Review: What a queer Taiwanese 1995 sci-fi novel got right about the future
On the Shelf
By Chi Ta-wei
Columbia: 168 pages, $20
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Taiwanese author Chi Ta-wei’s newly translated novel, “The Membranes,” was originally published in 1995 — and you can tell. This is a future extrapolated from the ‘90s, with books-on-disc and depleted ozone rather than the internet and climate change. And yet, though the book’s hereafter looks backward to us today, 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. Momo, an individual of not-quite-determinate gender and origin, is a celebrated dermal care technician in one of the great underwater cities that house humanity in the late 21st century. Predatory capitalism is unchecked in a post-Cold War world (that part feels right); obscure conflicts are now fought by disposable cyborgs under a poison sun. Momo, though, lives in comfort. Her most serious problem (or so she thinks) is that she is estranged from her mother, a well-known marketer of books on disc.
As a child, Momo was extremely ill, and had to live for years in a sterile environment attended only by a robot companion named Andy, with whom she was in love. Eventually we learn that the doctors may have cannibalized Andy for parts, or more than parts, to keep Momo alive. If Momo is alive. “Sometimes she wondered if she should even be living in this world … maybe she was better suited to another space, another world: a misfit peach, unsatisfied with its home tree and dreaming of growing on a different tree.”
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Momo isn’t living in her world at all, as the reader slowly discovers. Momo is a fiction, both because she’s in a novel by Chi Ta-wei and because a lot of what she knows about herself may have been fed into her mind. Self-narration is a meta-theme the novel keeps stretching, until suspension of disbelief feels like a membrane about to give way.
Translator Ari Larissa Heinrich, in a very helpful afterward, explains that “The Membranes” was written after Taiwan’s military dictatorship had lifted — a time when people suddenly had access to films, literature, philosophy and culture from Europe, America and Japan. Chi is best known for his literary fiction about gay identity but like many intellectuals of his time, he soaked in a wide range of genres and ideas. Momo drops references and allusions to post-modern classics like Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” and the novels (and film adaptations) of Philip K. Dick.
As a result, Momo seems steeped in the movies, books and culture of the period in which she was invented, the 1990s, rather than the age in which she supposedly lives. She is created out of words and stories in a kind of immaculate conception. Her mother, in fact, tells her she was not born from a womb but found in a peach by her mother and her close friend, who shared the fruit as “the mark of an extraordinary friendship.” Momo is the fruit of two women and/or the fruit of Chi and his books. Either way, hers was a queer birth.
Among Momo’s readings is a book about French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose work was central to feminist and queer studies in the ‘90s. Lacan, as Momo explains, or remembers, believed that young infants did not know they were themselves. “Only between six and eighteen months of age, when a child looks in a mirror (including symbolic as well as material mirrors), will she acquire an individual sense of self,” she explains.
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Lacan isn’t just saying a child without a self will gain a self in time. He’s saying there is no child without a self. The child before the mirror stage and after the mirror stage are both created at once. Chronology is therefore an illusion, or a reflection — a membrane that isn’t there. There is no Momo until there is a story of Momo.
That’s how novels work; Chi brings Momo into being complete with a past and a future. And he makes the reader aware of that by constantly rewriting Momo until she’s virtually nothing but a mind telling itself narratives of Momo. The story about the peach is a fiction, but it reflects a truth, which is that Momo is built out of fiction.
Queer theorists like Judith Butler embraced Lacan because he suggested that people are made out of cultural stories; we are what we’re told we are. Lacan provides a model for showing how the self is controlled and limited. But he also points toward a liberating possibility that those reflections are less a hard truth than an unpredictable and changeable gestalt. Identity makes history.
If that sounds abstract, consider the narrative of gender transition. Momo herself, before her illness and her operation, had a penis. Afterward, it’s not exactly clear she has a body. Still, she has a gender and a self, which is an image of who she was and is and will be. Capitalism constrains that self in a manner so totalizing that it prevents Momo from seeing her own ownership; in at least one narrative, she’s the property of a corporation that controls her. But even so, there’s some her that exists beyond the price set on her and beyond the future she doesn’t have.
“The Membranes” is 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.
Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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