Humanity has migrated to underwater domes to escape the deadly consequences of a severely deteriorated ozone layer. Huge advancements in solar power have made this change possible, and an android subclass is providing maintenance work. Sentient but without rights, they are made with organs that can be removed by humans. Gradually, Momo becomes enlightened by the oppression of androids, connecting the dots between a surgery she underwent as a child and the disappearance of her childhood best friend.
There’s an awful lot going on in this short book: new religions are forming in this future world, the territories of the Pacific Ocean are divided between countries like the United States and companies like Toyota, and then there’s the treatments. special skin at Momo’s salon. What founds this overwhelming book is Momo’s addiction to digital media. She spends hours on switched bulletin board systems and the Gopher search engine, loves laser discs and pores on “discbooks” and “disczines”.
The book’s charming old-fashioned digital layer tells the reader the real-world events that inspired Chi. Although the English translation is new, Membranes was first published in 1995, just a few years after a decades-long period of martial law in Taiwan was lifted. He transformed culture with “a sudden influx of new ideas, combined with the relative lack of statutory control over an entire generation of young people,” as translator Ari Larissa Heinrich explains in the afterword. Chi was one of that generation, newly marketing bootleg tapes and suddenly exposed to international films, surfing the web and reveling in media and technology. The disorienting exuberance of this period is captured in the frenetic spirit of the book: T City’s wild future was a funny mirror image of Taiwan as Chi experienced it.
Membranes shows that even if a population has come together in a city at the bottom of the ocean, its communities will continue to make history from a common past. It was a concern of NK Jemisin as she worked on the 2020s The city we have become. The book is set in New York City, where the author lives, but in acknowledgments she writes that it “required more research than all the other fantastic novels I’ve written, combined.” It wasn’t just the infrastructure and landmarks that Jemisin hoped to accurately capture, but the New Yorkers themselves. “Real worlds have real people,” she writes. “Therefore, it is important that I do not portray them in a disrespectful or harmful manner.”
The city we have become found a large and enthusiastic following when it was released last year, at the very start of the pandemic. It features superhero-like characters who act as avatars of New York’s five boroughs, both protectors and embodiments of their locations. They fight entities reminiscent of the monsters of HP Lovecraft, with tentacles and “slings”, which are manifestations of the threats New Yorkers face: gentrification, racism, the police. Jemisin’s research and care have borne fruit; the book struck a chord with readers as their own lives were drastically changed. For people whose cities were going through a different stress test in the midst of the covid-19 crisis, its characters seemed true.
One way sci-fi writers have avoided research like Jemisin’s is to feature empty familiar towns in addition to a handful of survivors. I’m a legend, the 1954 post-apocalyptic classic by Richard Matheson, takes place in a Los Angeles recognizable by its geography and street names, but a pandemic has turned its inhabitants – except one man – into vampires living in The shadow.
The novel, a huge influence on modern zombie horror, channels the anxiety of the Atomic Age by portraying once bustling neighborhoods as newly desolate. The last man on earth, Robert Neville, rarely leaves his walled home. Instead, he leads a warm life, listening to piano concertos and drinking alone. There is no coordinated disaster response in the novel. He is not obliged to collaborate or negotiate with his neighbors on supplies.
As he begins to experiment with vampires to uncover the origins of the disease, I’m a legend asks a sobering question: is Richard the real monster of this new society? It’s suspenseful and rightly considered a classic, but Matheson offers no real sense of place. The other people have been stripped of their history and are just bloodthirsty mutants; their motivations and interests are predictable and the culture of the city has no bearing on them.
Decades earlier, WEB polymath Du Bois attempted to write fiction to show how social hierarchies in a city can outlive its own people. His 1920 short story “The Comet,” written in the wake of the influenza pandemic, depicts an event near extinction in New York City. A black man survives, and for the first time in his life, he can visit a restaurant on Fifth Avenue without worry. Jim fills his plate in the empty building, thinking, “They wouldn’t have served me yesterday.” The city of Los Angeles in I’m a legend could be anywhere, but New York is clearly New York in “The Comet.” In this line, Du Bois provides a glimpse into life before the Fifth Avenue restaurant was abandoned. As Jim continues his journey, he comes into contact with a handful of other survivors and discovers that racism did not die when the event took place– and that it will persist, in fact, until the end of the world.