Science fiction is full of cities imagined from the ground up, but an author who writes about a real place has to engage with real cultures and real histories. It takes a special kind of world-building skill to develop a city when its origins are already known.

The Membranes, a fascinating new book out in June by Chi Ta-wei, meets this challenge. It presents metropolitan Taiwan in 2100 as utterly unfamiliar apart from its culture. In the novella, a young aesthetician named Momo dresses her clients in artificial skins that track their personal data and shield them from the elements. She is part of a “new Renaissance” of technology in T City, which is not quite future Taipei. The view from Momo’s salon reveals the difference: she can see “silver-indigo waves in the infinite depth” and “schools of cadmium yellow fish floating by in tidy regiments.” There is a “membrane” above, in the place where the reader might expect the sky to be. That’s because T City is part of New Taiwan, which contains the entire country’s population and is located on the ocean floor. 

Humanity has migrated to subaquatic domes to escape the lethal consequences of a vastly deteriorated ozone layer. Tremendous advances in solar power have made this shift possible, and an android underclass provides maintenance labor. Sentient but without rights, they are manufactured with organs that can be harvested by humans. Gradually, Momo grows enlightened to the oppression of androids, connecting the dots between a surgery she had as a child and the disappearance of her childhood best friend.

There’s an awful lot going on in this short work: new religions form in this future world, the Pacific Ocean territories are divided between countries like the United States and corporations like Toyota, and then there are the peculiar skin treatments at Momo’s salon. What grounds this overwhelming book is Momo’s addiction to digital media. She spends hours on dial-up bulletin board systems and the early search engine Gopher, loves laserdiscs, and pores over “discbooks” and “disczines.” 

“Real worlds feature real peoples. Therefore it’s important that I not depict them in ways that disrespect or cause harm.”

N.K. Jemisin

The charming old-fashioned digital layer in the book clues the reader into the real-world events that inspired Chi. While the English translation is new, The Membranes was first published in 1995, just a few years after a decades-long period of martial law in Taiwan was lifted. It transformed

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By: Joanne McNeil
Title: Politics and the pandemic have changed how we imagine cities
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Published Date: Wed, 28 Apr 2021 11:00:00 +0000