Apocalypse Yesterday: Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes

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In his 2016 article “Writing the Unimaginable,” Amitav Ghosh observes that the modern novel is ill-equipped to handle climate change. “The age of global warming defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense,” Ghosh writes. “These are not ordinary times: the events that mark them are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.” The contemporary novel prefers to examine daily minutiae, track subtle shifts in interpersonal tension and interior conflict. Drama is produced by conversational turns and who exits the room when. But how to capture our burning world—its 10,000-gallon oil spills, freak tornadoes, years-long pandemics—without lapsing into what we’ve come to know as melodrama? How to expand “literary realism” so it includes our increasingly calamitous present?

Chi Ta-wei’s novel The Membranes circumvents that issue: first, by taking place in a world beyond repair and, second, by turning 21st century apocalypse into mere exposition. The Membranes tells the story of a young woman, Momo, who makes a living as a “dermal care technician” in T City. Through affable third person, we learn that T City is a utopic underwater settlement of the 22nd century, built to protect humankind from the sun’s deadly rays. “The ocean made a perfect protective membrane,” Chi writes, “a thick, robust barrier that could shield humans, animals, and plants from ultraviolet radiation.” Chi doesn’t shy away from mentioning climate catastrophe, nor does he treat it as a source of impending doom. Instead, disaster is foregrounded only to be waved aside, making room for the real conflict—Momo’s thirtieth birthday, which promises an encounter with her estranged mother.

In contrast to Ghosh’s anxieties, The Membranes seems glib, almost playful with its portents. Entire chapters are devoted to matter-of-fact details about 22nd century life, all of which are fantastically bleak. Between plot-driven chapters, Chi breaks away to describe, almost encyclopedically, the ravages of global warming and militarization:

As humanity labored to carve out a home in the sea, it seemed to fall right back into colonial ways. In the spirit of progress, corporations and nations alike devised ever more     ingenious defense systems. As the world’s surface grew increasingly desolate, the various            nations deployed standing militias lest anyone seize a piece of their land when they weren’t looking. And on the occupied territory of the ocean floor, military powers were     even more anxious to hold ground.

Yet The Membranes doesn’t seem concerned with large-scale threats. Radiation has already forced humankind under the sea; mega-corporations are omnipresent and unquestionable. Rather than grappling with global disaster, the story’s central conflict hinges upon Momo’s life and its personal revelations. Through flashbacks, we learn about Momo’s childhood in a sterile pediatric ward; her longing for her distant mother; and her pure devotion to Andy (short for “android”), her only friend. When the deadly LOGO virus threatens Momo’s life, her mother permanently transfers Momo’s brain into Andy’s custom-manufactured body. Momo wakes up with scant memories of the procedure and a deepening resentment for her mother, who refuses to explain why Andy has disappeared. Using a “scanner,” a device that captures sense impressions, Momo spies upon her mother in hopes of getting answers. Though Momo learns little—and ultimately grows apart from her mother—her obsession with surveillance carries into her adult career, where she applies “M skin” to her skincare clients to track their bodily sensations. The plot thickens when thirty-year-old Momo uses M skin to hack into her mother’s laptop, revealing a secret that alters the reader’s entire approach to the novel.

With its futuristic conceits and technologies, The Membranes is undoubtedly speculative. It is also deeply literary, insofar as it is driven by character and interiority. Momo develops her selfhood through her relationships to others: her “enemy” of a mother, her client Tomie Ito, and two androids that challenge her notion of humanity. She ruminates on “the membranes” that isolate her from the world, making her feel “sort of like a tiny water flea—a Daphnia encased in a cell, swimming alone out to sea.” The titular metaphor recurs often, referring poetically to ocean layers, protective domes, embryonic sacs, and the self-protectiveness that separates characters from each other. And of course, the narrative hinges less upon external machinations and more on internal shifts: namely, how Momo comes to understand her identity when confronted with life-changing information.

These “literary” gestures might strike Ghosh as insufficient in the face of global disaster. And it’s true—The Membranes is not the novel that will teach readers how to deal with climate change. But it does, in its intimate way, show readers how we might live with it. Reading The Membranes, I thought about how the 24-hour news cycle has conditioned us into a state of constant apocalypse, spiking our brains with talk of shootings, wars, and extinction. Meanwhile our daily lives continue with unsettling regularity; we stay insulated within the membrane of our immediate surroundings, unable to process disaster even as it ripples out to affect us. I found it eerily prescient that Momo can only fret about her thirtieth birthday as the world continues to burn around her. The Membranes is a climate novel not because it contends with catastrophe, but because it shows that everydayness has a way of proceeding alongside disaster.

Despite The Membranes’ future-oriented vision, it’s crucial to note that this novel is tethered to a certain time and place: post-1984 Taiwan, newly released from Chinese martial law. The Membranes was translated into English by Ari Larissa Heinrich and published by Columbia University Press in June 2021, but the original Chinese version was released in Taiwan in 1995. In his concluding essay “Promiscuous Literacy: Taipei Punk and the Queer Future of The Membranes,” Heinrich characterizes this era as one of profound artistic experimentation: “Nobody could guess what kinds of materials would become available, let alone predict taste, and consumers were obliged to interpret fresh material against what they already knew. It was an inherently creative, cross-platform, and transhistorical reading process.” Even as The Membranes portrays a bleak future, it bears an exuberantly postmodern sense of possibility. The novel is post-apocalyptic not only because of its subject matter, but also because it carries a sense of having lived through something—an era of cultural repression that obliterated new literary futures.

It should be emphasized that The Membranes is a uniquely Taiwanese work of speculative fiction, and not just because “T City” is implied to be a futuristic version of Taipei. An island nation of more than 23 million residents, modern-day Taiwan faces the continual threat of Chinese military reinvasion. Talks of “reunification with the mainland” have haunted communal memory for decades, as have the specters of Dutch and Japanese colonization. Chinese shows of force—fighter planes performing “routine drills” in Taiwanese airspace—remain a fact of everyday life. It feels fitting, then, that The Membranes relegates calamity to the background. When disaster has loomed so closely for so long, the end times are bound to feel somewhat mundane.

Perhaps The Membranes also feels post-apocalyptic because of its attitudes towards queerness. I say “post-apocalyptic” in the best way possible, in that Chi refuses to make his queer characters suffer through the expected catastrophes of prejudice, violence, and trauma. Instead, The Membranes envisions a future without societal judgment. Momo remembers having two mothers, being propositioned by a girl in boarding school, and notices Tomie Ito’s attraction to her. Momo herself can be read as a trans woman, having undergone a surgical procedure to inhabit an assigned-female body. Chi doesn’t give his characters any historical or cultural baggage, simply allowing queerness to exist. In fact, The Membranes is almost exclusively populated by queer female characters, one of whom is shocked when Momo rebuffs her: “Aren’t you yourself a girl? You don’t like girls? You mean you like boys?!”

In a 2021 interview with The Paris Review, Chi explains his motives for writing this particular future: “I wanted to portray an alternative world where both queer people and Taiwan could be left alone—left alone by the heterosexist world and by the shadow cast by China. To be left alone is my strategy to survive.” This sensibility seems to explain why The Membranes presents an intimate narrative within its post-apocalyptic setting. Against a backdrop of ecological devastation and never-ending war, Momo’s story may seem isolated to the point of irrelevance. But it’s also refreshing to see a mundane queer life persist underwater, insulated—if only partially—from the threat of violence.

This is not to say that The Membranes only treats climate change, capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and surveillance technology as aestheticized backdrops. The twist in Momo’s story only makes sense in a world where automation reigns supreme, nations wage war with androids, and human parts can be loaned for profit. In the end, large-scale forces make their way into Momo’s life, but their presence is not the point. Catastrophic forces have always been a part of Momo’s history, even shaping her destiny, but what we care about is her: not the mega-corporation she works for, not the dystopic technology that enables her to live, but the subjectivity that confers meaning to its surroundings, that finds a way to puncture all the membranes around it.

Ghosh ends his essay by envisioning a new task for writers: “finding other ways in which to imagine the unthinkable beings and events of this era.” The Membranes succeeds in this capacity, largely by treating catastrophe as yesterday’s news. And indeed, the apocalypse is already here for so many people—why treat climate change as a plot point when it’s already part of the scenery? The Membranes teaches us that disaster is not as interesting as we think it is. What we care about is humanity and how it prevails, and The Membranes has humanity to spare.

Ariel Chu is a PhD student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California, where she is completing a short story collection and novel with the support of a Steinbeck Fellowship. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, where she was awarded the Shirley Jackson Prize in Fiction. A former editor-in-chief of Salt Hill Journal, a 2019 P.D. Soros Fellow, and a 2020-2021 Luce Scholar in Taiwan, Ariel has been published by The Masters Review, The Common, and Waxwing, among others. Visit her at ariel-chu.com. More from this author →