Reconciling Yesterday’s Future with Today’s Past

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A worker tied to “the machine” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Metropolis posterOur predictions and visions of the future are certainly predicated on our perceptions of the present and the past. So, what happens when yesterday’s “future” collides with today’s past? Well, retro-fiction, alternate history and steam-punk, you quip, eyes askance with mischief: edgy sociopathic Sherlock Holmes with bipolar or obsessive /compulsive tendencies; flying aircraft carriers in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, robot-like workers of Metropolis

But what of the vision itself? History provides us with a panoply of realized predictions in speculative fiction:

In 1961, Stanislaw Lem’s novel Return From the Stars predicted the invention of the touch pad, iPhone, iPad and Kindle. The telescreens that monitored the citizens of George Orwell’s Oceania in his dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was reflected, twenty years later, in the first closed circuit TV (CCTV) installed in the United Kingdom. Almost a century before the Internet was conceived, Mark Twain alluded to the future of a global, pervasive information network. In his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke discussed a future where people scanned headlines online and got their news through RSS feeds. In his 1888 novel Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy describes a “future” society in 2000 where money is eliminated due to the proliferation of plastic credit cards. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report accurately predicted personalized ads, voice-controled homes, facial and optical recognition, and gesture-based computing. Other advances and usage of technology have been predicted in speculative literature, including body scans, RFIDs, spy-surveillance, and touch screen interfaces.

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Tom Cruise’s character using gesture-based computing in the film “Minority Report”

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1950s ad for flying car of future

But there have been many speculations not realized. Where are the flying cars? Where are the moon colonies, rotating space stations and space elevator? What of the envisioned totalitarian states not realized; civilizations not demolished; utopias not developed?

Are those past dystopian or utopian visions failed attempts at predicting a future that eluded their writers? Or is it a question more of defining vision in speculative writing?

Ray Bradbury suggested that “the function of science fiction is not only to predict the future but to prevent it.”

2001 a space odysseyThere are, in most cases, no technological impediments to the flying car, the jetpack, and moon-bases; only cultural ones.  “These SF predictions ought to be viewed as visions of where we could be, as opposed to where we will be, or, keeping Bradbury in mind, visions of where we don’t want to go and, thankfully, have mostly managed to avoid to date,” says Steve Davidson of Grasping for the Wind. “Perhaps it’s all cultural,” he adds.

How and why is it that our contemporary view of dystopian and utopian speculative fiction has shifted from an open-minded imaginative acceptance of “predictions” nested within a cautionary or visionary tale to a knowledge-based demand for largely unattainable predictive accuracy?

GeorgeOrwell 1984 signetGeorge Orwell wrote his dystopian satire in 1949 about a mind-controlled society in response to the Cold War. The book was a metaphor “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” said Orwell in his 1947 essay Why I Write, adding, “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a failed novel because the real 1984 didn’t turn out quite like his 1984? Hugo Award-winning novelist Robert J. Sawyer suggests that we consider it a success, “because it helped us avoid that future. So just be happy that the damn dirty apes haven’t taken over yet.”

Dystopian and utopian literature, like all good allegory, provides us with scenarios predicated on a concrete premise. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?…

LookingBackward EdwardBellamyA hundred years before 1984, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, “a romance of an ideal world”. It tells the story of a young man who falls into a hypnotic sleep in 1887, waking up in 2000 when the world has evolved into a great socialist paradise.  It sold over a million copies and ranked only behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ as the top best-seller of the era. Looking Backward laid out a futuristic socialism, or was it a socialistic future?

At any rate, it influenced a large number of intellectuals and generated an unprecedented political mass movement. The book spawned experiments in communal living and fed socialist movements that promoted the nationalization of all industry and the elimination of class distinctions. Bellamy’s book was cited in many Marxist polemic works. Groups all over the world praised and embraced its ideals: Crusading Protestant ministers, American feminists, Australian trade unionists, British town planners, Bolshevik propagandists, French technocrats, German Zionists, and Dutch welfare-state advocates.

Bellamy’s conviction that cooperation among humans is healthier than competition formed the basis of Looking Backward. He predicted a revolution in retail that resembled today’s warehouse clubs and big-box stores. He also predicted a card system much like a modern debit card and people using enhanced telephone lines to listen to shows and music.

SF vs literary jet pack

“Socialism, of course, had different connotations in the 19th century when it rose, principally as a backlash to the brutalities of industrialization and the exploitation of the workers by the ruling class,” says Tony Long of Wired Magazine. Bellamy’s socialism is perhaps best described as a syndicalism than what most of us think of as socialism today. Long somberly adds, “Were he alive today, Bellamy might note, with interest, that while the worst excesses of the industrial age are gone, the exploitation continues. Had Bellamy lived to the ripe old age of 150, he no doubt would have been disappointed to find capitalism running amok, and his fellow man no less greedy and self-serving than in his own time. But he didn’t live to be 150. In fact, Bellamy was still a relatively young man when he died of tuberculosis in 1898.”

 

So, what happens when history catches up to the vision?

BraveNewWorld-AldousHuxleyIn a foreward to a later printing of Brave New World years after it was first published, Aldous Huxley explained why, when given the chance to revise the later edition, he left it exactly as it was initially written twenty years earlier:

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is almost an undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

Art also has its morality, and many of the rules of this morality are the same as, or at least analogous to, the rules of ordinary ethics. Remorse, for example is as undesirable in relation to our bad art as it is in relation to our bad behavior. The badness should be hunted out, acknowledged and, if possible, avoided in the future. To pore over the literary shortcomings of twenty years ago, to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution, to spend one’s middle age in trying to mend the artistic sins committed and bequeathed by that different person who was oneself in youth–all this is surely vain and futile. And that is why this new Brave New World is the same as the old one. Its defects as a work of art are considerable; but in order to correct them I should have to rewrite the book–and in the process of rewriting, as an older, other person, I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed. And so, resisting the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse, I prefer to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else.

And with that, I leave you with a quote:

“…the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”–Eckhart Tolle

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Snowing in New York City (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

Vision 2020 and Water Is…

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In February 2020, I was invited to speak and do workshops with over a hundred Grade 11 and 12 students about the future in the “2020 Vision into the Future” conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.

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Keynote speaker Greg Lindsay talks to students at Sanderson Centre

AerotropolisJournalist, urbanist and futurist Greg Lindsay gave a rousing keynote speech to start the conference. Greg spoke about the future of cities, technology, and mobility. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion. He also co-authored the international bestseller Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

I joined a suite of technologists, visionaries and other scientists in presenting various scenarios of the future through workshops and seminars.

Workshop subjects included quantum cryptography, autonomous vehicles, flying cars, robotic surgery, zero waste, computer glasses, and my workshop “writing science fiction.”

Instructive seminars included topics such as feeding 9 billion people, mental health, AI & computers, the science and meaning of water, urban development, the future of transportation and space exploration.

How to Write Science Fiction

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Top choice image prompt for storytelling

I gave two workshops on how to write science fiction. The workshop began with a brief discussion on what a story is (and is not) and a summary of the key tools of writing good story (e.g. premise, plot, theme, character, and setting) with a focus on world-building and the role of science.

Each group then set out to create the framework for a story based on a premise from an image prompt and shared what they’d put together. In one session we all worked together with me scribing on one whiteboard, creating together as a class; in another session, small groups formed and created their own story among four to five members as I went from team to team.

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Next popular storytelling image (cover illustration for “Ecology of Story” by Anne Moody)

Amazing stories emerged in both cases from the image prompts chosen. Students demonstrated imaginative, mature and original premises and carried through with thoughtful and imaginative plot, theme and character journeys. I was very impressed.

The Science and Meaning of Water

In this seminar I gave a summary of water’s life-giving anomalous properties on Earth and discussed the history and field of limnology (study of freshwater). I explored our history with water (including our impacts) and the implications of climate change on our future with water on the planet. Points of interest included water’s many weird properties, water’s ubiquity and its origins, the hydrological cycle, and the often strange adaptations of life with (or without) water.

Water Is-COVER-webWe then discussed future implications of water scarcity (and geopolitical conflict) and some of the things individuals and communities can do. Much of the talk drew from my recent book Water Is… The Meaning of Water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

nina-2014aaa

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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

Amazing Cover Art, Part 1: Tomislav Tikulin and Costi Gurgu

In my article “Should You Judge a Book by its Cover”, I wrote about the importance of cover art for book sales and to maintain integrity and satisfaction with the story inside. In the article, I pointed out that, “If you don’t know the author of the book, the nature—and implied promise—of the cover becomes even more important. If the book does not deliver on the promise of the cover, it will fail with many readers despite its intrinsic value. A broken promise is still a broken promise. I say cover—not necessarily the back jacket blurb—because the front cover is our first and most potent introduction to the quality of the story inside. How many of us have picked up a book, intrigued by its alluring front cover, read the blurb that seemed to resonate with the title and image, then upon reading our cherished purchase been disillusioned with the story and decided we disliked it and its author?”

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Liquid Silver’s romance / SF cover

Cover art provides an important aspect of writer and publisher branding. Cover artists understand this and address the finer nuances of the type and genre of the story to resonate with the reader and their expectations of story. This includes the image/illustration, typology, and overall design of the cover. A cover for a work of literary fiction will look quite different from a work of fantasy or romance. Within a genre, subtle qualities provide more clues—all of which the cover artist grasps with expertise.

I’ve been fortunate in my history as a professional writer to have had exceptional art work on the books I’ve written or collections and anthologies I’ve participated in (see the mosaic below of many but not all the covers my work has been associated with).

For most of my books, my publisher provided me with a direct link to the cover artist (e.g., Dragon Moon Press, Edge Publishing, eXtasy Books, Liquid Silver Books, Starfire, Pixl Press) and I retained some creative control. I even found and brought in the cover artist for two projects I had with Starfire.

 

Tomislav Tikulin and “The Last Summoner

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Dragon Moon’s SF cover

Croation artist Tomislav Tikulin was the artist my Dragon Moon publisher had found for my 2007 book “Darwin’s Paradox”. For Darwin, I worked closely with Tikulin, who created the compelling hard science fiction cover of “future Toronto” that has attracted readers to the book for years. Tikulin has done cover designs for many publishers and bestselling writers from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama to Amazing Stories Magazine.

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Starfire’s fantasy cover

In perusing Tikulin’s website one day, I was transported by one of his illustrations—of an awestruck knight standing knee deep in a mire within a huge drowned cathedral. Shafts of golden light from the vaulted ceiling angled across, bathing the mire and the bemused knight beneath. There was a powerful story in that image, I thought, and wrote a whole book based on it: “The Last Summoner”. Imagine the feeling when I approached Tikulin to licence the image and then my Starfire publisher to use it—and both agreed! You’ll have to read the book to find out why the image was so important to the overall story. Graphic artist Costi Gurgu took Tikulin’s image and used his typology and design skills to create an extraordinary front and back cover and spine. You can learn more about Tikulin in my interview with him on The Alien Next Door.

 

Costi Gurgu and “The Splintered Universe Trilogy

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Starfire’s SF cover

I met Costi Gurgu and his wife Vali Gurgu at a science fiction convention in Montreal in 2009. Costi and Vali were successful graphic artists working on magazine covers and interiors for top magazines in Toronto. When I eventually moved there to teach at the University of Toronto, I discussed cover design with Costi. I was working on a detective thriller in space with kick-ass female detective and Galactic Guardian, Rhea Hawke. I’d initially envisioned the book as one entire novel with three parts, but it very soon became apparent to me that it was three actual books in a trilogy. The Splintered Universe Trilogy consists of Outer Diverse, Inner Diverse, and Metaverse.

I was intrigued by what Costi designed: a “Triptych” for the three books of The Splintered Universe Trilogy. In an interview I did on The Alien Next Door, I asked him what inspired him to come up with it and what did he like about it? Costi replied:

“Your main character, Rhea, undergoes a certain evolution from a regular human being to… let’s just say something else. And that evolution has three parts, one for each book of the trilogy and it also has a touch of divine. So, the triptych design, so often used for religious paintings, fits like a glove on the entire concept.”

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Starfire’s SF cover

I was very taken by how the design for the triptych carried a powerful image that conjures a portal or gateway into another world (which is what the trilogy is about). The reader is drawn into an infinite landscape, looking in, and Rhea is looking out from within in Outer Diverse, bursting through in Inner Diverse, and walking outside with confidence in Metaverse. Costi explained the meaning behind the symbols and colours he used: “The initial idea was for the red ring to be a sort of mapping device and a radar combined into one, since Rhea travels great distances in her quest. Then I realized it might as well be a portal device on top of everything else and serve all her travelling needs.

There were two options —either we would look with her outside, to whatever target she had, or look towards her. I thought that it would be more powerful if we could look towards her and see her determined face, see the unflinching resolution in her eyes, while she’s pondering her next move and readying herself to use the device once again. But to look towards her and see her in a confining room of a space ship, or such, would have defeated the purpose. So, I needed to have her against the infinite landscape as the backdrop. She is in a continuous journey to discover herself and this journey takes her literally through the infinite spaces of not just one universe.”

Costi also shared some of the process in creating a cover design:

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Starfire’s SF cover

“Technically speaking, I always start with sketches on paper, which I later scan. I mainly use Adobe Photoshop, but for this illustration I had to use Adobe Illustrator as well. Obviously, the layout and the typography were done in Adobe InDesign.”

Costi’s wife, Vali, was the model for Rhea Hawke. Some of the additional shoots can be seen in the Youtube book trailer). Costi shared that, “I had to decide how to treat her image. I could have gone towards a more glamorous, shiny look, like in a fashion image, or I could just simply keep it more realistic… I chose to keep it that way, because I wanted to offer a realistic image of an ex-police officer: a woman who was used to fighting and chasing criminals, rather than taking care of her appearance.”

You can read the complete interview with Costi on The Alien Next Door.

All Nina Munteanu books can be found on most Amazon sites.

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Sampling of publication cover art for works by Nina Munteanu (to 2017)

nina-2014aaaNina 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. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Nina Munteanu Interviewed by Simon Rose on Fantasy Fiction Focus

On Fantasy Fiction Focus Nina Munteanu discusses with author Simon Rose about the writing process, the emerging hybrid publishing industry, the importance of branding yourself as an author, and what can authors do to successfully market themselves and their writing. She and Simon discuss the writing community and the importance of conventions and festivals for aspiring writers.

The interview was done in 2015 but what Simon and Nina discuss remains topical and germane.

Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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.

Limestone Genre Expo—One of Kingston’s Gems

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Nina Munteanu and Halli Villegas

I recently attended the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, Ontario. Held at the St. Lawrence College campus—ideally suited to a literary festival—the expo featured panels, readings, and workshops.

The festival was well attended by local, Canadian and international authors, editors, publishers, and readers—all committed to exploring literature, the arts and to having a good time.

Authors included Tanya Huff, Nancy Kilpatrick, Caro Soles, Violette Malan, Rick Blechta, Matthew Bin and Eve Langlais, among many others.

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Science Fiction GOH in 2016

Publishers included Exile Editions, Chizine Publications, Bundoran Press and others. Exile Editions recently published their anthology “Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change” in which my story “The Way of Water” appears.

I was Limestone’s Science Fiction Guest of Honour last year; this year I got to relax and I sat on three panels.

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Nancy Kilpatrick

In “Alternative Histories to Cyberpunk“, I was joined on the panel by Matthew Bin, Maldonado Skaff-Koren, Eric Desmarais, Michael Romaric, Dominic Bercier, and A.A. Jankiewicz with moderator Sean Moreland. We mostly discussed the literary device of alternative timelines and unanimously concluded that visionary science fiction that “failed” to predict the future was successful alternative “history”. This theme continued in the science fiction panel.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverI brought up the notion of history’s quantum properties, a braided flow of multi-dimensional and entangled realities. This served as premise for my alternative historical time-travel fantasy The Last Summoner, which takes place in fifteenth century Poland. On her fourteenth birthday, the baroness Vivianne Von Grunwald discovers that she can change history as an aeon; but she soon realizes that, while she is able to change some disastrous historic event, its entangled “destiny” indelibly moves closer to the original consequence than her intended one: yet another disaster. My scientific approach to alternate history is what excited me to write this, my only fantasy so far among a dozen science fiction novels.

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Caro Soles

In the panel “The Science behind Science Fiction” I was joined by Katherine Prairie, Anita Dolman, Matthew Bin, Lisa Tooey, Kristen Kiomall, and A.A. Jankiewicz with moderator Caroline Frechette. We discussed the utility and risk of using pseudoscience in a science fiction story, a genre known for expectations of accuracy and prescience. In 1979, Ray Bradbury wrote: People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”

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Tanya Huff signs one of her books

Depending on whether the story is considered hard SF or soft SF, this level of accuracy in both actual science presented as premise and ability to predict science and technology will vary. Given that science fiction is largely metaphoric, the predictability of an SF story is secondary to the story’s value as metaphor and allegory. The consensus of the panel was that the audience determined the importance of precision and accuracy. In the final analysis, if the story is grounded in its own consistency, anything is possible.

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Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)

In “Women in Genre” I was joined by Violette Malan, Nancy Kilpatrick, Eve Langland, Alyssa Cooper, Janet Kellogg, and Liz Lindsay with moderator Sandra Kasturi. The banter was by turns fun and edgy, all lubricated with good humour by all participants. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy of which 90% feature a “strong female protagonist”, I brought up the controversy of what, in fact, determines a good female lead in story. Why do so many heroines still provide just a kick-ass version of a male hero? Why are so many female protagonist heroes still defined by the rules of what makes a male a hero? Where are the real women?

Politics south of us aside—along with Margaret Atwood’s all too realistic Handmaid’s Tale (currently playing on Bravo TV), we discussed the recent push-back in Texas on the all-women showing of “Wonder Woman,” which prompted many heated tweets. The Atlantic recently published an article on the film—and surrounding events—entitled “Wonder Woman, Heroine of the Post-Truth Age.”wonder-woman-movie-poster

Wonder Woman is set at the height of World War I, but is otherwise a decidedly modern movie,” writes Megan Garber of The Atlantic. “It stars a woman (Gal Gadot) and treats a man, Steve (Chris Pine), as its damsel-in-distress. It has managed, even before its release, to enrage men’s-rights activists, which is quickly becoming a reliable measure of a movie’s modernity.”

wonderwoman-golden lassoWonder Woman uses a unique weapon, the Golden Lasso, known as the Lasso of Truth—because it compels anyone wrapped by it to reveal the truth.

When William Moulton Marston—scientist and inventor of the polygraph machine— created the Wonder Woman character, he envisioned a warrior who was also an investigator of truth. “Frankly,” he said, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” He believed that a world that gave women more power—politically and otherwise—would be more peaceful, more empathetic, more worthy, writes Garber. “And so Wonder Woman is a work that is decidedly at home, across its dimensions, in the world of 2017—a world that is on the one hand newly recognizing women’s widespread capabilities, but that is on the other deeply anxious about ‘alternative facts,’ about ‘fake news,’ about politically weaponized lies, about falsehoods that are uttered with no seeming consequence. The princess’s lasso, that shimmering metaphor for objective truth, is a symbol of aspiration; seen in another way, though, it is a symbol of despair. Here, in this wobbling weapon, is “wonder” as in awe; here, too, is “wonder” as in uncertainty. Here is a tool of truth that is decidedly ambivalent about its own powers. “How do I know you’re not lying to me right now?” the princess asks the spy. And the only way she can know for sure is to trust, paradoxically, in magic.”

Magic is OK, though. It is, after all, the stuff from which we draw when we write.

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Nina Munteanu, Science Fiction GOH at Limestone Genre Expo 2016

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.

The Art & Science of World Building: The Tools You Need to Make a Believable World

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Vancouver Central Library (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most fantasy and science fiction novels require major world-building, which involves both real and imagined aspects.

World building spices real physical and social facts with the author’s imagination to create a civilization, a political structure, a culture and zeitgeist as backdrop and influence to story. Writers define world-building as the process of constructing an imaginary world, usually associated with a fictional universe.

Popularized at science fiction workshops during the 1970s, the term describes the development of an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, and ecology that is rich, unique and resonates with the story’s premise.

The list below provides things to consider when first building your world:

  • The world (e.g., on Earth or not)
  • Physical and historical features (climate, geography, resources)
  • Magic and magicians (e.g., rules of magic, technology)
  • Peoples and customs (e.g., language, ethics and values, religion)
  • Social organization & structure (e.g., government, politics, conflicts, fashion, entertainment)
  • Commerce & trade (e.g., industry, transportation, communication)

Science vs. Art In World-Building

EcologyOfStoryIf a novel is a historical fantasy set on Earth, science is not a critical part of world building; if a novel is set on some probable planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, then science becomes an integral part. But, in both cases the writer needs to do his or her research. In the case of the historical fantasy, world building will be based on accurate historical information, even if an alternate history is being written.

Part of the reason people read historical epics is to learn more about that particular civilization and time period. The reader trusts that the writer will give him or her the facts on the world, while taking liberties on the remaining story elements. Similarly, a science fiction reader opens the first book in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series with the expectation of learning about a made-up world based on accurate principals of science.

A lot of science fiction is written by nonscientists. That said, many science fiction readers— particularly those who enjoy hard science fiction—expect your science to be not only plausible but somewhat proven and your premise to be based upon sound scientific principle. They expect your research to be impeccable because they are expecting to learn something—in science.

World-Builder’s Disease? 

City of Woven Streets

“City of Woven Streets” by Emmi Itaranta

“Fantasy writers have a penchant for working up histories of imaginary empires that can run for hundreds of pages, full of maps and chronologies and genealogical trees a yard long,” says Ansen Dibell, author of The Elements of Writing Fiction: Plot. “Similarly, science fiction writers can fall in love with their hardware and want to show it off,” he adds and describes this as a kind of narrative cancer, a “World-Builder’s disease.”

Most writers who world-build keep extensive files of background information on their worlds. In some cases, these can be published as companions to the main book series (e.g., J.K. Rowling’s books on Quiddich or magical creatures, which most certainly came from her extensive background notes). Dibell’s point is that this information doesn’t belong in the main book, where it can interfere with the process of storytelling. It becomes “info dump”, which is often very static, lacks drama, and proves ultimately boring.

Tying Your World to Theme and Plot

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“Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell

What’s important to remember is that the world you build is part of the story. It isn’t just a lot of “interesting” detail. The world you build, like a character in your story, plays a role in defining and supporting its theme. The major qualities of your world are, therefore, best derived for plot and thematic reasons—which come from “story”. The rest—the details—are things you can find in books, websites or get from experts in your local university, etc.  Don’t let science intimidate you; but ensure that you get it right by using your resources and verifying your information with an expert. Use your local libraries, universities, colleges, and online resources. Interview scientists, technical people and other writers. That’s part of being a writer too.

 

Nina 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.

Summoning the Slow Train To Find “The Last Summoner”

Atonement_(novel)In her book The Art of Slow Writing, Louise DeSalvo tells the story of how Ian McEwan composed his book Atonement.

McEwan had shared that the novel “grew out of many months of sketches and doodling.” Then one morning, he wrote “six hundred words or so describing a young woman entering a drawing room with some wild flowers in her hand, searching for a vase,” and “aware of a young man outside gardening whom she wishes both to see and avoid.”

He knew he had at last started a novel, says DeSalvo. But beyond that, he knew nothing. Slowly, McEwan pieced together a chapter, the one in which “Cecilia and Robbie go to the fountain, the vase breaks, she strips off and plunges into the water to retrieve the pieces, she walks away from him without a word.”

McEwan then languished for six weeks with questions: who was the woman? Who was the young man? What was their relationship? When and where did this event take place? And what was its significance to the story? What was the story about?

McEwan went on to write the chapter in which Briony attempts to put on a play with her cousins. Upon completing that chapter, he finally realized what the story was about. He realized that he would write about Dunkirk and St. Thomas’s hospital. He also knew that Briony was the main protagonist and POV character; that “she was going to commit a terrible error, and that writing…throughout her life would be her form of atonement.” Briony is in fact, what we call a displaced narrator. While the focus of the story is on the tragic journeys of Ceclia and Robbie—resulting largely from Briony’s eventful action—the deeper tragedy is Briony’s who must live the remainder of her life with what she has done.

“McEwan’s remarks illustrate how a successful writer sometimes begins without knowing the work’s subject,” writes DeSalvo. This process of creative problem solving can take on many forms. McEwan sketched and wrote what Diana Gabaldon calls “kernel scenes”, muse-inspired scenes—usually character-based—that represent major emotional turning points or events: important moments in forming a larger set piece toward a larger story. McEwan wrote a scene that required for him to solve some creative problems. Each solution provided him with another piece to the creative puzzle and the blurry meaning of the story slowly came into focus.

According to DeSalvo, McEwan swapped his first two chapters and rewrote them several times before he realized that the novel should begin with Briony. Once that watershed moment came to him, the rest of the process fell into place and practically wrote itself.

This type of “organic” writing can be very exciting and revealing to an author; it can also be chaotic and time-consuming. That’s OK. You need the time for the story to reveal itself to you. As DeSalvo says, “we can’t force a resolution too quickly.” She adds that “creative solutions often take us into unexpected territory—the introduction of Briony’s narrative, for example—and often these swerves take us into exciting solutions we hadn’t anticipated—Briony as narrator, for example—and push our work in an altogether different direction.”

If McEwan had kept the first narrative that emerged—Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain—and if he hadn’t been open to the potential in Briony’s narrative, he would no doubt have written a less complex but still successful novel about love, class, and war. But in deciding to give Briony a voice and combine both narratives, McEwan introduced another more metaphoric layer of meaning to the more literal one—that of personal betrayal and the impact of knowing you have destroyed two people’s lives.

The Last Summoner … Summoned

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcover

cover art by Tomislav Tikulin

My historical fantasy The Last Summoner came to me in a single image. I’d run across a spectacular image by Croation artist Tomislav Tikulin (he’d done the cover art for Darwin’s Paradox, my previous book published by Dragon Moon Press). When I checked his website, there it was: this incredibly evocative image of a knight, standing in the war-littered mire of a drowned cathedral. The knight gazed up, questioning, at the vaulted ceiling from which shone streams of white gold. It sent my imagination soaring with thoughts of chivalry, adventure and intrigue.

Who was this knight? Where was he and why? What were the circumstances?

At that point I only had an image and many questions. I knew I wanted to write about this knight and this setting. Since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by Europe during the medieval ages and I had been thinking of writing outside the science fiction genre for a while.

The image remained imprinted inside me for weeks, months, until the next nexus moment came. I stumbled across a significant but little-known battle in the medieval Baltic, the Battle of Grunwald. It would turn out to be the defining battle for what are now the countries of Poland and Lithuania. On June 14th 1410, they were still part of Prussia and tyrannized by the Teutonic Order, who were Christianizing the pagan Baltic on behalf of the Pope. In truth, the Order had been for centuries gathering wealth and land for colonizing Germans in their drang nach osten; they built sturdy castles (many of which still stand today) and a force of monk warriors, feared for their cunning strategy and treacherous combat abilities.

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Chilean castle, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Battle of Grunwald was, in fact, an upset in history. The Teutonic Order was powerful, intimidating and extremely capable. They should have won; but the peasant armies of Prussia slaughtered the Order, killing most of its knights. Historians debate that the hochmeister’s arrogance—indeed, the arrogance of the entire Order—precipitated their downfall. They underestimated their adversaries and got sloppy. After the Polish and Lithuanian armies outsmarted the Order and slayed their hochmeister, along with most of their knights, the Order’s own peasant slaves finished the job using clubs, pitchforks and stones.

chillon-inner courtyard

Courtyard at Chillon Castle, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Intrigued by this lessor known order of religious crusaders, I pursued the premise of an alternative consequence: what if the Teutonic Knights had NOT underestimated their enemy and won the Battle of Grunwald? Would they have continued their catastrophic sweep of Northeast Europe into Russia and beyond? Would they have claimed the whole for Germany’s expansionist lebensraum movement, fueled by its sonderweg, a dialectic that would ultimately lead to the killing fields of the Holocaust? What if the success of the Teutonic Order helped consolidate a united fascist elite, ambitious to conquer the world?

And what if, as a result, Nazism sprang up 100 years earlier? The Last Summoner, arose from this premise.

I’d already conceived a heroine: a self-centered romantic noblewoman who has a vision of a knight in a drowned cathedral. Fourteen-year old Vivianne Schoen, Baroness von Grunwald, dreams that her ritter will rescue her from the drudgeries of her duties and an arranged marriage to some foreign warrior. When she discovers that her intended is a cruel and abusive mercenary, Vivianne makes a bold and impetuous choice that results in a startling discovery that she can alter history—but not before she’s branded a witch and must flee through a time-space tear into a alternate present-day Paris, now ruled by fascists. There, in present-day Paris she learns that every choice has its price. She meets François, a self-serving street kid who tries to monetize her and her gear but then falls for her anachronistic charm.

knight-cameoI originally wrote the Paris section in Vivianne’s point of view, but it seemed flat with too obvious fish-out-of-water observations. I let the book sit, while I conducted more research on Paris, and then it came to me: give the narrative to François. This part of the book was his story. By giving François the only POV, I also gave his character agency to react and change to Vivianne’s role as “catalyst hero.” I rewrote this section, starting with François fleeing from a street crime he’d committed, when Vivianne literally appears and knocks him down. She then sweeps him up in a high-stakes chase that will change his worldview. When Vivianne returns to 1410 Poland in the last section of the book, her great journey of self-discovery and atonement begins.

Spanning from medieval Poland to present day Paris, France, The Last Summoner explores the sweeping consequences of our “subtle” choices. From the smallest grab to the most sweeping gesture, we are accountable for the world we’ve made. During her 600-year journey to save the world and undo the history she authored, Vivianne learns wisdom and humility. Through the paradox of history, she learns that what might have seemed the right choice for an immediate future, turns out to be disastrous for a distant future. To win is also to lose; to save oneself one must surrender oneself; and to save the world one need only save a single soul.

The knight standing in the drowned cathedral is Vivianne.

 

 The Last Summoner, published by Starfire World Syndicate, was released in Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcover2012 and remained a Canadian bestseller on Amazon for several months. It represents my first historical fantasy in an otherwise repertoire of hard science fiction. The cover of the book is indeed the original image that had inspired the book in the first place; and was kindly acquired by my publisher. The Polish and Lithuanians celebrate June 14th with pride, erecting mock-ups of the battle annually. Some day I hope to participate.

 

 

References:

DeSalvo, Louise. 2014.”The Art of Slow Writing”. St. Martin’s Griffin. New York, NY. 306pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2012. “The Last Summoner”. Starfire World Syndicate.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is a Canadian 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.

Women Heroes, Part 2: How Brienne of Tarth Saved “Game of Thrones”

brienne of tarth-valar morghulisI’ve been following the insanely popular—yet excruciatingly brutal—Game of Thrones for several seasons now. I must confess, partly because I don’t own or watch TV, that I am a little behind. I’m currently watching Season Four, while still metaphorically shaking in the violent wake of the shocking and brutal Red Wedding episode of Season Three. As the Internet buzz revealed, this was an extremely difficult show to watch for everyone. What was the purpose of its graphical brutality? Who needs to see that level of violence? I am reminded of an introductory scene in the show in which character John Snow counsels his little brother Bran to not avert his eyes when his father executes a deserter, by chopping off his head—an act that foreshadows his own decapitation later in the series. It is as though the producers of the show are counselling us in the same way as they subject us to grisly scene after grisly scene. Many cheap and gratuitous, as far as I am concerned.

The Red Wedding scene, in which several beloved characters are brutally slaughtered set into play a new set of rules for audience engagement: that of total distrust. Distrust in the storytellers (primarily in the producers of the show, whose scripts, I’m told, have deviated from the novels in some important ways). Distrust that creates an uneasy tension. Distrust that precipitates a panicked wish for clairvoyance. This is because we have no concept of fairness in the story; yet we’ve so invested in the characters. That is the storyteller’s worst act of cruelty: to hold us hostage to the characters. The rules of fair play in story have been broken. We’re stuck in a kind of free fall, desperately hoping that our beloved characters will make it through the night intact, if not unscathed. And when they don’t, its like watching our children die, as we stand powerless by.

Good fiction—as opposed to reality—tells a purposeful story. A story with fictional characters, who play a purposeful role. All good stories make a promise in the beginning; a promise they keep in the end. They create a covenant with their audience to participate in a fulfilling journey. This doesn’t have to mean a happy ending, but it does include meaning and fulfillment—even if only for its audience. And that must involve victory of sorts—and hope—whether it is through redemption, acceptance, enlightenment, or some change that gives us “more”—not less; something that allows us to prevail alongside.

If I feel that I am simply witnessing a cesspool of meaningless chaos and brutality, dominated by ruthless and insane people, in which heroes are equally powerless victims as they are true agents of change—with no rhyme or reason to tell the difference—then I must ask myself the question: why am I watching this? What does this story mean to me? I start to feel like a misanthropic voyeur, as perverse as Joffrey or Littlefinger as I watch people get tortured, flayed alive, dismembered, and worse… with no recourse. This is NOT entertainment and it certainly isn’t of any value to me. For such an offence to the senses to have value, there must be an element of—or at least a grain of hope of—prevailing and movement.

By Season Three end, both the series and I are feeling a little tired. And for good reason; most of the characters—the women particularly—are trapped in an incessant pattern of simple endurance. That seems to be all they are able to do: endure. Certainly they manage to act and create within their limited sphere of influence; but mostly to colour their position, not change it. So, we endure alongside; and we can endure only so much.

Then enter Brienne of Tarth. Also known as Maid of Truth.

And with her, a breath of much needed fresh air.brienne of tarth-close

When Brienne was first introduced in “What is Dead May Never Die” in Season Two, she brought with her the anachronistic romanticism of a true knight. We first see her besting favored champion Ser Loras Tyrell (Knight of Flowers) in a tournament. When she presents herself to King Renly Baratheon and removes her helm, the crowd hushes in surprise. To his offer of prize, Brienne requests a place in his Kingsguard, which he gladly grants, despite her gender and lack of formal stature as a knight.

Brienne is the iconic knight of the chivalric sagas: noble, virtuous, compassionate and brave. Singularly honest and loyal. So much so that her contemporaries deride her as simple, naïve and stupid. As though embracing such virtues is outmoded, foolish and weak. That she is a woman—albeit tall, ungainly and considered unfeminine—makes her virtues all the more powerful and refreshing.

BrienneoftarthWhen King Renly is assassinated, Brienne swears fealty to Catelyn Stark and becomes her sworn sword. Catelyn charges Brienne to return her captive Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing to exchange him for her two daughters held hostage there. Their journey provides some of the best scenes of the TV series and some of the most fulfilling interactions. Throughout Jaime’s insufferable taunts about her appearance and likely dismal history with the opposite sex, Brienne remains stoically silent. Except when she speaks:

“All my life men like you’ve sneered at me, and all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”—Brienne to Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones

Essayist Brent Hartinger suggests that Brienne’s character is a well-written departure from fantasy novels where the main characters are commonly “the slender… average-heighted, the conventionally abled and traditionally gendered.”

Essayist Caroline Spector describes Brienne as a “study in heartbreaking contradictions. She embraces the romantic ideals of her culture, both emotionally and through her actions, but is continually betrayed by the real world simply because she cannot turn herself into the woman the Westerosi legends tell her she should be.”

By upholding her ideals of integrity, Brienne refuses to conform to the established cultural expectations. Her very nature—from physique to comportment to idealism—defies the notion in Westeros that women are to be taken or coerced, and meant to endure their lot; not be agents of their own change. Spector describes Brienne as a woman who has “taken for herself most of the attributes of male power.” She embodies “how women who dare to take male power for their own are judged and treated not only in Westeros but in all conventionally patriarchal societies.”brienne-jaime-GoT

The journey of Brienne and Jaime is a fine tale of initial antagonism, discovery, surprising tenderness and ultimate friendship, based on honour and mutual respect. Throughout, Brienne defends and encourages a flagging Jaime and he, in turn, saves her on several occasions, culminating in his return to rescue her from a brutal death in the bearpit.

What makes “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”—or any other scene in which Brienne and Jaime appear—so pleasing? We witness in the interactions between them an evolution in character, great opportunities for learning and redemption, and finally the development of an iconic friendship based on respect and equality—something normally reserved for individuals of the same sex—that neither had previously enjoyed. Like two souls missing something, each is a gift to the other. And though delivered differently, it is the same for both: honour, self-respect and faith in humanity. And neither is the same for their interaction.

brienne-jaime-swords“The bathhouse had been thick with the steam rising off the water, and Jaime had come walking through that mist naked as his name day, looking half a corpse and half a god.”—George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

Brienne is the catalyst hero. She gives us hope. She gives us hope to save the world. She does this through her influence on others. By shear strength of her genuine goodness, Brienne transforms, challenges, and supports. She is über-strong, yet vulnerable; which Jaime recognizes and appreciates as something truly beautiful. The reason he returns to save her in the bear pit.

“I am grateful, but… you were well away. Why come back?”

A dozen quips came to mind, each crueler than the one before, but Jaime only shrugged. “I dreamed of you,” he said.—George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

Jaime slides back to his scoundrel-self once returned safely to King’s Landing and out of Brienne’s sphere of influence—and beneath the shadow of his overbearing father. He is a chameleon, a shape shifter, who struggles to lift himself out from the shadow of his soulless father. Despite some continued reprehensible behavior (particularly to do with his sister, with whom he had formed a perverse relationship), Brienne’s light of honour appears to burn inside him in some form. His actions—tasking her to find and secure Sansa’s safety and giving her his own sword—maintains their honour-bond. When he gives her his longsword, forged of Valyrian steel, he asks her to name it; showing the cooperative respect between the two. She chooses the name Oathkeeper, fulfilling again her role in their story.

In fact, Brienne’s story follows a more traditionally male narrative. Her quest is to save the beautiful maiden (Sansa), but not to marry her or benefit from the quest; it is simply to secure her safety. Feminist writer Rihannon tells us that this is a storyline that “the mother, the young girl and the shieldmaiden are all given equal weight and worth…She uses her strength and her skill to respect and help other women in ways that most men in Westeros would never even think to attempt, because she understands, more than any other knight, that women are truly worth something as individuals.”

Are other women of Westeros poised to rise as true agents of change and takebrienne-of-tarth command not only of their lives but to save the world? Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon mother, liberates slaves; courage and a sense of justice animates the independent Arya. And we’ll see what becomes of Brienne…and Jaime.

I will continue to watch this series with uneasy anticipation.

 

 

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.