The Membranes by Chi Ta-wei

We know that everything we experience is mediated -through the senses in collaboration with the brain- it is like there is a membrane between our selves and the world. But where does the membrane stop and reality begin? Can we even be sure that there is something on the other side? Or turn it around; where does the membrane stop, and the self begin? Is there even something at the core? These are the questions raised in Chi Ta-wei’s 紀大偉 novel The Membranes (first published as <膜> in 1995), a unique work of queer speculation, critical futurism, and cyber-psychology, superbly and lucidly translated into English by Ari Larissa Heinrich.

The novel is sometimes described as dystopian, but I see nothing in it that is not already out there, albeit in different forms: Is organ and tissue harvesting from androids worse than from other humans or animals? Is stealing people’s sensory experiences via extra layers of false skin all that different from the gathering of personal information that goes on every time you press your fingers against a computer keyboard to access the internet? Is the brutal class segregation between exposed land-dwellers and protected sea-dwellers unlike the way factories and garbage dumps are habitually constructed in the poorest areas of city and planet? As all good speculative fiction does, The Membranes draws attention to our own world by recreating familiar emotions in estranging environments, providing fresh perspectives on fundamental questions, in Chi’s case, in highly poetic and inventive ways.

The Membranes narrates a short time span around the 30th birthday of Momo, the owner of a skin treatment parlor named Salon Canary located at the ocean floor in the year 2100. Through Momo’s memories and experiences, we learn of her life history and of the many membranes that surround her: “Membranes filtered Momo’s every impression of the world. At thirty, she felt there was at least one layer of membrane between her and the world. Not the kind of membrane she applied to her clients receiving facials at work, obviously. The invisible kind. The kind that made her feel like at tiny water flea – a Daphnia encased in a cell, swimming alone out to sea” (1).

Momo feels separated from her peers and, outside her work, has difficulty engaging in any kind of intimate relations. Beside the psychological barrier (which has very material foundations as the novel reveals), other membranes separate the human Daphnia from the sea of reality. Quite literally, the city she lives in lies “safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in a greenhouse” (26).

The skin is perhaps the most immediate membrane, protecting us against illness, except in Momo’s case where it failed to prevent the LOGO virus from slowly destroying her body. This necessitated the construction of Andy -an android specifically (and cruelly) designed to be “compatible” with Momo, to become her first friend and later her organ donor. Elegantly playing with the reader’s gendered expectations, Chi describes the surgical union of the sterile android Andy (sexed as female and gendered feminine) and the human girl Momo, who possesses a penis and is named after a mythical Japanese boy: “Did these two hands belong to Momo or Andy? Whose belly was this? She didn’t have a pee-pee, so that delicate flesh below her belly must have belonged to Andy!” (78).

Recalling Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking 1985-essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Chi reminds us that cyborgs are good to think with, especially when it comes to questions of gender and identity politics, because they are made, just as genders are made, of many (un)natural things in specific contexts. Cyborgs are neither/both human nor/and machine -they represent a messier approach to identity reiterated by Momo when she asks, “whose belly is this?” After all, that belly is home to many hundreds of species of bacteria with each their specific DNA as well as Momo’s “own” cells.

The most persistent membrane, however, exists between Momo and her mother. This is not the cellular membrane of a crustacean in the sea, but of a fetus in a womb. It is not a human merged with an android, but a child disjoined from a parent. Together with the android theme, the theme of parentage explores what it means to be and individual. If one individual can emerge from another, then where and when does individuality begin within all those layers of blood and uterine fluids. And, as Momo points out, emerging from one membrane into the other, one is still a caged canary.

In her dermic treatment work, Momo uses a kind of cream called M-skin which settles into a second skin on the client’s body. This skin is able to record sensory information and replay it through a computer: “Put simply, imagine the body is an old-style tape recorder and M-skin is a cassette: every stimulus experienced by Tomie Ito’s body was recorded like a sound. When Momo got the cassette and made a copy, she could play it on the tape recorder of her own body” (59).

From this angle, the skin is not our ward against the world, but our gateway to it, the line of encounter between inner and outer, I and you. Momo uses M-skin to spy on her clients and, in effect, live through their bodies, problematizing the habitual understanding of the skin as the boundary of the self. If one can share memories, share sensory experiences, share the most intimate moments, what remains of the singular I?

The novel is not only concerned with individuality and identity politics. There are subtle hints at social and political critique in the very structure of Momo’s ocean world: “The new sea-dwellers also left behind unwanted structures like pollution-producing factories and nuclear power plants (which meant, however, that some key personnel were forced to remain on the surface to man the reactors). Also left behind were prisons and various tools of punishment, since governments universally recognized that leaving convicts on the surface was actually a convenient punishment in and of itself” (22).

In the end, membranes are inescapable, and perhaps they are the very location of life. Just as the skin act as the zone of encounter between self and world, so is this wet origin of humanity, “the ocean: just a membrane on the surface of a giant apple” (67). Like the membranes present everywhere, Chi’s novel in Heinrich’s translation presents a view of reality that is certainly layered but also porous. If membranes are everywhere, they are also pierced, smeared, breached and rewoven. By encouraging a closer look at surfaces, the novel suggests that this is where much of our identity (social, sexual, species) resides and is constantly reconfigured. The core, the brain, the mind, or whatever we call it, does not thrive in vacuum, but needs and feeds on sensory stimuli from the boundaries of the body.

The Membranes is a fascinating and beautifully conceived novel, deceptively simple and alluringly deep, smoothly mediated by the membrane of Heinrich’s excellent translation. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Chi’s work.

Chi, Ta-wei (author) and Ari Larissa Heinrich (translator). The Membranes. Columbia University Press, 2021.

Invisible Realms of Science Fiction with Mingwei Song

What is the New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction and how do the invisible aspects of reality that it brings to light impact the genre, the scholarship, and our understanding of literature in general? In this first instalment of the Sinophone Unrealities podcast, I talk with Mingwei Song about his love of science fiction, his latest book The Fear of Seeing, and his critically acclaimed experiments with SF poetry.

We take a peek at invisibility on all levels of literary research: From the unseen realms of society that take centre stage in works by writers such as Han Song, to the overlooked sides of SF that emerge through poetry, and beyond into the hidden sides of academia where poets dwell.

Listen here.

Art: Joanne Taylor/Nettop/UiS

I’ve started this podcast to explore the latest research into speculative Sinophone fiction through informal conversations with other researchers/writers/translators about their work and their passions. I’m as thrilled as the next person by the increasing popularity of Chinese SF, but I feel that by widening the generic scope to include all works with speculative elements such as fantasy, time-travel fiction, weird stories, and the genre-defying experiments by authors like Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹, Hon Lai-chu 韓麗珠 and Ho Sok Fong 賀淑芳 –as well as Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章 and Luo Yijun 駱以軍 who Mingwei refers to as “new baroque” writers in this episode– we can really appreciate the glittering variety and spectacular inventiveness of contemporary fiction in Chinese.

Just as some texts refuse to be confined to a single genre, so do many scholars have a finger in more than one literary pie. Some write poetry to express themselves differently than the peer reviewed paper allows, many translate to make their research material available to people in their homeland and share the wonderful tales they discover on their forays into other languages. Some begin as writers or translators and turn to academia later as a breath of fresh air, bringing whole new curriculums and practical perspectives with them. This fruitful collaboration between literary spheres and the multiple roles we play in academia and beyond is something I will return to throughout this series.

If blockbusters like Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem have paved the way, there is no reason to stop here and miss the treasure troves of mythical robotics, humanoid tree-people, premodern string-based internets, and mushroom-houses that lie ahead. Join me for new adventures into the world of Sinophone Unrealities.

Some of the writers Mingwei talks about (and that you will definitely want to read) are: Liu Cixin 刘慈欣, Han Song 韩松, Xia Jia 夏笳, Dung Kai-cheung, and Luo Yijun. Check out The Translated Chinese Fiction Podcast with Angus Stewart for episodes with/about several of these authors -and many more. Bon appétit!

Invisible GuestMingwei Song is Associate Professor of Chinese & Director of Chinese program at Wellesley College, Massachusetts USA. He has published several monographs on both modern and contemporary Chinese literature including Young China: National Rejuvenation and the Bildungsroman 1900-1959, 《五四@100》 (May Fourth@100) with David Der-wei Wang and 《中國科幻新浪潮》 (New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction). His pioneering work on new wave Chinese SF has made him one of the leading scholars in this field and his latest –much anticipated– book The Fear of Seeing: The Poetics and Politics of Chinese Science Fiction is forthcoming with Columbia University Press. His poetry has appeared in eminent journals including the legendary 今天 (Today) and a collaborative collection with Luo Yijun (駱以軍) is underway. 

 

OSEH talk: Plant-human Hybrids

In a world where environmental concerns loom large in the media and classrooms alike, it is not only in apocalyptic or ecocritical fiction that we encounter ecological motifs and botanical characters. This talk examines three literary works, from three different generic traditions, that feature plant-human hybrids: Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉紅 speculative short story “Bitter Gourd” (苦瓜), science fiction writer Chi Hui’s 迟卉 “The Rainforest” (雨林, translated for Renditions by Jie Li), and Yan Ge’s 颜歌 cryptozoological mystery novel A Chronicle of Strange Beasts (异兽志, translated as Strange Beasts of China by Jeremy Tiang).

Time and place: Mar. 10, 2021 CET 12:15 PM–1:00 PM. Register here.

Recent scholarship in critical plant studies have highlighted that attention to botanical characters may help us understand, if not how plants communicate and sense the world, then at least how we imagine they do. Attempting to circumvent anthropocentrism, this radically non-human perspective, produces alternative visions of the planetary future as well as ecologically situated readings of human history. Combining ecocriticism with the figure of the monster (human-like, yet not human), this talk analyses literary plant-human hybrids in contemporary Sinophone fiction.

About the speaker

Astrid Møller-Olsen is postdoctoral research fellow in an international position between Lund University (Sweden), the University of Stavanger (Norway), and the University of Oxford (UK) funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a background in both comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, urban forms of narrative memory, and sensory approaches to the study of literature. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism.

About the event series

The OSEH Environmental Lunchtime Discussion series consists of short, 15 minute presentations by invited guests, followed by a discussion. We invite speakers from a wide variety of fields, both academic and beyond. The presentations are accessible and are aimed at anyone with an interest in environmental issues. All are welcome.