In the late 21st century, the surface world is uninhabitable, a place visited only by archaeologists and tourists. It is the site of cyborg factories and designated zones for warfare, far away from the aquatic equilibrium that protects human society, which now colonizes the sea. Advanced technology is less the adversary in this future than the powerful military-industrial complex that controls the world, but most people are simply busy living their lives nonetheless. What haunts Momo—a dermal care technician in T City, an underwater metropolis in the territory of New Taiwan—is not environmental devastation writ large but her relationship with her mother. Although Momo is, by all accounts, a successful entrepreneur and award-winning artisan whose talents are in steady demand, she senses glumly that there exists “at least one layer of membrane between her and the world.” Only by sloughing off skins and surfaces, one after another, does the reader finally apprehend the insidious truth behind Momo’s quandary.
First published in 1996, Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes is a dystopian fable of queer malaise, a novel both remarkably prescient and thoroughly unique. Now available in a slick and engaging translation by Ari Larissa Heinrich, The Membranes naturally invites comparison with the Wachowskis’ seminal sci-fi film The Matrix (1999), as well as an array of other literary and cinematic works from the turn of the millennium. What’s notable is not that the book is a pastiche, however, but that it predates and, in effect, presages these other cultural touchstones. Through this compact tale, Chi expresses a host of moral and philosophical concerns about consciousness, reality, technology, and environment—topics that artists and writers have continued to grapple with in the two and a half decades since its original publication.
Speaking at a virtual event hosted by UCLA’s Center for Chinese Studies, Heinrich, a professor of gender, media, and cultural studies at Australian National University and translator of The Membranes, described in vivid detail the social and political context surrounding the publication of Chi’s book in Taiwan. The lifting of martial law less than a decade prior had been nothing less than a shock wave. Per Heinrich, Taiwanese youth culture in the 1990s was characterized by fervid consumption and “promiscuous literacy.”
Chi’s novel certainly alludes to a wide spectrum of aesthetic and intellectual forebears, from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar to Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, while referencing major international events of the late 20th century, such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. At the UCLA talk, Chi tipped his hat to both Alfred Hitchcock and art house cinema for influencing the structure of The Membranes. He also acknowledged the painter Francis Bacon’s grim meditations on corporeality as another aesthetic inspiration for his novel. Indisputably rooted in the heyday of its writing, this motley collection of names, events, and ideas lends a retrofuturistic vibe to Momo’s plight, which is revealed through symbolically rich and interlocking narrative layers.
Chi had been a graduate student at National Taiwan University when the book came out in Chinese. He had consciously decided to write a story populated almost exclusively by women; the only man who appears in the novel is but a minor caricature. While the story does include lesbian relationships and a significant transgender plot point, these aspects are overshadowed by the existential puzzle at its core.
Nowadays Taiwan is known as a bastion of gay rights, the first country in Asia to legalize marriage equality and home to a vibrant queer community in its capital Taipei. With the cultural buffet of the 1990s at their disposal, queer writers like Chi and his contemporary Qiu Miaojin had the opportunity to explore many modalities and establish their own intellectual lineage that drew on Toni Morrison to Judith Butler to Shakespeare. According to Heinrich, back then, Taipei was already “shockingly, pleasingly, delightingly queer.” The voracious consumption of foreign literature, music, and cinema by Taiwanese youth could be viewed as an analog precursor, in effect, to the content streams served up to each of us by today’s algorithms.
“You’ve felt it your entire life,” Morpheus solemnly pronounces to Neo in The Matrix. “That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” The same persistent unease could be said to haunt Momo in The Membranes, albeit in a much more subdued fashion. As her 30th birthday approaches, Momo decides she needs to understand once and for all why such distance remains between her and her careerist mother, an executive at the MegaHard corporation. After nearly two decades of estrangement, Momo’s life has been fundamentally shaped by the ache of absence.
Momo’s troubles seemingly began when she had to undergo surgery at the age of 10. She’d been hospitalized three years earlier with a mysterious ailment called the LOGO virus. The financial strain of paying for Momo’s medical care required her mother to put in long hours at MegaHard, where at the time she was merely a “low-level marketer.” Momo’s weakened state also necessitated her physical isolation, consigning her to a long period of solitude and surveillance.
Momo was eventually offered a companion in the form of a young girl named Andy, who becomes Momo’s playmate and confidante and eventually a canvas for prepubescent sexual exploration. Then, in a subplot that recalls Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), Andy vanishes following Momo’s successful surgery. Ostensibly recovered from her illness, Momo is left crestfallen and confused by this disappearance in spite of her mother’s reassurances. Little does she know that her mother, too, will soon abandon her for reasons unknown.
What’s notable is not that the book is a pastiche, but that it predates and, in effect, presages other cultural touchstones from the turn of the millennium.
At the UCLA event, Heinrich likened their translation process to refining an image so that it becomes “less and less pixelated” over time. This resonates with my own practice in shuttling ideas and stories from Chinese into English. A Taiwanese friend had lent me a copy of The Membranes close to a decade ago, and I’d read it in a dreamlike state over early spring days in New York City. I remember being jolted by the series of twists at the end, although at the time I started reading the translation, I couldn’t fully recall all the details.
One image stayed with me over the years, however: that of a character named Draupadi, a mysterious Indian woman and friend of Momo’s mother, shedding layer after layer of colorful saris before offering her naked body for a massage. Draupadi is first introduced as one of Momo’s clients, an enigmatic figure who almost serves as a proxy mother to her. Beyond influencing Momo to become a dermal care technician, Draupadi also purveys a curious trade secret in the form of M skin.
M skin, also known as membrane skin or memory skin, is an odorless, durable topical cream that forms a translucent layer over the body. This product not only prevents wrinkles and shields the body from toxins, but also collects digital information and acts as a record of the wearer’s physiological experiences. A technician like Momo can then use a special type of scanner to download and review the collected data, in which every epidermal stimulus has been cataloged. Sexual arousal, insect bites, dietary intake—this diary of the skin reveals all. The data can also be exported to a new skin so another person can relive these tactile experiences. In one memorable scene, Momo uses this playback function to get closer to a client and, in doing so, feels “the ecstasy of the encounter in every pore of her body.”
But what are Draupadi’s true motives? Besides being a former dermal care technician herself, why would she gift these expensive vials of M skin and a brand-new scanner to Momo? Draupadi, it turns out, has a long and complicated relationship with Momo’s mother. As a child, freshly released from the hospital, Momo once tried to surreptitiously spy on her mother’s bedroom during one of Draupadi’s visits, only to be discovered and thwarted. Years later, when Momo finally reunites with her mother on her 30th birthday, she hatches a scheme to use M skin to break into her mother’s computer. Surely there would be some record or journal, she thinks, to explain why her mother has kept such distance from her over the years.
Momo’s investigation into her mother’s files starts to unravel all the threads of the novel in a protracted scene of suspense. Most haunting of all is the mise en abyme that emerges as she snoops through the computer: an image of herself looking at herself looking at herself, ad infinitum.
A few further surprises lie in store in the latter third of the book. For me, the diegetic disruption recalled certain elements of Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001), itself a remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los Ojos (1997). In these films, as in Chi’s novel, the protagonist’s whole world is upended by the revelation that the reality they inhabit is a construct of sorts. But whose construct, and to what end? Therein lies the difference. The quietness of Momo’s discovery makes this scene all the more unsettling. No Tom Cruise running around in a prosthetic mask, crying out for tech support. Momo simply stares into the void, uncomprehending. And then we, the readers, are offered an epiphany.
Human civilization’s ongoing war with artificial intelligence on a ruined planet forms the basis of the Wachowskis’ Matrix franchise, now with a fourth film scheduled for release in December 2021. More than two decades into the 21st century, there is little indication thus far that we may be destined for an aquatic fate like that of The Membranes.
Yet Chi’s rendering of certain surveillance and communications technologies is strikingly accurate. The novel offers a fin de siècle vision of a bleak future, while distilling kaleidoscopic influences into the textured intimacy of a mother-daughter tale that alternately reads as a quest for one’s origins.
Momo yearns to understand the boundaries of her personhood and probe the loneliness that has long plagued her. As we emerge from the throes of an ongoing if uneven pandemic lockdown, these desires may be all too relatable.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.