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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Membranes

Chi Ta-wei

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To purchase The Membranes

Title: The Membranes
Author: Chi Ta-wei
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 152 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Membranes - US
The Membranes - UK
The Membranes - Canada
Membrane - France
directly from: Columbia University Press
  • Chinese title: 膜
  • Translated and with an afterword by Ari Larissa Heinrich

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Our Assessment:

A : a very good, multi-layered story, exceptionally well-told

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 25/5/2021 Noah Berlatsky
SCMP . 14/6/2021 Kevin Quinn
Taipei Times A+ 20/1/2022 Bradley Winterton

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)here's something very timely about its play with gender fluidity and the social construction of identity. There's also something timeless about Chi's future, because of how it bends and defies time itself. (...) The Membranes doesn't have a plot so much as a complicated schematic. (...) Self-narration is a meta-theme the novel keeps stretching, until suspension of disbelief feels like a membrane about to give way. (...) The Membranes is a playful book and a sad one too. It seems to have predicted our cultural moment, a time when identity is being constantly evaluated and reconstituted, far better than it did our technology." - Noah Berlatsky, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It is almost unfathomable that, in 1995, Chi could have imagined a world so full of the terrors that technological rises inevitably bring, but he does and mostly to devastating effect. Chi's project is large, as is his vision, and the novel often bends under the force of such weighty contemplation. (...) But its allegories and symbols are sometimes heavy-handed, encumbering its artistry despite its wonderful provocations." - Kevin Quinn, South China Morning Post

  • "The Membranes (膜) is more than original. It’s extraordinary. (...) Short though it is, The Membranes stands at a major historical cross-roads in Taiwanese imagination and Taiwanese literature. As such it should be closely scrutinized at the very least." - Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Three-quarters of the way into The Membranes a chapter begins:

     All right. At last this complicated backstory has reached a turning point. Here's where things get interesting.
       The claim comes as a bit of a surprise: most readers will surely have found that things have already been interesting for the novel's first hundred pages -- and certainly seemed more than just backstory. The statement isn't wrong, but in fact The Membranes is a novel that doesn't just have that one big turning point -- and it's a novel that has been getting progressively more intriguing all along.
       Arguably, in fact, what author Chi Ta-wei has done over the first three-quarters of the novel is present front-story: a clear description of the present-day, as well as the relevant details about how the protagonist came to be where and who she is. It's actually the last quarter of the novel that then reveals the real, or full, backstory -- not so much upending what came before as peeling away the final layers (membranes !) of what is a real onion of a story (in which readers repeatedly likely have found themselves (mistakenly) believing they've already reached the final layer).
       The Membranes is set in the year 2100. It is science fiction written in the mid-1990s, and Chi opted for a catastrophe-scenario that was of more urgency at the time, depletion of the ozone layer. Here, in the late-twentieth century:
Humanity's bad habits were too deeply entrenched; the time had passed to fix the hole in the ozone layer.
       Ultraviolet radiation became a leading cause of death and disease, and mankind was forced to essentially retreat to safety underwater, as: "The ocean made a perfect protective membrane, a thick, robust barrier that could shield humans, animals, and plants from ultraviolet radiation". A whole world has now been built here below the water's surface, and this is where essentially all of humanity now lives.
       The central figure in The Membranes is thirty-year-old Momo, who has only ever known life underwater and has never even visited the surface. (Tourists do venture there, in protective gear.)
       Conditions underwater are also not great for human skin -- and skin rashes are a common side-effect to the: "compulsory AIDS vaccine" given to everyone (another reminder of the time when the novel was written ...) -- and:
As a result, young, old, male, female ... everyone in the twenty-first-century Asia Pacific was preoccupied with skin care. What's more, dermal care had evolved so quickly that it now played a major role in driving both consumer need and consumer desire. The twentieth century's obsession with fashion had all been funneled into the world of the dermal care industry.
       Momo has trained as a dermal care technician and is one of the leading practitioners in the field: "she was the top skin-care specialist in T City and the city's most respected stylist". She has her own business now, which she calls 'Salon Canary', and is selective as to her clientele -- no walk-ins. Among her specialties is the application of 'M skin' -- yet another protective membrane of sorts, but one with additional qualities (some of which she does not reveal to her customers).
       Momo is long estranged from her mother, who has had a very successful career at MegaHard Publishing, a leading publisher of the times (along with Microsoft ...). (Chi anticipated a (complete) shift to a version of digital reading -- but imagined that in the future *books* would come in the form of laserdiscs .....) When she was seven years old Momo was very seriously ill -- hospitalized in an isolation ward for three years, until an operation cured her -- and when she was released she asked to be sent away to a boarding school. She had not seen her mother since then -- for twenty years now.
       Momo lives an isolated life. Although a celebrity, she barely moves in the outside world -- "she lived in total solitude in her infinity-shaped house" -- with no friends or lovers. Her contact is largely restricted to her customers -- with whom her contact is, of course, physical and, in a way, intimate, but they remain clients to her, with practically no (direct) relationship with any of them beyond that involving her treatment of them. She does get a dog -- a gift, and a valuable one at that; real dogs (unlike android dogs) are a rarity in this undersea world -- but otherwise avoids physical connections of any sort.
       The Membranes reads easily and quickly, but there's a surprising density of information here; most science fiction writers would likely have presented this at much greater length and in much more detail, but one of Chi's remarkable achievements is just how easily he slips all this in his almost casual-feeling story. And there is a lot, and a lot more: for one, there's more to the 'M skin' that Momo uses, which helps explain why she seems to be happy to spend most of her time at home and doesn't seek out human connection or experience. Then there's that illness she had, and the close companion she had during that long period of isolation in the hospital -- an Andy who vanished after she was successfully operated on. Then there's the fact that the child Momo had a "pee-pee", which she also found gone after the operation. (She doesn't miss it much; the casualness with which Chi handles Momo's gender-identity is yet another of the novel's surprising successes.)
       It's a fascinating and engaging story, with layers peeled back in chapter after chapter to reveal a fuller picture. Among the neat things Chi pulls off: the reader feels s/he has a reasonably full picture of the situation from the beginning and then all along -- even as the constant new revelations keep shifting the picture, and the surprises keep coming.
       The story is set around the time of Momo's thirtieth birthday, the critical event being her mother's wish to re-connect with her. The turning point in the novel, as it were, comes with this mother-daughter reunion, three-quarters of the way into the novel. (In fact, of course, the novel has been a-spin from the beginning, with this an inflection point only in terms of perspective and what the reader (and Momo) is finally shown; if Momo's home is infinity-loop-shaped, the novel as a whole has something of a Möbius strip to it.)
       If the resulting revelations are not entirely unexpected, it's still a very neat resolution. Barely more than novella-length, there's a great deal here -- and it's anything but a one-hook or one-trick story, with so much here woven subtly together. And while the story is a very good and satisfying one, it's the telling that really makes it a stand-out.
       The full richness of The Membranes can't be conveyed without giving way too much away; so too translator Ari Larissa Heinrich doesn't offer an introduction but rather saves up discussion for the end, in a thorough afterword-essay. (Because of all the questions and issues it raises -- beyond simply its reading-quality --, the novel is also an obvious choice for book-clubs.)
       Some of the science fiction elements in The Membranes are almost quaintly dated -- "BBS e-reports" ! not to mention those laserdiscs ... -- but much of the 2100-picture is quite convincing, and Chi uses several of these advances particularly well. It is impressive as a work of speculative fiction also because Chi doesn't over-explain. Much that is presented here, plot-, personally-, and technology-wise, raises significant questions -- but rather than making definitive judgments, Chi leaves things up to the reader.
       The Membranes is an exceptionally well-conceived and turned science fiction story. Deceptively simple-looking on the surface, it is a truly impressive piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 June 2021

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The Membranes: Reviews: Chi Ta-wei: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Chi Ta-wei (Ji Dawei; 紀大偉) was born in 1972.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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