The perfect protective membrane

Excerpt from The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei

Photo by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei, translated from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich.

The ocean made a perfect protective membrane, a thick, robust barrier that could shield humans, animals, and plants from ultraviolet radiation.

Plus, the ocean was the primordial birthplace of all earth’s plants and animals. Back when there was no life on land, it was the ocean that generated the earliest vegetation, and the ocean that eventually produced our most primitive ancestors, These earliest plants and animals evolved in water because sunlight was lethal; the ozone layer had not yet formed. Only when the collective gases exhaled by the denizens of the ocean had reached a critical mass and erupted through the surface and into the atmosphere was the radiation-filtering protective layer formed. And only under the shelter of this newly formed barrier could the first brave organisms crawl to the shore and withstand the assault of sunlight on their vulnerable bodies.

who could have imagined that eons later, in the twenty-first century, they would return to their old ocean home?

But humans, unlike fish or shrimp, were not designed to swim, so it would be necessary to build subaquatic cities. Fortunately, the ocean was abundant with natural resources, and with the right adjustments the sea floor could be adapted for human habitation. Not only that, but the technology for harnessing solar power was improving by the day and could now be used to convert great quantities of energy collected aboveground for use on the ocean floor. Since the sun had forced humanity back into the ocean, it was only fair that humanity took some of its power in return.

But the middle of the twenty-first century there was little habitable land left, and humankind finally invaded the oceans en masse, a process euphemistically referred to as “migration.” During the process of “reclaiming wasteland,” new reserves of crude oil were discovered one after another. This accelerated the rate of underwater construction, which in turn provided a solution to the problem of high unemployment, a surprise benefit of migration to the ocean floor! With great “humanity,” they told themselves, humankind “rescued” all manner of favored flora and fauna by bringing them them along to the bottom of the sea. This time, of course they made sure not to bring cockroaches and mosquitoes, but they also left behind many critical organisms, Waves of human settlers inevitably led to the ecological devastation of the ocean floor, but people felt they’d done their best to act humanely. Don’t blame us, they thought, we did the best we could.

By 2060, the majority of humanity had migrated to the ocean, with only one percent left to eke out a living on the surface. Pretty much all the main infrastructure of human civilization had migrated to the ocean floor, including industrial agriculture and animal husbandry. All that remained aboveground were those historical sites too large to be moved—the pyramids, for example, or the February 28th Incident Memorial Plaques ubiquitous on the island of Taiwan—tough archeologist and tourists still visited the surface. 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 abandoned 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. (Let them burn—who needed the electric chair!)

The earth’s surface, which had once struggled to bear the burden of overpopulation, was now almost completely deserted. Though even now humankind proved reluctant to surrender the legacy of its battles for power, still everything—everything—on the surface of the earth went the way of the Great Wall off China To think that these ambitious marvels of engineering built on the backs of the common people, wound up the playthings of the tourism industry! Their majesty was reduced to an absurd footnotes.

But new man-made landscapes were also propagated on the surface, These new landscapes would have been inconceivable to the people who came before: more extravagant than works by the twentieth-century environmental artist Christo, but also more practical. For example, there were the metastasizing “fields” of solar panel arrays stretching as far as the eye could see, used to harvest solar power for the population under the ocean.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Membranes – Summary

It is the late twenty-first century, and Momo is the most celebrated dermal care technician in all of T City. Humanity has migrated to domes at the bottom of the sea to escape devastating climate change. The world is dominated by powerful media conglomerates and runs on exploited cyborg labor. Momo prefers to keep to herself, and anyway she’s too busy for other relationships: her clients include some of the city’s best-known media personalities. But after meeting her estranged mother, she begins to explore her true identity, a journey that leads to questioning the bounds of gender, memory, self, and reality.

First published in Taiwan in 1995, The Membranes is 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 sensitive portrait of one young woman’s quest for self-understanding. Predicting everything from fitness tracking to social media saturation, this visionary and sublime novel stands out for its queer and trans themes. The Membranes reveals the diversity and originality of contemporary speculative fiction in Chinese, exploring gender and sexuality, technological domination, and regimes of capital, all while applying an unflinching self-reflexivity to the reader’s own role. Ari Larissa Heinrich’s translation brings Chi’s hybrid punk sensibility to all readers interested in books that test the limits of where speculative fiction can go.

Copyright © 1995 by Chi Ta-Wei.

Translated from the Chinese by: Ari Larissa Heinrich

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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