Book Review: The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei, trans. Ari Larissa Heinrich

Cover of The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei

Originally published 1995, Chi Ta-Wei’s The Membranes jumps forward a little over a hundred years and depicts (predicts?) a world defined by a queer sensibility. Membranes – viscous layers that simultaneously separate and engulf reality are present everywhere in this narrative. Ari Larissa Heinrich’s English translation feels particularly apt during a time of isolation, social distancing, and protective masking. A pre-cursor to posthumanism in literature, The Membranes asks important questions about consent, embodiment, ethics, and technology. The ontology of human is challenged and tested; cartesian dualism warped beyond recognition.

The protagonist, Mimo’s, life is a series of contradictions. As a dermal care technician, her work necessitates physical intimacy but in her private life, she feels no desire for human connection. Similarly, she values her own privacy to the point of disliking video calls but applies an M-skin – a membrane like layer – to her clients’ skin which records and relays their every tactile experience to her. As Mimo’s thirtieth birthday approaches, she looks forward to her mother’s return into her life and recalls her unusual childhood. Mimo’s mother is a marketing executive for a ebook manufacturer MegaHard (no connection to MicroSoft, I’m sure). Information is reveal like onion – each membrane peeling back to get the reader closer to the core of reality, if not necessarily the truth until the final twist rattles our understanding of what it means to be human.

Representation is a key draw of this text. Departing from traditional dystopian tropes, there are no cishet human men to be found. Each character is queer is a deeply casual sense. Queerness is normalized and pervasive within this text. But that doesn’t mean the book shies away from ethical concerns surrounding queerness in the real world. Echoing recent public debates surrounding puberty blockers and HRT for trans children, The Membranes depicts a world where the wealthy can build cyborgs and replace body parts for themselves or their children – including genitals. Just as Mimo’s body is modified without her consent, her mind is further signed away to a techno-capitalist company: the ISM Corporation. As the narrator notes, thore three letters “can be found in many of the world’s most provocative hegemonic concepts: concepts such as imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, fascism, nationalism, sexism, heterosexism, racism, fundamentalism, postmodernism” and so on.

Spoiler alert: In a move that “saves” Mimo’s life, her mother licenses Mimo’s mind to a company for twenty years. Mimo’s home office is actually a repair center and when she thinks she is giving facials and dermal care to her human clients, she is actually repairing cyborg soldiers. Her perception of everything is being controlled by her licencees and is specifically designed to keep her oblivious and thus, complacent in this manufactured reality.

The tone and structure of the plot are tight and quietly reflective. World-building is not the focus; instead the book spends a considerable amount of time in Mimo’s interiority – a move that pays off at the big reveal towards the end. True to the author’s background as a professor of LGBT and disability studies, The Membranes functions as a syllabus and encourages deep reflection on a wide variety of themes.

Effectively a modern fable, The Membranes creates a punk, dystopian novella set in the near future. It is ideal for anyone who wishes to immerse themselves in a queer future which interrogates the very nature of authentic humanism.

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