Review: Membranes by Chi-Ta Wei

Membranes” a thematically rich yet short novel by author and literary critic Chi Ta-Wei. It was written in 1995 but it has been translated to English for the first time now.

I enjoyed the book for its recurring and concentric themes in Wei’s future Earth, where humankind’s destruction of the environment has finally caught up with it. Humanity has sought refuge under the surface of the ocean and live beneath giant domes also referred to as “membranes”. The main character, Momo, is a dermal care technician and the story is about her life living under the ocean and running a chic dermal care salon.

One of the story’s true merits lay in its integration of identity themes with science. Too often in modern sci-fi, the science is little more than a backdrop and rarely moves the story forward, opting instead for “character-based stories”. As sci-fi as intended, “Membranes” not only explores science, crafts a world rooted in it with plausible explanations, it interrogates human interaction with it, its impact on us, and offers a complex exploration of identity immersed in it. And  Ta-Wei uses these themes concentrically and effectively to weave a story that has a mind-blowing twist.

Despite its incredibly short length, the book covers a lot of ground, but not in a way that leaves you unfulfilled. Ta-Wei has mastered the art of succinct brevity. Every word counts and every concept has an impact. In his explanation of the climate crisis that afflicts man in “Membrane’s” future Earth, he briefly expounds upon shifting priorities and social dynamics based on this new reality. This is clearly demonstrated in this line:

“People of all different colors experience heliophobia, but Black skin provided an extra layer of protection over white skin, with the result that many white people exchanged their long-standing racism for open envy of Black superiority.”

He even goes on to discuss how the inclusions of the world’s major religions become predicated upon how much melanin you have in your skin. I don’t have to explain the profound relevance this has in today’s world. Though I should point out that while many writers in the mid-90s treated dystopias as a thought exercise, Ta-Wei was clearly paying attention to what was happening around him.

Ta-Wei, through his inclusivity, goes on to demonstrate some of the more ephemeral ideas behind his central themes of “membranes”. At one point a character named Draupadi shows up wearing a purple and indigo sari. And during the conversation she removes successive layers revealing yet another under each. She recounts a story from the epic “Mahabharata” where her namesake is forced to wear a sari of infinite layers. But promptly tells Momo that “The woman in the story wore the sari because she was forced to. I am naked because I choose to be.” It was a powerful moment in the story because it was consistent with the author’s central theme while making a significant point about identity and choice. And there was something deeply satisfying about using an ancient epic from a non-western culture to make the point.

Although the racial component has not happened. It s an interesting and plausible prediction based upon real scientific factors. And if that doesn’t dazzle you then perhaps some of the other interesting predictions Ta-Wei makes might. As an example, in 1995, e-books had not yet emerged, and yet the company that Momo’s mother works for specialized in it. Despite the amusingly anachronistic medium for delivery (laserdisc), the concept itself is here. Though video conferencing has been around for a while, it has never been the prevalent medium for communication. In the last year, during the pandemic, Zoom calls have become the norm. That is something else that is in the book, though to a limited degree. And it is the result of Momo having to be quarantined which was particularly prescient.

I also deeply appreciated the shifts in societal perception surrounding professions in “Membranes”. A small but potent bit of world-building on the part of Ta-Wei shows how human values might further evolve based on circumstance. In the future, Dermal Care Technicians are respected and often wealthy. In a future where the Earth is a sun-blasted wasteland and people’s need to live in the Ocean, has created a humanity beset by a host of dermatological ailments, Dermal Care Technicians rule. I like the inversion for two reasons: First because it appears designed to demonstrate the real value in economies. The value of labor. The second is that it does what sci-fi is supposed to do which is, through its world-building, demonstrate an evolution in values in a changing world while simultaneously showing the interactions with new technologies designed to cope with those changes and their effects.

Another one that surprised me was the Lawn Care Technician. Because of the rarity of flora anywhere on Earth, they are valued for their expertise and are also quite well off financially. Whether Ta-Wei intended it or not, he demonstrates the arbitrary nature by which we assign importance to some professions. An interesting and utilitarian take for 1995 science fiction.

I enjoyed the book far more than I expected I would. It contained all of the elements I like to see in sci-fi novels. Again, despite its length, Ta-Wei constructs a narrative of interlocking concepts and ideas that make a complete story. And despite the plot twist, which was some of the best exposition I’ve seen, it doesn’t lessen the impact of the narrative. The book itself is like Buck Rogers. A transplant from the past into a barbaric and regressive future. “Membranes” had to have been one of the best sci-fi novels of 1995 in any language because I consider it a tragedy that we had to wait 25 years to read it.

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