Buy and Give a Book for Christmas

misty mounteinsThere are many reasons to look at buying and giving books for Christmas; not the least to maintain and encourage our literacy, culture and artistic spirit, but also to promote the industry you and I rely on as writers and readers.

According to Literary Statistics Canada, 42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills. 55% of working age adults in Canada are estimated to have less than adequate health literacy skills. Shockingly, 88% of adults over the age of 65 appear to be in this situation.

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society. — UNESCO

Reading fiction greatly improves our quality of life. Reading is just plain smart. In a study entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in the October 2013 issue of Science, researchers Kidd and Castano reported that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective and cognitive Theory of Mind compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Theory of Mind (ToM) describes the ability to understand others’ mental states, a crucial skill in complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Check out my article on reading fiction, which discusses how it improves empathy, sharpens your brain, helps you sleep better and helps against Alzheimer’s Disease.

I’ve compiled a list of books that I have recently purchased and have or will be giving away this Christmas. Looking at the list, I realize that it represents an eclectic range of style, form and subject matter. That’s good. Diversity is good. Here’s my list:

water-is-webWater Is… by Nina Munteanu. Part history, part science and part philosophy and spirituality, “Water Is…” combines personal journey with scientific discovery that explores water’s many identities and ultimately our own. From water’s many scientific anomalies to its metaphoric archetype with humanity’s evolution and ubiquitous existence in the universe, water remains our most precious and mysterious substance.

 

 

 

flight-behaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. A multi-layered meditation on individual responsibility, told through the discovery by a rural family of the climate-changed behaviour of the monarch butterfly. See my review of Flight Behavior.

 

 

 

 

threebodyproblem-cixin-liuThe Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. In this Hugo Award-winning first of three books on first contact, Liu weaves in metaphoric layers of significance—from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—to reflect on the perspectives of intelligent beings.

 

 

 

 

boilingpoint-maude-barlowBoiling Point by Maude Barlow. Barlow lays bare the issues facing Canada water reserves, including long-outdated water laws, unmapped and unprotected groundwater reserves, agricultural pollution, deforestation and climate change. With its focus on Canada, this book provides an “action” companion to my own “Water Is…”

 

 

 

 

memory-of-water-emmi-itarantaMemory of Water by Emmi Itaranta. This award-winning speculative post-climate change story is dark and reflective like a silent river of unknowable depth, “Memory of Water” flows with a meaning that lingers with you—like the organic scent of soil after a rainstorm—long after you have put the book down. Told in subtle tone and nuance, like an Ingmar Bergman film, the story of a young tea master in a post climate change world unravels a quiet and insidious oppression. Master Noria must navigate the police state to hide her secrets about water. Water remembers…

 

 

quantum-nightQuantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer (autographed). Told through a high paced psychological-political thriller, the story explores the thin line between good and evil and the world of the political sociopath from a Canadian perspective. I braved a snowstorm to attend Robert’s Toronto launch of this book, whose haunting story has persisted with me still; the mark of a great work.

 

 

 

year-of-the-flood-atwoodThe Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (autographed). Set in the visionary future of Atwood’s acclaimed Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood is at once a moving tale of lasting friendship and a landmark work of speculative fiction. In this second book of the MaddAddam trilogy, the long-feared waterless flood has occurred, altering Earth as we know it and obliterating most human life. At a recent talk she gave, I thanked Margaret for her environmental efforts and gave her a copy of my own book, Water Is…

 

 

freenetFreenet by Steve Stanton. The novel is about the power of free information in a post-digital age. Told as a thriller with interesting characters and world building, the book explores what digital immortality means. See my review of Freenet.

 

 

 

 

naturalselectionNatural Selection by Nina Munteanu. This short story collection explores humanity’s co-evolution with our environment and technology. A man uses cyber-eavesdropping to make love. A technocratic government uses gifted people as tools to recast humanity. The ruins of a city serve as battleground between pro-technologists and pro-naturalists. From time-space guardians to cybersex, GMO, and biotech implants, this short story collection is a journey of great scope, imagination and vision. “…a stunning example of good storytelling with an excellent setting and cast of characters.”—Tangent Online

 

 

silent-spring-rachel-carsonSilent Spring by Rachel Carson. Written in the 1960s, Carson’s cautionary book remains as relevant and powerful today as it was 50 years ago. Worth reading for her outlook on the awareness and protection of the natural environment just as Jane Jacobs was on the urban environment

 

 

 

 

far-from-the-madding-crowd-cover-imageFar from the Madding Crowd by Thomas .Hardy. A classic to be savoured. Thomas Hardy weaves a rich pastoral tale that examines the foibles of humanity: pride, vanity, greed, passion…and gives us a touching love story with a realistic ending. Set in Hardy’s Wessex country, the setting is as much a character as his cornucopia of delightful human characters. What I love best about Hardy is how his setting evokes (like a Greek god) story. Through beautiful description, imagery and evocative language, this is not the sort of book you want to race through to see what happens; but to read slowly and savored like a dark, rich coffee. Breathe in its hypnotic scent and let it linger.

 

 

martian-chronicles-copyMartian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles isn’t really about Mars. It’s about us. Who we are, what we are, and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything. The 1970 Bantam book jacket so aptly calls The Martian Chronicles, “a story of familiar people and familiar passions set against incredible beauties of a new world … A skillful blending of fancy and satire, terror and tenderness, wonder and contempt.” See my 2012 article on Ray.

 

 

fahrenheit-451-ray-bradburyFahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. A classic tale by a master of the craft of metaphor. Bradbury uses the fireman in a world where they make fires instead of putting them out, to explore the phenomenon of censorship in a world obsessed with being “good”. Scenes in his book were reminiscent of what the Nazis did in Opernplatz, Berlin. In fact, of this event Bradbury made this poignant statement: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.”

 

darwins-paradoxDarwin’s Paradox / Angel of Chaos duology by Nina Munteanu. This duology explores human-technological symbiosis, AI consciousness, transhumanism and our reconciliation with Nature. I give this duo away every Christmas because they are quite simply my most popular fiction books.

 

 

 

night-country-loren-eiseleyNight Country by Loren Eiseley. Eiseley reflects on the mystery of life, throwing light on those dark places traversed by himself and centuries of humankind. The Night Country is a gift of wisdom and beauty from the famed anthropologist.

 

 

 

 

pilgrim-at-tinker-creekPilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. A personal narrative of the author’s explorations on foot in her neighbourhood as she witnesses astonishing incidents of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”

 

 

 

 

novel-shortstorywritersmarket20172017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest. An excellent resource for writers, which includes (besides hundreds of listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, and contests), erudite and useful articles—including “Creative Cures for Writer’s Block” for which I was consulted.

 

 

 

What’s on your list?

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

 

Writing a Review on Amazon or Goodreads…It’s Not So Hard To Do

blue-forest-pathWHY Do a Review

There are several reasons to provide an online review.

As a reader, you can offer a recommendation to your fellow readers on a writer whose work you like. You are doing that writer a BIG favor by providing the review; just by adding an additional voice to that book’s virtual shelf. Any voice is better than no voice at all. This is why I generally don’t do negative reviews: just by adding a review (good or bad) you are adding to the voices associated with that book. I prefer to concentrate on adding a positive voice to the conversation. I’d rather spend my time helping and supporting writers and works that I like than bashing works I don’t care for. So, if you like a writer / book, letting other readers know right where the book is selling is a very effective way to help.

water-is-amazoncan-usa

Figure 1. Amazon Canada reviews of “Water Is…” (with added Amazon USA reviews)

Online reviews on Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon (primarily Amazon.com, but also Amazon.ca for Canada, and others throughout the world) are very useful and much appreciated by writers who you are reading and who want to keep writing for you. Goodreads (a primary book review and recommendation site) is another excellent site to place a review. It’s a free website for book lovers, who can feature their bookshelves, write reviews and rank books.

last-summoner-goodreads

Figure 2. Goodreads reviews and ranks for “The Last Summoner”

Reviews are one of the best ways to give back to the writers you wish to support. And, believe me, writers need that support! With Christmas coming around the corner, now is a prime time to get that review out that you’ve been thinking of doing to help your favorite writer or book. As a writer, if you aren’t writing reviews or making some recommendations on books and authors you like, you may wish to read my article on reciprocal altruism and the case of the vampire bat.

natural-selection-amazon

Figure 3. Amazon USA Kindle reviews for “Natural Selection”

HOW to Do a Review

I think so many of us get into thinking that we must write a “book report” like the one we hated doing in high school. But a review—particularly a good one—is not a book report. It is not the same as a critique, which may go into depth about artistic interpretation and symbolism. A review for a bookseller, like Amazon, Kobo or Barnes & Noble, is a lot simpler and serves a different purpose.

A good review provides key information on how the book resonated—or didn’t—with you. It’s really not that hard to write. Here are some tips:

  • A book review is NOT a plot outline. You don’t need to tell the potential reader all the ins and outs of the story. In fact, to get a good sense of the book, particularly if it is a non-fiction reference book, you don’t need to finish the book before you review it. What you do need to have done is read enough to have the book “speak” to you in some way.
  • Reviews are about connection and resonation. What did you like most about the book or what bothered you the most? The best reviews have a balance of both positive and negative things. But they don’t need to. Are you glad you bought it? Why? Did you learn something? Did it change your perspective? How did it touch you? Would you buy more by the same author? Would you recommend it? And if so, why. Think of your fellow readers. In fact, that’s a good way to write the review:
  • Write in a conversational tone as if you are describing the book to a friend you are recommending it to. You don’t need to get all technical or “literary” or use fancy or clever language. Write in the language that feels familiar to you. Remember, you’re writing to other readers.
  • Just be honest. What’s the first thing that comes to you? Write from the heart: “I loved this book because…” Perhaps it’s the memorable main character. Or the rich setting and history. Or the incredible world. Or the imaginative idea and twists in the story. Or the unforeseen but appropriate end. Did the book linger with you? Tell us why.
  • A book review can be short and work very well. I’ve seen a single under 10-word sentence for some reviews of my books. But those less than 10 words mean a lot, especially if they say: “Amazing wealth of information!” Or “A wonderful read.” Or “brilliantly written!” Short is direct and clean—like a poem—and distills your impressions down to an essence that will appeal to many. It will more likely be read in a sea of longer reviews. See examples in Figures 1, 2, and 5.
  • Combine this with a good title and you have a very powerful statement. I’m talking about the space that Amazon also provides for a “title” to your review (see examples in Figure 1 and 3), which appears at the top in bold and is, therefore very prominent. Be mindful of this title as readers may skim through these and use them alone to gain a sense of the reviews. Think of it as a one-line book tag, a distillation of how you felt about the book (e.g., This book changed my perspective on water; I want to be her when I grow up), or who you are, even (e.g., Limnologist Recommends…)
  • Ranking a book is useful. Most bookseller and book review sites include a place for you to rank the book, without even needing to put in a written review. These all help a reader sense the book’s popularity. You can also help by “liking” other people’s reviews, helping to give them importance.
darwins-paradox-goodreads

Figure 4. Goodreads rankings for “Darwin’s Paradox”

Where to Review

I’ve already mentioned the main sites that either sell books online or talk about books. The major bookstore sites include: Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Indigo. There are many other online booksellers, but the ones I mentioned will get to the most readers; so, your review will serve its purpose more powerfully there.

Just a note here about Amazon: I’m a Canadian and my books sell on Amazon.ca as well as on Amazon.com (in the USA). My books also sell in Japan, Australia, UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, just to name a few countries. Each of these countries is represented by its own Amazon online store (like Amazon.ca for Canada). If you write a review on Amazon.ca, it will only show up on Amazon.ca. If you write a review on Amazon.com, it will show up on all the other Amazon sites (see Figure 1). Generally, it’s best to write your review on the site from where you bought the book; but, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’ve bought a book on one Amazon site and written a review on another.

Goodreads is one of the best book review sites, given its popularity and large, diverse and active membership. Goodreads readers—and their authors—take books seriously. But even there, reviews can vary from extensive to a few sentences as shown in these reviews for my writing guide “The Fiction Writer” (Figure 5), and in Figure 2 for “The Last Summoner.”

fiction-writer-goodreads

Figure 5. Goodreads Reviews for “The Fiction Writer”

What Reviews Look Like

I’ve included throughout this article examples of reviews for my various books which show you a range of style and impression—both positive and negative. Writers do want an honest review. Yes, we’d rather see all positive reviews. But the negative review has its place, the very least, to demonstrate to readers that the critique forum is objective and unbiased and embraces free expression.

Notice that Goodreads embraces a platform that shows a combination of review and rank, which works very well (see Figure 2). Also, notice the Goodreads ranks for my first novel, “Darwin’s Paradox” in Figure 4, which represent a healthy range from 1 to five stars. Figures 6 and 7, below, demonstrate the full range of reviews a single book can get, in this case for the first book, “Outer Diverse”, of my space adventure trilogy, “Splintered Universe”.

outer-diverse-goodreads2

outer-diverse-goodreads-neg

Figure 7. Another Goodreads review of “Outer Diverse”

So, have fun writing your review; but go and write it!

Write a Great Book Jacket Blurb

 

fullcoverwtitlesblurblowresA while ago I wrote about the importance of an effective—and accurately portrayed—book cover design for your book. To reprise, this includes not just the choice of cover image but the typology (how the title and name is designed) and overall design. The actual title is another important choice, which I talk about in another article. What remains is the back book jacket blurb—the description on the back cover of a print book and the description section for the book on Amazon (and other bookstores).

Author and digital marketing instructor Laurence O’Bryan discusses seven things every blurb should have in his article on “BooksGoSocial Book Marketing Blurb”. They include:

  1. A strong first sentence. You can insert a tag line, a short sentence from the front cover or a short exciting review quote. You can also state the most dramatic element of the book or what the reader will get, how they will benefit, from reading your book.
  2. In the second paragraph tell the reader who the main characters are, by name, what the circumstances of the book are and the location.
  3. Include the dramatic problem or dilemma of the plot early on. You can use key words such as: “however”, “but” or “until.”
  4. Hint at how the characters might overcome the dilemma.
  5. Indicate the tone and mood of the book. Tell the reader through pace and word choice what kind of story they will get. Is it a romance, a mystery, a thriller, a literary story, a fantasy or another popular genre?
  6. Keep all paragraphs short to make the description easy to read online.
  7. Mention what’s unique about your book and use a dramatic tone, if the book contains drama. A little hype goes a long way.

O’Bryan suggests looking at the 5 top books in your genre for length, layout, style and content tips. “Spend time getting this right, writes O’Bryan. “Test each version you create with people you trust who will be honest with you. A poor blurb or book description will seriously impact your book sales. Big publishers spend a lot of time on this, changing or foggy-valleyinserting single words to create powerful descriptions.”

It’s worth spending time polishing your book jacket blurb to grab a reader. The cover and title makes them pick it up off the shelf (whether virtual or real); the back jacket blurb makes them buy it.

 

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

“To Boldly Go Where No Human Has Gone Before…”

nasa-buzz-aldrinA while ago I was approached by Robert Gooding-Townsend, Science in Society editor for Science Borealis for my opinion on a persistent idea that post-Star Trek sci-fi is more pessimistic and less technologically imaginative. I wanted to provide for you my full response here, given that the article couldn’t include all of it. You can read the Science Borealis article here, with comments from several authors, including me.

Below is my full response:

Whether this perception is true I can’t definitively say but there is a reason behind it, which I believe reflects a subtle shift in our cultural paradigm and worldview in the past decades since Star Trek. A shift involving a growing awareness of ecology and the emergence of the “feminine archetype” in storytelling.

I think two things are happening in concert: science fiction is maturing as a genre: 1) in its actual breadth; but also 2) in our perception of it.

I think this is partly: 1) a reflection of a more diverse, sophisticated and mature audience (what The Economist terms “mass intelligent”); and 2) the result of a wider acceptance of SF as literature by “non-genre” writers embracing what literary critic Ted Gioia calls “conceptual fiction” (e.g., Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins; Thomas Pinchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada; John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Emmi Itaranta’s The Memory of Water; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, etc.).

Our shifting worldview, along with science fiction’s gradual blending with strong literary elements is reflected in a perception of higher pessimism with less focus on technological “wonders”. When asked to describe SF today, colleague Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel series, argued that, “SF is mainstream now … It has grown up, emotionally, from being about wish-fulfilling technologies … to embracing the social implications of change.”

Today, SF is recognized more as “real” literature rather than being dismissed as “escapism.” Williams shares that SF’s roots are as old as myth. “Like myths and bible stories, SF is an instructive literature, pointing out how things can go wrong (or right) and why. The growing up SF has done since the 1950s lies in an increasing recognition that [humanity is its] own worst enemy and a better understanding of human nature is crucial to the problems we face, not just the hard sciences.”

For the past few years I’ve been following a trend in the science fiction writing courses I teach at university: more and more students (male and female) are bringing in WIPs on ecological and global environmental issues. Many of the stories involve a premise of environmental calamity, but not in the same vain as previous environmental disasters that depict “man” against Nature. These works give the Earth, Nature or Water an actual voice (as a character). And a protagonist who learns to interact with it cooperatively. For me this represents a palpable and gestalt cultural awakening in the realm of the “feminine archetype”. One that is focused more on the sociological and ecological consequences of humanity’s evolution.

I believe that ecology—the science of relationships and consequence—best parallels the literature of science fiction, which studies the world and the consequences of our actions (advances in and impacts of science and technology) through metaphor. The literature of science fiction explores large issues faced by humankind and is foremost a literature of allegory and metaphor; one deeply embedded in culture.

Stories of doom and gloom have populated the science fiction genre since its inception. What appears to be changing is the increased sophistication of this assessment and humanity’s place—and technology’s place—in it. Editor and Publisher of On Spec Magazine, Diane Walton shares that she is seeing a lot of Post-Apocalyptic submissions, “mainly because it’s interesting to put your characters in a setting where the rules don’t apply any more. They have to try to rebuild the life and security and order they used to have, or else revert to savagery, or else adapt to a whole new set of circumstances.”

Environmental fiction has been written for years. But I believe that now—partly with new awareness of climate change and with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor, for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness, much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

The stories I’m seeing more and more—whether by established writers or by my own students—reflect an emerging worldview of participation, responsibility and accountability. It is the worldview of Jung and synchronicity; of David Bohm and “implicate order”; of Rudolf Steiner and “cosmic intelligence”, of biochemist Mae-Wan Ho and “quantum entanglement”, of Frans de Waal and “empathy”, and of Matt Ridley and “altruism”.

Whether told through cautionary tale / political dystopia (e.g., Margaret Atwood’s space-planetsMaddAddam trilogy; Bong Jung-Ho’s Snowpiercer), or a retooled version of “alien invasion” (e.g., Cixin Liu’s 2015 Hugo Award-winning The Three Body Problem), these stories all reflect a shift in focus from a technological-centred & human-centred story to a more eco- or world-centred story that explores wider and deeper existential questions. So, yes, science fiction today may appear less technologically imaginative; but it is certainly more sociologically astute, courageous and sophisticated.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Sharing Nature’s Terrible Secrets And When Trees Talk Dirty…

 

nature's canop-2One of the lectures I give to my science fiction writing students is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character.1

I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction. Students perk up when I discuss some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring alconbluebutterfly-antsfor its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

When I bring in extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas. I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

water-bear03

Tardigrade

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own. Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

When Trees Share the Dirt

“Trees are the foundation of a forest, but a forest is much more than what you see,” says University of British Columbia forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

suzanne-simard-portrait

Suzanne Simard

Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of resealch, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest. This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root). These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

forest-conversing

Myccorhyzae and fungal highways

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Simard made another incredible discovery: that mother trees “recognize their kin.” In experiments her team ran using related and unrelated seedlings, the mother tree preferentially sent its excess carbon to kin over non-kin seedlings.

These discoveries pose some serious implications in how we do and should manage our forests. “You can take out one or two hub trees, but there’s a tipping point,” says Simard. “You take out one too many and the whole system collapses.”

Simard shared that “in 2014 the World Resources Institute reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide…In Canada it’s 3.6% per year…about four times the rate that is sustainable.”

“Massive disturbance at this scale is known to affect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat and emit greenhouse gases back to the atmosphere, which creates more disturbance and more tree die-backs,” says Simard. She adds that the practice of planting commercially valued species at the expense of the indigenous aspens and birches lacks complexity and promotes vulnerability to disease. It’s creating “a perfect storm,” Simard concludes.

Trees & Climate Change

A major international report on climate change shows that wildlife habitats will be dramatically impacted around the world. In Canada, this could fundamentally alter 65 per cent of its existing natural habitat in the boreal and Arctic regions, where warming will be the greatest. The report says that seven Canadian provinces – Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba – will have more than half of their natural habitat at risk.

Simard asks: “Instead of weakening our forests, how can we reinforce them and help them deal with climate change?” She suggests four simple solutions:

  1. Get out into the forest and re-establish local involvement in our forests, using management techniques based on local knowledge
  2. Save our old-growth forests, the repositories of genetic material, mother trees and micorhizal networks
  3. Save the mother trees when cutting trees
  4. Regenerate our forests with a diversity of species types and structures

“Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they are super-cooperators,” Simard points out. “The great thing about forests,” she reminds us, “is that as complex systems, they have an enormous capacity to self-heal.”

How Healing Trees Can Heal Us

Aside from being highly evolved water management specialists, trees are chemical factories that broadcast a host of aerosols into the atmosphere around them. Researchers have found over 120 substances, of which only half could be identified. These aerosols are part of a sophisticated survival strategy, writes botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Studies have shown that willows, poplars and maples warn each other about insect attacks; undamaged trees then pump bug-repelling chemicals to ward off the attack. Black walnut trees emit juglone, an aerosol that repels competing nearby plants and some insects. Scientists demonstrated that airborne communication between individual sagebrush plants (called “eavesdropping”) helped neighbouring plants resist attacks. The monoterpenes like pinene and linene can relieve asthma and even fight cancer.

You can read more about this in my book “Water Is… (Pixl Press).

 

1I give several lectures based on this general topic of world building for writers. One I gave recently, at CanCon2016 in Ottawa, focused on aquatic worlds, my scientific area of expertise.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

A Rose By Any Other Name…

Bernese Oberland, bern…Would it smell as sweet? When Shakespeare first used that now famous line spoken by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, he was no doubt evoking the importance of representative symbolism while suggesting that the true nature of the thing had its intrinsic value beyond its icon. Or did it? “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” Juliet goes on to say. “Thou art thyself.” Surely, in society, a name embodies the thing; the part the whole. We even have a word for that kind of metaphor. It’s called synecdoche.

It does bring to mind the importance of names in culture and literature. The name of a thing may often link it to its invariable destiny. Or is it the other way around? And does it matter, in the final analysis, whether “the name” is the function of existentialist predilection or the end result of fatalistic determination. Of the egg and the chicken, which comes first? And does it matter? Even for a writer—artist and “God of story”—this is not totally clear. How will we choose and how will we be interpreted?

 

My Name…

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Nina hiking in an Ontario forest

Take my name, for instance. When I tell people my name I often add that my last name, Munteanu, means “from the mountain” in Romanian. I often fanaticized that my ancestors had come from the Transylvanian Alps of Romania. What I often forget to tell people is that my first name, Nina, means “little girl” in Italian, Spanish and Russian and God knows what other language in the universe. If you were to put the two names together, you would get the archetype represented by Heidi or Pipi Longstocking—depending on what kind of attitude you cared to promote. While I admired the feisty Swedish redhead’s unconventionality and fortitude, I, gravitated to the Heidi image—I identified with that spirited but ever-so-cute Shirley Temple version of an orphan girl who comes down from the pure fresh mountains and brings joy and laughter to the cynical world around her. As a child, I empathized with her stubborn crusade for truth and justice: that famous pout and little stomp of her foot as Heidi stood up to those big bullies and managed to endear herself into the hearts of everyone.

Okay. I’m not Heidi. But that archetype resonated with me as I was growing up. In some way, my empathy with the Heidi archetype played a role in my life-choices. Whether this resulted from gestalt psychology or universal determinism is likely not important. What is important in storytelling is how we as artists use this in our choice of names: all kinds of names, from places to events, to people and things (which for me as a science fiction and fantasy writer is equally important, given that many of the terms I use I created from my imagination). Let’s look at some examples…

 

Names in Literature and Film…

the MatrixNeo in The Matrix is an anagram for “One”. Before he changes his name to Neo, he goes by the name of Thomas Anderson. Thomas is Hebrew for “twin” (e.g., Agent Smith tells Neo, “you have been living two lives.”). Of course, Thomas was also one of Jesus’s disciples, the one who doubted. The Wachowski Brothers chose the names of all their main characters with careful purpose. Morpheus (the god of dreams, who takes Neo out of his dream); Trinity (who connects and unifies the “father” the “son” and the “holy spirit” through her faith).

Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is a true country gentleman and modern knight, espousing the chivalric code of courage, humility, justice and service. Atticus draws an association from Attica of ancient Greece in which Athens was located. A place renowned for its wisdom, rational approach to life and its belief in justice. 

Luke Skywalker in George Lucas’s Star Wars is another clearly allegorical name that evokes the hero’s journey. Luke, besides reflecting Lucus’s alter-ego, also means “light”. The name Skywalker effectively portrays a god-like individual who must wander far in a heavenly walkabout on his quest for freedom and justice and the light of truth. George Lucas created allegorical identities with most of his Star Wars characters from Han Solo to Princess Leia Organa.

Becky Sharp in William Thackery’s Vanity Fair dispensed her “sharp” wit to manipulate her entire world from the dull-witted Amelia Sedley to her high society suitors. Her last name also carries connotations of a “sharper” or con-man.

Scarlet O’Hara of Margaret Mitchel’s Gone with the Wind was a woman who breathed fire and passion.  She epitomized the famous quote of Victor Frankl:  what is to give light must endure burning. She burns all right; and lives—humbled and enlightened and even more determined.

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John Crichton (Ben Browder)

John Crichton in David Kemper’s Farscape. Choosing the name John for the main character identified him as a “universal everyman” and representative of humanity, from his frequent references to pop culture to his off-colour jokes about humanity in general. The name also identifies the kind of hero he portrays. He is not some super-hero with extra-ordinary powers or qualities. He is an ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances; he is you and me. Together with the name Crichton, this associates him with adventuring, generosity, idealism and inspiration. Indeed, this character proves himself a very different kind of hero. John Crichton is a diplomat, a humorist, a clown, an intellectual and strategist all rolled into one. A warrior poet.

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Rhea Hawke, Galactic Guardian

I chose the name Rhea Hawke in my trilogy The Splintered Universe to represent the complex and paradoxical nature of the lead character. The Titan Goddess Rhea is the mother of all gods, including Zeus, giving birth and nurturing all that she has created. Those of you who have read Outer Diverse, Inner Diverse and Metaverse (Books 1 to 3 of The Splintered Universe Trilogy) will recognize that Rhea Hawke is, in fact, an agent of death. She is essentially an assassin for the Galactic Guardians; one who invented a much coveted devastating weapon of mass destruction, the MEC (that selectively maims, kills or leaves alone any species based on their unique DNA signature).  This aspect of her character of course fits with the hawk, the stealthy keen-eyed predator. A creative predator. But, there is a nurturing, soft and “mothering” side to Rhea beneath her predatory bravado. It reveals itself through sub-text and subtle metaphor. Rhea Hawke is ultimately a paradox. Like her name. Like most of us.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverLady Vivianne Schoen, the Baroness von Grunwald, in my historical fantasy The Last Summoner, is a being of light who can travel time-space and must alter history starting with the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. Her first name derives from the Latin vivus meaning alive or the French word vivre for life. And live she must—for over six hundred years— if she is to succeed in recasting history to make this a better world. There is an ironic layer to her name, but I can’t reveal it here for those who haven’t yet read the book. In future Paris she meets François Rabelais, named after the 15th Century satirist, philosopher and dissident. While this youth on the surface represents the antithesis of the medieval scholar, he finally reveals himself as a philosopher warrior and humanist like his 15th Century namesake.

 

Names as Symbols of a Changing Culture…

Names—what we call things—are supreme icons for a culture of a time and place to identify and define its archetypes, values, symbols and hegemonies. Names define an entire zeitgeist.

Think of the word chivalry. Derived from the 11th Century French term chevalier (horseman), the term came to be understood in the 12th Century and later as a moral, religious and social code of knightly conduct. The code generally emphasized the virtues of courage, honor, purity and service. The term also described an idealization of the life and manners of the knight at home in his castle and with his court, embodying notions of “courtly love” and devotion to God and country. However, when it originated in the 11th Century, chivalry meant simply the “status of fee associated with military follower owning a war horse.”

The Sufi word futuwwa shares similar connotations to chivalry and virtue. Futuwwa was also the name of ethical urban guilds in Medieval Muslim realms that emphasized the virtues of honesty, peacefulness, gentleness, generosity, avoidance of complaint and of hospitality in life. However, Al-Futuwa was also the name of the Arab-Nationalist Young Arab Association and the Hitler-Jugend style pan Arab fascist nationalistic youth movement in Iraq in the 1930s to 50s.

Speaking of Hitler and Nazi Germany, another name and symbol, the swastika—which in Bernese Oberland, bernthe modern post-WW2 world has become synonymous with fascism and anti-Semitism—was in fact an ancient symbol of prosperity that represented the revolving sun, fire or life. In the ancient language of Sanskrit, swastika means “well-being”. It was used widely in ancient Mesopotamia, South and Central American Mayan art, by the Navajos and continues to symbolize the four possible places of rebirth in Jainism and night-magic-purity-destruction to Hindus.

Choose your names carefully and with purpose.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

When Art Tangos with Science

purple mountainsImagination is more important than knowledge—Albert Einstein

 

I tell stories. I’m also a scientist. I use the scientific method in my research to seek truth; I also find truth presented to me through the symbols of intuition.

A few years ago, I was introduced to Krista Fogel, a University of British Columbia masters student, who was investigating the use of creative art in high-ability scientists. She named her thesis: “The Self-Perceived Experience of Investigating Science with an Artistic Spirit: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study of High Ability Scientists Who Also Engage in the Arts”. Hermeneutic, by the way, is the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts (I had to look it up) and phenomenology is an approach to philosophy through the study of phenomena.

Krista wanted to interview me as part of her project. I was flattered, of course. Me, a High Ability Scientist? Who’d told her that? Once I got past my own humble angst, I found Krista’s questions bracing; they reopened a world of compelling ideas I had carried with me for some time. The concept of using art to do good science has dwelled inside me since registration day at Concordia University when I quit my fine arts program to pursue a science degree only to come full circle and write fiction. I got my Masters Degree in Ecology and Limnology and was then working as a scientist for an environmental consulting firm (I now write and teach writing full time). I did research, drove boats, collected samples and analyzed data then wrote up my findings and made recommendations. I wrote science fiction novels on the side.

“History shows that eminent scientists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, also engaged in the arts,” said Fogel. She went on to cite 400 other famous scientists who also practiced art at a high level. “If not entirely engaged in the arts, scientists throughout history have at least engaged in science with an artistic spirit. Scientists and artists use common tools for thinking such as intuition and imaginative processes.”

Krista and I met several times at the local Starbucks, where I “toked” on coffee as she fumbled with her notes. A young gal with a direct but unassuming gaze and a gentle smile, Krista asked me to share my personal experience of mixing art with science. Every good scientist is an artist at heart: science is the tool and art is the process.

Fogel concluded that when conducting scientific investigations with an artistic spirit, the scientist holds her heart central, from which the artist springs. This “allows us to connect with serendipitous occurrences, which breed discovery,” Fogel added.

You can train your mind as both artist and scientist to become more aware of serendipitous occurrences around you. I call it being in sync and wrote about it in a previous article here (“Writing in Sync”). Often, when I’m researching a novel, I pick up things serendipitously. Something will come up that just fits with what I was searching for. An article pops up in the news. Or I’m talking to someone and they bring up just the topic I am researching. These things always happen to me. This occurs not only in my fiction writing but in my scientific pursuits. Some years ago, I was doing a pollution study using glass slides for colonizing algae to compare communities of an urban stream to those of an agricultural stream. I was really looking to see the difference between communities of these different stream environments when I discovered that the algae were colonizing the glass surfaces according to the current. Compelled with more questions of why, how and what if, I pursued this new line of research (which turned out to be far more interesting than my original research premise) and wrote several ground-breaking papers on it.

Indeed, questions like “why” and “what if” are germane to both art and science; the ‘what if’ question is the science fiction writer’s mantra and the premise, which comes from the artist part of you: imagination and an inquisitive and open mind. The idea of seemingly unrelated events intersecting to produce meaningful patterns has spawned new notions of thought from the scientific study of spontaneous order in the universe (synchrony), to Synchromysticism — the discovery of convergent archetypal symbols in pop culture (e.g., books, music and film).

Writer and philosopher Jake Kotze suggests that, “Synchronicity happens when we notice the bleed-through from one seemingly separate thing into another — or when we for a brief moment move beyond the mind’s divisions of the world.” Synchronicity and serendipitous discovery, like metaphor, appears when we change the way we look at things.

Serendipitous discovery comes to us through peripheral vision. Like our muse, it doesn’t happen by chasing after it; it sneaks up on us when we’re not looking. It comes to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty. It is then that what we had been seeking naturally comes to us. Like a gift.

Author Sibyl Hunter tells us that “Sync operates as an undercurrent of divine awareness personified through the myriad processes and symbols that make up the building blocks of our reality. Within that current, we spin our modern-day myths into books, fairy tales and movies, subconsciously retelling ourselves the same story over and over.” This also holds true in the models and metaphors of scientific genius, which often spring from the creativity of an intuitive heart and imaginative mind.

According to Mark A. Runco (California State University) “creativity depends on originality, while accomplishment and achievement reflect other problem-solving skills. Creative thinking involves at least three things: 1) the cognitive capacity to transform experience into original interpretations, 2) an interest in producing original interpretations, and 3) discretion.” The title of Piaget’s monograph, To Understand Is to Invent, reflects the fact that we do not have an authentic understanding of our experience until we construct that understanding for ourselves. In other words, “it is one thing to memorize some datum; it is quite another to discover it for one’s self; only then do we understand,” says Runco. Fogel concurs: “what Piaget called invention is a kind of creation, a creation of personal meaning. Piaget tied assimilation to imaginative play into creative interpretation.”purple mountains

According to Dean Keith Simonton (University of California), even the most illustrious creative geniuses of history have careers riddled by both hits and misses, both successes and failures. He uses Albert Einstein as an example. A man who has achieved almost mythical status as a genius, Einstein’s career “was plagued by terrible ideas, false starts and surprising disasters.” Simonton tells the story of Einstein’s debate with Niels Bohr over the implications of quantum theory, in which Einstein offered a series of arguments that Bohr countered. Bohr once even pointed out that Einstein failed to take into consideration the theory of relativity! According to some, Einstein wasted the final years of his career working on a unified field theory that was almost universally rejected by his colleagues. Einstein defended his missteps by noting that errors can advance science so long as they are not trivial; the greater the error, the greater the opportunity for new perspective and discovery.

It is left for us to simply recognize the dance.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.