A classic of queer speculative fiction in Chinese. Chi Ta-wei weaves dystopian tropes — heirloom animals, radiation-proof combat drones, sinister surveillance technologies — into a portrait of one young woman's quest for self-understanding.
There’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 novel is about how identity is a story we tell ourselves through time — or back through time. And that story, for Chi, is queer ... The Membranes doesn’t have a plot so much as a complicated schematic ... 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. English readers who finish it now, 25 years after it was first published, may regret finding it so late, and missing out on all the stories and selves we could have been, even as it seems like it’s been here the whole time. A new story is a new skin; Momo makes you ask who or when you’ll be once you finish this one.
A classic of queer speculative fiction in Chinese—one that is, with this agile translation from Ari Larissa Heinrich, accessible to an English-language readership for the first time ... Chi’s novel reaches across time to massage at that loneliness of being, to pluck at the question of what our humanness relies on. Are we made of stories, or of other people’s affections, or of our electric strange imaginations? ... The power of The Membranes isn’t in the unsettling accuracy of its extrapolations, though—it’s in what Chi does with those observations through the characters. Queerness (and trans-ness!) as both a norm and a subversive potentiality reverberate throughout The Membranes. Gender and desire, bodies and their flesh, intimate detachment and emotional consumption are all deeply significant to the narrative plot. As the novel progresses, the reader is immersed within Momo emotionally and physically ... Heinrich’s translation retains Chi’s combined sharpness and liquidity, which makes for a reflexive reading experience. Repetition and reflection, observations delivered multiple times with slight tonal shifts, build us cleverly toward the unexpected turn of the novel’s ending ...a brilliant work of craftsmanship, and I’m deeply honored to finally be able to read it in translation after all these years.
... feels relevant, even urgent, in spite of its multi-decade linguistic hiatus ... Beyond all of this is a frank engagement with issues of gender that made the book cutting-edge for its era and still engaging now ... a distinctly Chinese-language novel in its style, showing rather than telling and avoiding deep dives into the protagonist’s psyche. Where a western novelist might spend chapters exploring Momo’s sense of self and the symbolism of her birth story, Chi Ta-Wei provides a leaner narrative, focused on events and encounters and leaving meaning for the reader to explore. The effect is wonderful and deeply engaging. The Membranes is a marvelous book. Its discussion of isolation and the boundaries of self belong very much to the present, and its future feels as urgent as they were on the novel’s first release.