Nina Munteanu Talks About ‘Water Is…’ and ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ with Dr. Steven Miletto

Nina Munteanu appears on “Teaching, Learning, Leading, K-12” Podcast with Dr. Steven Miletto

I was recently interviewed by Dr. Steven Miletto in Georgia on his podcast “Teaching Learning Leading K12”—Episode 401. We talked about my two recent books on water,Water Is…and A Diary in the Age of Water. The 1-hour interview covered a range of topics from why water makes us feel so good, to the study of limnology, and writing both non-fiction and fiction about water. In the latter, I talked about water as a character in story. We also talked about how characters form in a story and how to keep going when the muse or the joy buries itself.

Jackson Creek, ON (photo and dry-brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

On Writing: The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

Marsh and swamp forest in a blushing sunset, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Marsh in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.  

Marsh of cattails, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

Finke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

“Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness”

Allen Ginsberg

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

Marsh near Millbrook, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Aroma of Story

Old cabin behind seeding goldenrods, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One of my favourite smells is of pipe tobacco smoke. 

But here’s the thing:  I’m really not a fan of smoking. Both my parents were chain smokers (who wasn’t back then?) and I quickly discovered that cigarette butts carried thousands of ugly toxins and lasted years on the ground. In the one rebellious occasion that I skipped school with two school mates to spend the day in the forest, I accidentally lit my hair on fire trying to light the cigarette. Taking the karmic connection seriously, I decided that was the end of both skipping school and smoking for me.   

Cigarette butt found near a river in a park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, why the allure with pipe smoke?

Well, to begin my rationalization, pipe smoke is nothing like cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke squeals up my nose and mouth, choking my breath with an acrid burning that lodges like a smothering cancer in my throat; pipe smoke coils heavy and loose into my nostrils with lazy notes of fermenting cherry or plum.

There’s more to it, obviously . . . 

Left: Four-year old Nina Munteanu pretending to read; Right: Rue Principal in Granby, Quebec in the early 1960s

When I was little, one of my favourite things to do was hide behind the comic stand in the back corner of William’s General Store and read comic books. Superman, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Magnus Robot Fighter. So many more . . .

Mr. Williams knew I was there. I was, after all, hiding in plain sight, as kids generally do. But he was a kind man and let me stay and read for free. He recognized someone who loved story. 

The store was a typical general store of that era. Long and narrow, dark wood walls covered in paraphernalia. Shelves and stands cramped full with stuff. Anything from toys and penny candy to games, puzzles, watches, newspapers, pocket books and magazines, household necessities, shoeshine kits, canned goods and preserves, pocket knives, to cigars, pipes and the tobacco and lighters to go with them. A smoky mist settled on everything in the store and the place gave off the complex scent of old polished wood with a tobacco undercurrent. Williams might have smoked a pipe himself; I don’t recall. However, my sense-mind has wonderfully coupled that evocative aroma with a sense of freedom to immerse myself in fantastical worlds of imagination. And, in turn, to imagine my own worlds. 

That place and my experience in it not only gave me an abiding love for pipe smoke; it made me the storyteller I am today.  

Taste and smell appear to linger most in memory and yet are often neglected by writers. According to the California Institute of Technology, smell is generally considered the sense tied most closely to human memory. Smell profoundly influences people’s ability to recall past events and experiences. “A smell from your distant past can unleash a flood of memories that are so intense and striking that they seem real,” says Dr. Karl (Kruszelnicki), author of Great Moments in Science. “This kind of memory, where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past brings back a rush of memories, is called a ‘Proustian Memory’.”

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes: 

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.

In this excerpt of The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl, fragrance permeates with meaning: 

The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate. 

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, his main character recalls the following memories, through several evocative smells: 

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer— and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich. 

Barrels of aging bourbon in Kentucky (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Part 2 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss how the various senses—not just smell—are strong tools in storytelling and provide examples and working exercises.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments can cause either forgiveness or revenge to prevail. McCollough relates his theory to game theory. In a tit-for-tat strategy, cooperation and retaliation are comparable to forgiveness and revenge. The choice between the two can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what the game partner (or organism) chooses. The brain’s limbic system processes external stimuli related to emotions, social activity, and motivation; these then propagate an instinctual behavioural response. Examples include maternal care, aggression, defense, and social hierarchy; these behaviours are influenced by sensory input, such as sight, sound, touch, and—of course—smell.

Parts of this article are excerpted from the third book of The Alien Guidebook Series:The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

I Became a Climate Activist in the 1960s

Two cedar trees entangle their roots in a cedar forest in Warsaw Caves Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In 1969, I completed my first novel at the tender age of fifteen. Caged in World was a hundred-page speculative story about a world that had moved “inside” to escape the ravages of a harsh post climate-change environment. 

1969 was the year that humans first stepped on the moon and the first Concorde test flight was conducted in France. But I was concerned by the environment and what was happening on our planet. It was seven years since Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, which warned of our declining bird and bee populations and impacts to human health from unregulated pesticide/herbicide use (such as carcinogens and hormone disruptors). It was just a year after Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb warned that attempts to stretch the Earth’s resources to support the ever-growing population would result in mass starvation, epidemics, and, ultimately, the breakdown of social order. 

In the 1960s it was already apparent to me that environmental imbalance and destruction were global concerns and we were on the brink of an environmental crisis.  Unchecked deforestation was destroying forests around the world, including the boreal and old-growth forests of my own country Canada. Brazil had already begun cutting down trees and burning forest at an alarming rate. Unregulated use of pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones created toxic contamination of our natural world and our food and water supply—despite Carson’s dire warning with Silent Spring. Our waterways were being contaminated by mining wastes and industrial effluents. Killer smog. Noxious algal blooms. Oil spills. Dead zones. The list was growing.

Rachel Carson and her iconic book, Silent Spring

I joined S.T.O.P. (Society To Overcome Pollution) and marched in protests to call for responsible behaviour by governments and large corporations. I tried to raise awareness at my school about our deteriorating environment and likely consequences to human survival; my own teachers tried to silence me! I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts—and years later—the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic. Icaria 5 is one of many enclosed cities within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America, and where the protagonist Julie Crane works and lives. The city is run by technocrats, deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

I spent several years shopping Angel of Chaos to agents and publishing houses. Although I received many bites, all finally let go. In the meantime, I did several things: 1) I started writing short stories, some of which were cannibalized from the book, and several of these were published; 2) I wrote Angel’s prequel, The Great Revolution (never published, The Great Revolution sits in a drawer hibernating) and Angel’s sequel Darwin’s Paradox, (which was published).

 

Angel of Chaos and Darwin’s Paradox Duology by Nina Munteanu

I thought of going into environmental law at university then decided that I didn’t have the temperament for it and instead pursued ecology and limnology. I taught limnology at the University of Victoria then found work as an environmental consultant. In 2007, Dragon Moon Press in Calgary made an offer to publish Darwin’s Paradox; the sequel became my debut novel. Dragon Moon Press later picked up Angel of Chaos and published it in 2010 as a prequel. I haven’t stopped publishing since (with a book pretty much every year).

A selection of eco-Fiction stories / novels Nina Munteanu wrote or edited

My whole career-life has been dedicated to helping the environment, doing field studies as a limnologist and ecologist, publishing papers and reports, giving talks about water and the environment. I feel strongly that stories can go much farther in bringing not only awareness but direction for people to act on behalf of the environment and the planet. The narrative we give one another is the key. 

What story do we tell of ourselves and each other?

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Paradox in the Details: The Role of Place in Story

Nina Munteanu at When Words Collide 2021

A few weeks ago, I (virtually) participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

One of the two presentations I did was on the role of place in story

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I recently wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’ve observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme. The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and I used many examples from a wide range of literature to overview topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the Mi’kmaq and the white pine forests in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, among others.

I concluded the presentation with a discussion on the “paradox in the details”: the more specific description is, the more universal its appeal. This is because the details can establish relevance and realism to the scene and the POV character experiencing them. Vagueness and lack of tangibility are avoided through specificity. The key, however, is to use details that resonate with the theme and tone of the book: as metaphor. Details as metaphor is what you want to achieve. 

Because, as Ray Bradbury once told me, “everything in story is metaphor.” 

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts.

Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor.

Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several writing exercises and detailed case studies.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

“A Diary in the Age of Water” Reviewed in Alternatives Journal

Shanella Ramkissoon reviews my latest eco-fiction mundane science fiction novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” in Issue 46 of Alternatives Journal (Playbook for Progress):

Rain falls on the Otonabee River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Talks Books, Water and COVID on ConversationsLIVE

I recently had a wonderful discussion on Cyrus Webb’s show ConversationsLIVE on BlogTalkRadio and WYAD Radio in Mississippi.

We talked about curiosity in our world and how fiction connects us with relevance and meaning. We discussed writing eco-fiction, my latest eco-novel and work of mundane science fiction “A Diary in the Age of Water. We also discussed what was involved in combining art with science in mundane science fiction. Cyrus then asked me what it was like to get a book out during COVID. I enjoyed this interview for its refreshing questions. They made me think.

You can listen to the interview through the link below:

https://www.blogtalkradio.com/conversationslive/2021/06/22/author-nina-munteanu-talks-adiaryintheageofwater-on-conversationslive

Pond lilies in Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

“Contact”: a Journey to the Heart of the Universe–Film Review

Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the array in “Contact”

The opening sequence tells the entire story… It is both spectacular and humbling at the same time as we begin with a view of Earth gleaming in a sunrise. An almost frantic jumble of broadcasts— news, TV shows, music—assail our ears. As we pull back from Earth and pass the outer planets, we hear older broadcasts… disco…Kennedy… the Beatles… Hitler…then ultimately the unintelligible static of all the radio stations on Earth. Then, as we leave the solar system, passing breathtaking nebulae, the sounds give way to silence. A dead silence, as we continue to pull back out of the galaxy and out of the local group of galaxies into the quiet depth of our vast universe. “It’s enough to make you feel tiny and insignificant and alone,” says Maryann Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com. “Which is precisely the feeling it’s meant to evoke.”  From that arcane vastness, we are brought back to our own “intimate” existence within it as the universe transforms into a dark reflection in a young girl’s eye.

With a powerful entrance like that, it is hard to imagine that this 1997 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, received very mixed reviews by critics.

Cindy Fuchs of the Philadelphia City Paper called it “far more mundane than its aspirations to cosmic insights might have produced.”  Kevin N. Laforest with the Montreal Film Journal said, “Contact is not a bad film, but I can’t say it’s all that good either.” Even TVGuide.com rated it a two out of four: “It’s really about [Jodie] Foster, and with her lips pressed tightly together and her hair carelessly shoved behind her ears, she’s utterly convincing as a researcher who’s subverted everything to a life of the mind. Unfortunately that adds up to a rather remote protagonist and Ellie is surrounded by a supporting cast of one-dimensional types…far too cold-blooded for summer audiences.” This is ironic, considering that the advertizing pitch calls Contact “a journey to the heart of the universe.” Finally, Christopher Null (Filmcritic.com) recommended it for its looks but not highly. Said Null: “Carl Sagan’s ode to the superior intelligence of aliens (and how us darned humans mess everything up) is consistently beautiful and interesting, but it never makes a point (except for that bit about the darned humans).

I think these critics have missed the point. Contact—and its somewhat tortured protagonist—demonstrates much in the way of “heart” and in doing so, makes a compelling story. Hearts beat deeply inside us, and this movie is no different; its “heart” runs deep, deep beneath the surface rhetoric that seems to have distracted several critics who likely prefer to take a shallow sip of their coffee steaming hot than wait and savor the rich flavor of a dark blend in a deep swallow.

Contact examines the moral, social and religious implications of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence through the personal journey of astronomer, Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (played impeccably and sensitively by Jodie Foster). Never knowing her mother (who died at child birth) and having lost her father when she was ten, Ellie grows into a strong-willed scientist who dedicates her life to finding alien life in the universe by foregoing a career at Harvard to join a SETI Observatory in the Puerto Rico jungle. In an earlier scene with her father, she asks the question we have all pondered at least once: “Do you think there are people on other planets?” to which her father blithely answers, “if it’s just us, seems like an awful lot of wasted space,” a simple argument that appeals to the young logically-minded Ellie and one that will dominate the perseverance of her adult life in her resolute search for life in the universe.

And persevere Ellie must, because nothing comes easy for her. Shortly after she settles at the SETI Observatory her teacher (and nemesis) David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) pays her a visit with implied threats of shutting the place down. Ellie also meets Palmer Joss (Mathew McConaughey), a man of faith, who is writing a book about the effects of science and technology on the third world. Although she is attracted to him, alarm bells go off in Ellie, who feels threatened by his faith (something she does not outwardly understand yet clings to in another form). Wanting to see him again, she introduces him to the man he wants to interview: Drumlin. And one of the most poignant conversations follows:

When Ellie challenges Drumlin’s apparent wish to do away with all pure research, he responds with, “What’s wrong with science being practical, even profitable? Nothing—”

Palmer cuts in, “—As long as your motive is the search for truth, which is exactly what the pursuit of science is.”

Drumlin counters peevishly, “Well, that’s an interesting position coming from a man who crusades against the evils of technology.”

To which Palmer responds, “I’m not against technology; I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”

Palmer and Ellie collide from two different worlds and despite their differences, they are profoundly attracted to one another. But as quickly as she falls for Palmer, she recoils from him.

Nothing comes easy for Ellie: “small moves, Ellie,” her father is accustomed to telling her, “small moves…” Shortly after she and her colleagues have been shut down by Drumlin and have set up anew (thanks to eccentric billionaire entrepreneur, S.R. Hadden, played by John Hurt), Drumlin and others shut them down yet again. But, as though a greater force intervenes, this is when Ellie makes her momentous discovery and intercepts an alien message from Vega, a young star still surrounded by a proto-planetary cloud of debris about 27 light years away from us. The scene is scientifically plausible and elegantly powerful—as we witness the drama of this phenomenal discovery unfold in a frisson of action.

Zemeckis wisely shows us exactly how such an event would really play out. And Sagan didn’t pick Vega out of whimsy: a sphere sixty light years thick of radio communication radiates from Earth from our radio and TV broadcasts. These signals may be captured by alien technology and sent back as a “message”. In theory, such a signal could be received on Earth anytime after 1990, the round trip time for a light or radio signal to travel to Vega and back from the first global signal, which in itself is momentous and telling. In another spine-tingling scene, the scientists who have descended upon Ellie decipher the arcane harmonics of the “message” as the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (the first truly global TV broadcast made) over which Hitler presided. In fact, in another stroke of irony, the now infamous swastika is the first icon they decipher. Later still, they discover embedded instructions to build a machine that appears made to take a human on an extra-galactic trip.

Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the giant array in “Contact”

At the same time that Ellie intercepts this message, Palmer Joss experiences a meteoric rise to stardom with his bestselling book, Losing Faith: the Search for Meaning in the Age of Reason (which could well have been the alternate title for the film; it certainly describes the subtext of the story and the major thematic element: Faith & Meaning). In an interview with a prominent news show host, Palmer asks the question that most of us have avoided:  “The question that I’m asking is this: are we happier? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?…We shop at home, we search the web—at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than any other time in human history…We have meaningless jobs, we take frantic vacations [and] trips to the mall to buy more things to fill these holes in our lives.” Ironically, Palmer touches a similar nerve in Ellie when he brings up her dead parents: “It must have been hard… being alone…” insinuating that her fanatical search for intelligent alien life may simply be filling a hole in her heart. She flees Palmer shortly after, fearing his revealing intimacy. When they next meet, years later, they fall naturally into their familiar banter and she turns the table to challenge his faith in the same way: “What if science simply revealed that [God] never existed in the first place?” She then evokes Occam’s Razor, which says that “…all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one…what’s more likely? An all powerful mysterious God [who] created the universe then decided not to give us proof of his existence or that he simply doesn’t exist at all and we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Both of them are saved from an answer by the intrusive rings of their cell phones.

Space-time vehicle in the film Contact

Ironically again, it is Ellie’s lack of belief in God that causes her to be overlooked for the momentous journey in the alien craft, in favor of the crafty Drumlin with the oily smile. Unfortunately, a religious zealot sabotages the mission and Drumlin, along with the whole alien craft and construct, are blown up in a spectacular explosion at NASA’s Cape Canaveral. Ellie gets her chance after all when they build a second one. Her journey in the alien space craft, which we are later told takes up eighteen hours of her time but passes instantaneously on Earth (to the point where they all think nothing actually happened), is truly epic and elegantly portrayed. Her encounter with the aliens is also in keeping with the plot and imagery of the story. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is the one where Ellie is introduced to the incredible and indescribable beauty of the vast Universe. It is at this point that she experiences her epiphany: science is not the sole purveyor of truth in the Universe. As she gazes at the splendor revealed before her, she acknowledges that the language of science is unable to express the sheer magnitude of the breathtaking scene. Grasping at something to say, she blubbers with a scientific term then finally gasps, “No words…to describe it…they should have sent a poet…”

Upon her return, Ellie is challenged by skeptics who think she suffered a giant delusion (remember that on Earth, no time had passed during her supposed eighteen-hour voyage). Ellie offers up a strained scientific explanation (e.g., wormhole travel through space-time also called Einstein-Rosen bridges) which is challenged by National Security Advisor, Michael Kitz (James Woods) as only theory, and must finally resort to her faith; one she selflessly offers to the world: “I… had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality Practice said it best: “Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery.”

The SETI Institute, who currently conduct the search for alien life, have a website dedicated to the movie.

Indian River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Talks Water, Writing, and Weather on ‘All About Canadian Books’

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Crystal Fletcher on “All About Canadian Books” about my recent clifi dystopian novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.” We covered a number of topics from water’s over 70 anomalous properties–virtually all of them life-giving–to how water seems to inform all aspects of my life, particularly my writing life. Crystal was particularly fascinated with the four generations of women in the book and we talked at length about how these characters were developed and the roles they played in the greater saga.

After bringing up the Toronto Star’s question of me (“What keeps you up at night about climate change”) in which I admitted that I lose sleep over the thought of how my son and his children will fair in this changing world, Crystal admitted that “Your book, Nina, is an eye opener…it freaked me out when I was reading it…and now I’m losing sleep!”

Hardwood forest back lit by glittering Otonabee River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu Talks Water and Writing on Kentucky’s WMST-am Radio

Dan Manley interviews Nina Munteanu on Mid Morning on Main WMST-AM Radio

I was recently interviewed (on June 21) by Dan Manley on Kentucky’s Mid-Morning on Main show on WMST-AM Radio. I’ve visited Kentucky several times before, including the famous Bardstown Road in Louisville, but this time it was a virtual visit.

Dan and I talked about how I became a limnologist and ecologist, about my growing up in a small town and playing in the local forest with my older brother and sister and how we made ‘potions’ out of moss, soil, evening nightshade and water.

We talked about my recent eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” and why I wrote it and its effect on people. We covered the difference between stereotypes and archetypes and how science informs me and my writing. We also explored how life changes us and our writing and how writing, in turn, changes us.

We covered a vast range of water-related topics from the movie “Water World” to the TV show “Bonanza.” We talked about water scarcity and water politics and what Canada was doing and what’s happening in America.

I really enjoyed this interview because Dan asked me some surprising and challenging questions that led us into interesting territory. My interview with him starts about 43 minutes into the show. Go have a listen!

Otonabee River sparkles behind a hardwood forest in spring, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.