?
Spencer Ruchti: When I finished Chi Ta-wei’s fascinating novel, I was holed up like a rat in the Pizza Schmizza bar next door to my apartment building in Portland, hiding from the 116 Fahrenheit heat dome. I was thinking about what it would mean to colonize the bottom of the ocean, and what kind of manifest-destiny logics and new genocides humankind will enact to justify such “migration” when the surface of our planet becomes uninhabitable. In Chi’s novel, nations divvy up the ocean floor using criteria not based on population or previously occupied geography, but rather “a nation’s relative political, economic, and military power.” It’s then notable that a quarter of undersea lands are distributed to corporations such as Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nintendo, Formosa Plastics—corporate nations! What a dream. The irony is lost on no one that it’s these very corporations that were largely responsible for destroying the ozone in the first place. (Except for you, Nintendo, you’re exceptional and can do no wrong.)
Ari Larissa Heinrich writes a sharp afterword that breaks down the book from a more or less academic standpoint, and offers some context for what it would’ve been like to publish a novel like The Membranes—a book that writes so progressively about gender, technology, and climate change—in mid-90s Taiwan. I love this line from Heinrich:
“The Membranes asks you first to suspend disbelief, and then to reflect on how the experience of literary absorption can impact not only your sense of time but also your sense of self… Who are you before you read the book, and who after?”
One of the hallmarks of a Du Mois pick is that one feels fundamentally renewed after reading. How did The Membranes change you? And where does this land in the Du Mois canon of avant-garde literature on gender and queer futures?
JW: Ignoring for the moment any alleged pie chain rodent infestations, I’ll just add that as a resident of the Greater Niketown Demilitarized Zone there is little about the prospective corporate gerrymandering of the East China Sea, to say nothing of the soon to be established Lunar Republic of Same-Day Delivery, that should seem implausible. When the annual revenue of your average tech behemoth eclipses the GDP of entire Western European countries then interplanetary (or inner-planetary even) colonization can’t be far behind. Although, without leaking the details, the broad schematics of Momo’s sunken Elysium amount to mere window dressing—the company town revealed to be a Potemkin village—especially when met with the full scope of transhumanist interiority on display here.
I appreciate the idea that this series has any discernible hallmarks, let alone of a restorative nature. Count on this: Wherever queer readings of Earth’s imminent demise are concerned, Du Mois consideration will be in ample supply. Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (tr. Achy Obejas, Feb. ‘19), for example, is perhaps as close to the platonic ideal of a Du Mois pick as we’ve seen and The Membranes is undoubtedly Tentacle’s “sister selection,'' albeit the more subdued sibling. Shock and bombast is rarely Chi’s modus operandi, from Momo’s fable-like conception (hatched, as the story goes, from the pit of a peach) to the epidermal spyware she dexterously applies to her patrons, this is a refreshingly gentle bit of narrative prognostication—provided you can look past the irradiated surface teeming with automatous foot soldiers, that is.
SR: And you’re right—climate annihilation is the setup, but it’s the astonishing intimacy of Chi’s Wachowski-worthy plot twist (and for those who go on to read the book, note that The Membranes predates any Keanu Reeves-helmed cyberpunk by at least three years) that has me still mulling over this book. It’s not a twist that relies on shock and bombast. Chi’s modus here relies on gentleness, on familial love against all odds. Ari Larissa Heinrich does an excellent job translating these complicated plot elements into English, obscuring the truth while making us think we have everything plainly. For the nerds, there are even a few Excel spreadsheets in the middle of the text. Can’t remember the last time my literature came equipped with a spreadsheet, but I dig it.
In her afterword, Heinrich notes that The Membranes is “arguably the first work of modern fiction in Chinese to feature a protagonist who is, or could be understood to be, a transgender woman.” Momo is assigned male at birth, but loses her penis at the age of seven after a surgery, an event shrouded in some mystery (due to the aforementioned plot twist, which I’m putzing around to prevent spoilers—this coming from the guy who announced “there’s no such thing as spoilers” in the last newsletter). Young Momo remembers her genitals as “an annoying bit of flesh.” There are shades of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” beneath it all, both in a literal sense (the presence of, well, cyborgs) and in the sense that “the cyborg is a creature in a postgender world,” as Haraway has it. “The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics.” Our politics aren’t fabulous in Chi’s future; we’re still a warmongering, profit-starving, climate-havocked military state beneath the “scorched yellow surface of the earth.” No one said this was a queer utopia! But for Taiwanese literature, it’s one of the first books of its kind.
JW: You draw, as does Heinrich in their aforementioned essay “Promiscuous Literacy: Taipei Punk and the Queer Future of The Membranes,” an astute comparison to 1999’s The Matrix. In that same essay, Heinrich makes mention of the 1987 lifting of martial law in Taiwan and the subsequent influx of cultural products streaming in from around the globe. While it seems unlikely that the Wachowskis would have been aware of Chi’s novel prior to the writing and filming of their breakout hit, it’s far more plausible—a near certainty, in fact—that all parties were exposed to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, just to namecheck one cyberpunk progenitor. There’s a strange sensation of chronological contortion emanating from all this, an arching and bending of the timeline that seemingly synthesizes these works, each simultaneously informing and responding to one another in defiance of linearity.
And that’s what lasting art is supposed to do, in one capacity or another, right? Engage in a dialogue across spectrums and generations, define itself anew and adapt to shifting tides in the culture—survive somehow. There was a considerable waiting period for Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes to be received by an English-language readership, but now that it’s here there is every reason to hope that in twenty-five years we’ll be able to connect this living artifact to countless more of its interlocutors, its predecessors and descendants, its yet-to-be-translated contemporaries, all participating in a perpetual state of renewal and exchange. For the time being, however, we should take Ari Larissa Heinrich’s translation of Chi’s miraculous book—this plunging submersible disguised as speculative fiction—and let it soak into the present moment, let it speak to us where we are: right here and now.
What is the Du Mois? It’s a highly curated English-language reading series operating on a year-long rotation. The rules are simple—one recent and exemplary work of literature is lauded each month with no repeats permitted in the categories of publisher, translator, or provenance. Explore the inductee archive here.