Science Fiction On Water Justice & Climate Change

TheWaterKnife-Paolo BacigalupiThere were stories in sweat. The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing…Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.

So begins Paolo Bacigalupi’s speculative thriller The Water Knife, set in the near-future in the drought-stricken American southwest. Where corrupt state-corporations have supplanted the foundering national government. Where water is the new gold—to barter, steal, and murder for. Corporations have formed militias and shut down borders to climate refugees, fomenting an ecology of poverty and tragedy. Massive resorts—arcadias—constructed across the parched landscape, flaunt their water-wealth in the face of exploited workers and gross ecological disparity. Water is controlled by corrupt gangsters and “water knives” who cleverly navigate the mercurial nature of water rights in a world where “haves” hydrate and “have nots” die of thirst.

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Paolo Bacigalupi is just one of many authors of compelling dystopian eco-thrillers that engage readers in climate change—many with strong water themes: Margaret Atwood, Emmi Itäranta, Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, Barbara Kingsolver, Upton Sinclair, Ursula Le Guin, JoeAnn Hart, Frank Herbert, John Yunker, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Bradley, Nathaniel Rich, David Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Claire Vaye Watkins, J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux, Thomas Wharton—just to name a few.

My upcoming novel by Inanna Publications—A Diary in the Age of Water coming out in 2020—explores the socio-political consequences of corruption in Canada, now owned by China and America as an indentured resource ‘reservoir’; it is a story told through four generations of women and their unique relationship with water during a time of great unheralded change. On February 17, 2046, limnologist Lynna writes in her diary about her mother Una:

Bald, alle das wasser verschwindet,” She said in her quiet voice of certainty. She always spoke in her mother tongue when it came to water. Soon, all the water will be gone. “Und so werden wir.” And so will we. “Es wird das Ende des Zeitalters des Wassers sein.” It will be the end of the Age of Water. 

Una always seemed to follow the thalweg. She seemed to always know what water was doing. Even when it braided and curled in on itself. Even when human-made obstructions got in the way; like the increased water tax, followed by the severe water-use quota. Like water, Una found a way around it.  

I wish I had that skill.

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Science fiction explores our water crisis through premises of extreme water shortage and devastating violence (floods, droughts and storms), water diversion, and hoarding. Premises explore weather manipulation, the consequences of extensive deforestation and the massive extinction of species. Some—such as Claudiu Murgan’s Water Entanglement—even explore water as a character, as though water has gone rogue, unruly. Perhaps even vengeful…

Today, we control water on a massive scale. Reservoirs around the world hold 10,000 cubic kilometres of water; five times the water of all the rivers on Earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the Earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by eight millionths of a second in the last forty years.

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Millennia ago, we adapted and lived by the rhythms of the global water cycle. We have since harnessed the power of water; we captured it and diverted it and changed it in ways to suit our own rhythms. Our unprecedented power over the planet’s water has advanced our civilizations immeasurably. But water remains our Achilles’ heel; it has the potential to limit our ambition like no other resource on Earth.

If climate change is the planet’s response to humanity’s relentless exploitation, water is its archangel.

Three Percent TVshowA tidal wave of TV shows and movies currently explore—or at least acknowledge—the devastation we are forcing on the planet. Every week Netflix puts out a new science fiction show that follows this premise of Earth’s devastation: 3%; The 100The TitanOrbiter 9; even Lost in Space.

Science fiction is suited to this role; it is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind and can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity.  The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premises based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s Year of the Flood) to dystopias (e.g., Itäranta’s The Memory of Water). Science fiction has always been the pre-eminent literature of metaphor and history; it has lately matured in the Anthropocene to incorporate the edgy realism of literary fiction to give us potent environmental relevance. Sub-genres now include eco-fiction, climate fiction, and cli-fi.

MemoryOfWater_Emmi ItarantaEllen Szabo, author of Saving the World One Word at a Time: Writing Cli-Fi suggests that the ability to make environmental issues less political and more personal (through story) permits more engagement by readers and a higher likelihood of action toward justice: we are more likely to take action on the things we love and know. It’s all about connection.

“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action, which is perhaps why cli-fi’s appeal among young adult readers holds such promise. As the scientists and leaders of tomorrow, they may be most capable of addressing climate and water issues where previous generations have failed, writes J.K. Ullrich of The Atlantic. As Margaret Atwood wrote in MaddAddam, “People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

We tend to live very much in the here and now, Bacigalupi told an audience at the University of Seattle when describing humanity’s lack of planning for the future.  But, he added, “with science fiction, I can give you a [here and now] experience far into the future,” and allow a reader to truly experience “what it’s like to be a climate refugee” or be someone with no legal access to water. An extrapolated science fiction future provides a visceral opportunity to see our future selves in a way that promotes serious consideration, says Bacigalupi. By putting us there, we have a better chance of making those extrapolations into consequence.

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For centuries we have hubristically and disrespectfully used, discarded and destroyed just about everything on this beautiful planet. According to the World Wildlife Federation, 10,000 species go extinct every year. That’s mostly on us. They are the casualty of our selfish actions. We’ve become estranged from our environment, lacking connection and compassion. That has translated into a lack of consideration—even for each other. In response to mass shootings of children in schools, the U.S. government does nothing to curb gun-related violence through gun-control measures; instead they suggest arming teachers. We light up our cigarettes in front of people who don’t smoke and blow cancer-causing second-hand smoke in each other’s faces. We litter our streets and we refuse to pick up after others even if it helps the environment and provides beauty for self and others. The garbage we thoughtlessly discard pollutes our oceans with plastic and junk, hurting sea creatures and the ocean ecosystem in unimaginable ways. We consume and discard without consideration.

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We do not live lightly on this planet.

We tread with incredibly heavy feet. We behave like bullies and our inclination to self-interest makes us far too prone to suspicion and distrust: when we meet the unknown—the “other” so often portrayed in science fiction—we tend to respond with fear and aggression over curiosity, hope and kindness. Something we need to work on if we are going to survive.

Science fiction—the highest form of metaphoric and visionary art—is telling us something. Are we paying attention?

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Rainforest on southern Vancouver Island, B.C. (Photo by Kevin Klassen)

 

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

International Writers’ Festival at Val David

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International Writers’ Festival & Retreat with Flavia Cosma, Val David

In the middle of June 2019, I drove to Val David, Quebec, with poet-songstress and friend Honey Novick. We had been invited to participate in Les Mots du Monde, the nineteenth international writers’ and artists’ festival of readings, songs, and discussions. The location was the residence of international poet Flavia Cosma. Cosma has been hosting the writer’s event for close to a decade in her large house in the forest just outside the resort town of Val David in the Laurentians.

The program spanned two days of lecture, readings, performance and art by artists and writers from Argentina, Romania, Mexico, USA, Laval, Montreal, and Toronto.

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International Festival among the trees

Poets, writers, musicians and artists included Honey Novick, Hélène Dorion, Tito Alvarado, Dinorah Gutiérrez Andana, Flavia Cosma, Gerette Buglion, Yvan-Denis Dupuis, EcologyOfStoryJeremiah Wall, Nina Munteanu, Nancy R. Lange, Nicole Davidson, Carmen Doreal, MarieAnnie Soleil, Luis Raúl Calvo, Louis-Philippe Hébert, Melania Rusu Caragioiu, Anna-Louise Fontaine.

I talked about my experience and process of writing my upcoming speculative novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”, coming out in 2020 with Inanna Publications. The novel chronicles four generations of women and their relationship with water during a time of extreme change.

I also shared examples of my recently launched writing guidebook “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” (Pixl Press). The 3rd guidebook in my Alien Guidebook Series, “Ecology of Story” focuses on place and environment and how these form the heart of a good story.

Throughout the festival, we were treated to magnificent ethnic food and refreshments. Interesting discussions on the international literary scene over wine and desert followed.

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Lunch at Flavia’s

I shared good conversation with fellow poet and water advocate Nancy R. Lange. She had given a compelling presentation on her recent book “Les Cantiques de l’eau” (Marcel Broquet) and knew about my book “Water Is: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press). Of course, the best thing to do was exchange books—which we did. Nancy is the literary ambassador for the Eau Secours organization and has promoted responsible water stewardship through her writing and presentations for many years.

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“It is not the cliff that shapes the ocean. It is the ocean that shapes the cliff. Fluidity is always the greater force than rigidity.”—Nancy R. Lange

 

On the final day, the writers and artists put on a public performance at the Val David Centre d’Exposition.

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C’est la Vie Cafe, Val David

Val David

Val David is a small resort town located in the Laurentian Mountains about 80 kilometers from Montreal, Quebec. The village is known for its food scene and its artistic character. When I was there, I sampled the local cafes and experienced the street market, which offered a diversity of locally made and sourced produce and crafts.

 

 

 

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

How Trees Can Save Us…Five Perspectives on Humanity’s Relationship with Our Forests

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Alick Bartholomew, author of The Spiritual Life of Water, describes four geologic periods when forests thrived on this planet. The first was the Carboniferous, 350 million years ago, when land vertebrates established. The second was the Jurassic, 170 million years ago, when dinosaurs dominated the planet. The third, the Eocene epoch, 60 million years ago, witnessed the first primitive mammals. The last, the Holocene epoch, which began some 500,000 years ago, ushered in modern humanity. Bartholomew suggests that perhaps, “in each case the forests delivered a boost in the oxygen content of the atmosphere, which may have been a trigger for an evolutionary explosion of life forms.”

Ten thousand years ago, the land along the Mediterranean was covered in mixed forests of conifers and oak. Lebanon’s forests provided timber for the exploring ships of the Phoenician empire in third century BCE. North Africa, a fertile forest two thousand years ago, is now a desert. A thousand years ago, three quarters of the world was forest. Today forest and woodland cover only a third of the world. The UK is currently the least wooded area of Europe with 13% woodland cover; its ancient woodland is being removed at a faster rate than the Amazon rainforest. Humanity is currently cutting down trees at a rate of 15 billion a year. We are losing forests the size of New York City daily; every 100 days we lose forests the size of Scotland; within a single year we lose forest ecosystems the size of Italy.

Since humanity arrived, we have cut down trees for timber, agriculture and development. Our impact is a matter of scale. When humanity was a mere 300 million in pre-medieval times, forest ecosystems remained intact. We are now over 7 billion, doing essentially the same thing we did thousands of years ago. What may have been sustainable then is now extirpating entire complex ecosystems, along with species we may never know existed. Deforestation releases a massive carbon sink into the atmosphere, driving global warming. It is largely responsible for reducing populations of wildlife by half in the last 40 years, and for starting the sixth massive extinction event.

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Clearcut in Gordon Valley, Vancouver Island, BC (photo by T.J. Watts)

While too many of us do not understand or appreciate the global consequences of deforestation, we remain intimately and personally connected with trees: in ways we don’t realize or have forgotten.

This article overviews the perspectives of five writers on the role and history of trees in global planetary health and our journey with climate change. I explore three non-fiction books and two fiction books. The non-fiction books include Witness Tree (2017) by Lynda Mapes, The Global Forest (2011) by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, and The Songs of Trees (2018) by David George Haskell. The two fiction books include The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers and Barkskins (2016) by Annie Proulx. Each work is a compelling testament of humanity’s connection with trees, both historically and in the present. All provide powerful and evocative optimism in different ways.

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Ash tree, Little Rouge River forest, Ontario

 

The Philosophical OPTIMISM of Lynda Mapes

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Lynda V. Vapes

Seattle Times environmental reporter and author of Witness Tree, Lynda V. Mapes explores a changing natural world and humanity’s relationship with it through a single Century-old red oak tree over four seasons. Mapes brings in elements of physics, ecology, biology and sociology and philosophy to probe her witness tree and reveal a colourful history of aboriginal life, colonialism, commodification and human-caused climate change.

In describing her oak tree, journalist and author of Witness Tree, Lynda V. Mapes writes, “The big oak dominates its space…but it also supports a vast web of life and relies in turn on a menagerie of helpers, aboveground and below. With its crown in the wind and its roots in the teeming soil, the big oak connects earth and sky, and many millions of beings, and is home to each and to all. It is just one tree, and yet a whole world unto itself.”

WitnessTreeMapes reveals that her witness tree overcame a 1 in 500 chance of taking root from tiny acorn to seedling to become a thirteen-storey tall giant. Mapes considered her oak a living timeline that revealed through its phenology how climate change is resetting the seasonal clock. Mapes sought “the quiet testimony of living things.” Through an “intimate exploration” in which she dug below, climbed up and lay beneath her oak, Mapes found vulnerability, loss, renewal, and hope.

“No matter what else the future may bring, in an uncertain world forests are a repository of only good verbs:  Forests shelter. Nurture. Moderate. Cleanse. Regenerate. Provide. Connect. Sustain…Trees can be our wellspring of inspiration. More than building material, fuel, and carbon-storage utilities, forests are foundational to life on the earth, refugia for countless animals, and an endless source of human joy, renewal, and refreshment.”

“People and trees are meant to be together, and if we work at it, that’s how we will stay,” writes Mapes at the end of her book. It is both hope and warning. A quiet clarion for us to “remember” our place in the world and to embrace our relationship with trees as wisdom guide.

Mapes invites us to connect with the forest.

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Old growth forest community in Cathedral Grove, British Columbia

 

The Practical OPTIMISM of Diana Beresford-Kroeger

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Diana Beresford-Kroeger

In her book The Global Forest: 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us, botanist and medical biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger tells us that:

“A functioning forest is a complex form of life. It is interconnected by its own flora and driven by the mammals, the amphibians and insects in it. It is kept in place by fungi, algae, lichens, bacteria, viruses, and bacteriophages. The primogenitors of the forests are trees. They communicate by carbon-coded calls and mass-market themselves by infrasound. The atmosphere links forests into the heavens and the great oceans. The human family is both caught and held in that web of life.”

TheGlobalForestWritten with passionate lyricism and a mother’s nurturing spirit, Irish storyteller Beresford-Kroeger weaves a compelling tapestry of ancient forest lore with modern science to promote the global forest. Tapping into aboriginal wisdom and ancient pagan legend, Beresford-Kroeger invites you into the forest to explore the many beneficial and pharmaceutical properties of trees—from leaves that filter the air of particulate pollution, the cardiotonic property of hawthorn, fatty acids in hickory nuts and walnuts that promote brain development, to the aerosols in pine trees that calm nerves.

The titles of her chapters reveal an overarching agenda: “The Global Forest Has Within Itself a Master Plan for Sustainability”; “Climate Change Can Be Reversed: Simplicity, Sustainability, and Sanity”.

“This [global] forest is the environment that drives and fulfills the dream of each leaf in a vast rhythmic cycle called life. Nothing is outside. We are all of it in a unity that transcends the whole. Maybe, just maybe, this resonates of God. If that is so, then we are all His children, every earthworm, every virus, mammal, fish and whale, every fern, every tree, man, woman and child. One equal to another. Again and again.”

Beresford-Kroeger compels us to interact with and learn from the forest.

 

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Gnarly “feet” of cedar tree in Little Rouge River forest, Ontario

 

The Existential OPTIMISM of David George Haskell  

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David George Haskell

In The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, biologist David George Haskell pens an existentialist poem to life’s interconnected network. Haskell’s notion of ‘listening to trees’ arises not from metaphor or metaphysics but from a spiritual understanding of the woven tapestry of life.

 “For the Homeric Greeks, kleos, fame, was made of song. Vibrations in air contained the measure and memory of a person’s life. To listen was therefore to learn what endures. I turned my ear to trees, seeking ecological kleos. I found no heroes, no individuals around whom history pivots. Instead, living memories of trees, manifest in their songs, tell of life’s community, a net of relations. We humans belong within this conversation, as blood kin and incarnate members. To listen is therefore to hear our voices and those of our family…To listen is therefore to touch a stethoscope to the skin of a landscape, to hear what stirs below.”

SongsOfTreesIn his travels to visit iconic trees around the world, Haskell draws on the wisdom and moral ethics of “ecological aesthetics” to describe a natural beauty—not as individual property but as a world within a world of interactive life to which we belong and serve but do not own:

“We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network…where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved…Because life is network, there is no ‘nature’ or ‘environment,’ separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with ‘others,’ so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory…We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature…To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.”

In the vein of the naturphilosophie of Goethe and Schelling—and later of Carson, Thoreau, Eisely and Dillard—Haskell invites us to cultivate a strong sense of place and being, one that extends beyond “self” to the existential nature of experience. Glancing up a magnificent oak or beech tree reveals wood as “an embodied conversation between plant life, shudder of ground and yaw of wind.”

Haskell exhorts us to be the forest.

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Rainforest in southern Vancouver Island, BC (photo by Kevin Klassen)

 

The Fierce OPTIMISM of Richard Powers  

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Richard Powers

At the heart of Richard Powers’s The Overstory are the pivotal lives of two women, botanist Patricia Westerford and college student Olivia Vandergriff. Both will inspire a movement against the destruction of forests.

Patricia Westerford—whose work resembles that of UBC’s Suzanne Simard—is a shy introvert who discovers that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services, and have intelligence. When she shares her discovery, she is ridiculed by her peers and loses her position.  But, just as with Lynn Margulis and her theory of endosymbiosis, Westerford is finally validated. She is the archetypal ‘mother tree’, the metaphoric Tachigali versicolor, who ultimately brings the tangle of narratives together through meaning. Westerford writes in her book The Secret Forest:

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Moss-covered cedar, Alberta

“There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas fir may suffer…Fungi mine stone to supply their trees with minerals. They hunt springtails, which they feed to their hosts. Trees, for their part, store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded. A forest takes care of itself, even as it builds the local climate it needs to survive…A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

TheOverstoryOlivia Vandergriff miraculously survives an electrocution to become an ecowarrior after she begins to hear the voices of the trees. She rallies others to embrace the urgency of activism in fighting the destruction of California’s redwoods and even camps in the canopy of one of the trees to deter the logging. When the ancient tree she has unsuccessfully protected is felled, the sound is “like an artillery shell hitting a cathedral.” Vandergriff weeps for this magnificent thousand-year old tree. So do I. Perhaps the real heroes of this novel are the ancient trees.

In his review of Overstory in The Guardian, Banjamin Markovits wrote, “ There is something exhilarating…in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. Like Moby-DickThe Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference… And I found, while reading, that some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down.”

Powers challenges us to champion the forest.

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Old growth forest in Carmanah, British Columbia

 

The Intellectual OPTIMISM of Annie Proulx  

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Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (Rene Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America starting with the arrival of the Europeans to contemporary global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France “to clear the land, to subdue this evil wilderness,” says their seigneur. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and build a timber empire.

barkskinsProulx immerses the reader in rich sensory detail of a place and time, equally comfortable describing a white pine stand in Michigan and logging camp in Upper Gatineau to a Mi’kmaq village on the Nova Scotia coast or the stately Boston home of Charles Duquet. The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect and a fierce hunger for “more.”

The novel rolls out events in a relentless stream of life and death; no character is safe from the ravages of nature or the notions of that time period. While most of the book flows like a great amoral river—filled with feckless, unheroic and at times miserable characters—there are moments of emotional shoring. They act like exclamation marks for their rarity. By the 1830s, the character, German forester Armenius Breitsprecher, expresses anger and frustration with his colleagues:

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White pine, Little Rouge River forest, Ontario

“Not for the first time he saw that the acquisitive hunger of Duke & Sons was so great they intended to clear the continent. And he was helping them. He hated the [lumber companies] clear-cut despoliation, the insane wastage of sound valuable wood, the destruction of soil, the gullying and erosion, the ruin of the forest world with no thought for the future—the choppers considered the supply to be endless—there was always another forest.”

Proulx’s unsentimental narrative and grand historic set-pieces lure the reader first to passively observe humanity’s struggles with the grand forest; then, once immersed, we are nudged to participate along with the awakening of the human consciousness over the generations of her 300-year long saga—first in the early 1900s through Conrad and Charley who recognize the importance of a functional forest ecosystem then through current day ecologist Sapatisia Sel (descendant of Rene), who responds to a scientist’s claim of  “A great crisis is just ahead” with “The forests, the trees, they can change everything!”

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Giant Cedars boardwalk, Alberta

The suggestion is that, while we remain inextricably embedded in time and place—we are also progenitors of change to our future generations. Three hundred years ago, our beliefs and knowledge prevented us from acting sustainably. We know better now. The time to save our forests and let them save us is now.

“The reader comes to realize that the novel isn’t really about the human characters so much as it is about the forests,” Gus Powell of The National Post concludes of Barkskins. “As [the forests] disappear, the narrative seems to recede in importance, revealing a crucial interdependence between the human and the natural world previously handled almost entirely as subtext. This is especially true in the novel’s closing, where the anger and despair that have characterized the novel shift into an outspoken environmental advocacy.” This is the essence of optimism…

Proulx dares us to believe in the forest.

*****

old forest light streaming copy 2Whether philosophical, pragmatic, existentialist, fierce or intellectual, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit,” wrote Helen Keller. In her recent book Breaking Murphy’s Law, Suzanne Segerstrom demonstrates the connection between optimists and their investment in goal setting and achievement. The trick to avoiding the cynicism that may come with complacent optimism (thinking, hoping and wishing for good things to happen) is through the simple action of engagement. “Optimists,” says Segerstrom, “are happy and healthy not because of who they are but because of how they act. Optimism is more what we do than what we are, and thereby can be learned.”

I hope so. If we connect, interact and learn, and be the forest, we may find the strength and passion to champion the forest we believe in.

 

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

Investing in The Future by Embracing (Climate) Change

Wir müssen uns immer verändern, erneuern, verjüngen; sonst verhärten wir.—Goethe

 

wave patterns copyIn his book, How to Read Water, Tristan Gooley describes a phenomenon called clapotis gaufre. Also known as “waffled clapotis”, the term comes from the French word (clapotis) for “lapping” and describes a standing wave phenomenon created by the troughs and crests of waves as they hit and reflect back from a barrier. The incoming and reflected outgoing waves, in passing each other, form a waffle-pattern that bobs up and down but otherwise appears stationary.

In fact, it is far from stationary.

But we like “stationary.” So much so that, despite the magnitude of planetary-scale change, everything appears stationary to us. People go on with their daily lives as they have for generations: driving cars; living profligately; wastefully consuming energy, disposables and water; bickering about fuel taxes and job security. But this is an illusion, a very dangerous one. Surface inertia hides a depth of motion. In a river, where high-velocity water roars over a steep river-bottom depression, a frothy stationary breaker forms; it is the most dangerous part of the river. What we can’t see, we think won’t hurt us. But what if we could see the ominous dark cloud of carbon dioxide and methane blotting more and more of our sky? What if we could see the fumes billowing out of our cars and the heat radiating from our homes? Or smell the toxins spilling into our rivers and lakes? Or the quiet extinctions happening by the minute in the wilderness?

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Photographs of same Beijing location over a year showing smog days

 

big old tree copyWhat if we could see the fractal signs of change?

Nothing in nature stays the same. If it does, that’s because change has brought it back to what it once was. Trees move. They grow wider and taller; they just do it at a pace beyond our impatient lifestyle. Because their motion is invisible, they are invisible. We think of trees as stationary objects, not living beings. Like a standing wave of frozen time. We observe through the hurried lens of human impatience and self-preoccupation. A quick glance takes in a scene. We forget that we can “see” with other senses. Smell. Touch. Taste. Hearing. As hyposmia and disinterest dulls our senses, we grow less able to recognize the verisimilitudes of Nature’s trompe l’oeils. Trapped by our preordained notions, we no longer see the changes we’re not prepared to see. And that’s the change that kills us.

In witnessing the collapse of fish populations on the west coast in the ‘90s, UBC fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly noticed that people just went on fishing ever smaller fish. The collapse occurred through what he called “creeping disappearance.” Pauly named this impaired vision “shifting baseline syndrome,” a willing ignorance of consequence based on short-term gain.

Chinook west coast

Chinook on the BC west coast

One could argue that the inability to feel and connect beyond our immediate line of sight can be a good thing—a kind of selective memory that allows us to adapt to each “new normal.” Mothers of several children can testify to the benefits of “forgetting” their hours of labour to give birth. Hence the ability and willingness to repeat this very painful experience. Is this part of successful biological adaptation in all of us? The ability to reset?

Nina-Kevin playing

Author and her son enjoy an outing

Or is it rather that our mother chooses not to forget but to relegate her memory of the previous birth behind something far more beautiful and wondrous to remember and something she is deeply connected to: the miraculous birth of her child—her investment in the future. Shifting baseline syndrome is part of a larger amnesia, one that encompasses many generations; a selective memory driven by short-sightedness that comes mostly from lack of connection. But to successfully invest in our future, that is precisely what we must do: connect.

If only we could see the fractal signs of change…

Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker, “Climate change isn’t just a threat. It’s an opportunity for us to live happier, more fulfilling lives.” True happiness comes with long-term fulfillment, not short-term material wealth and comfort. When we focus from ourselves to embrace the changing world—to connect—we discover a well-spring of altruistic happiness. When we embrace, we transcend. When we transcend, we become fluid with change. That is when we succeed.

quote by Goethe: “We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.”

 

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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

 

 

Writing About the Truth…and Other Lies: Monsanto’s Big Cheat

 

Farmer spraying pesticide in Thailand

applying pesticide in a field

The June 2019 issue of Walrus Magazine addresses a current publishing crisis in academia. In his article “Fake Science Is the New Fake News,” reporter Alex Gillis reveals the alarming rise of fake and bogus professional journals and how scientists are both duped and drawn to publish with them.

The lure came from frustrations of scientists with the very gate-keeping devices that ensure good science is being conducted and accurately reported: high standards for acceptance; long wait times for peer review and publication; and high expense to the scientist. With the advent of online journals and the open-access model (that allowed free access), many scientists flocked to them, claiming more timely and less expensive publication. Unfortunately, the open-access model that made reporting of and access to science more easy, also permitted its exploitation by unscrupulous entrepreneurs who set up predatory (fake) journals. This allowed scientists with less integrity to publish material of lower standard. Even more insidious, the model and its fake journals also supports fake science with an agenda. Essentially, science as propaganda.

1984Nineteen Eighty-Four kind of science.

An example of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four kind of science with corporate motive was revealed in 2018 with the lawsuit against Monsanto (now part of Bayer) in which evidence showed that Monsanto had been funding junk studies to discredit legitimate research about its cancer-causing herbicide, Roundup. A terrible example in 2015 is the fake studies that underplayed risks to children exposed to lead from improperly maintained pipes in the drinking water service lines in Flint, Michigan.

So, what is it to write about the truth?

Here’s a bit of truth from seven years ago: New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom in an article on September 19th, 2012, entitled Uneasy Allies in the Grocery Aisle: “Giant bioengineering companies like Monsanto and DuPont are spending millions of dollars to fight a California ballot initiative aimed at requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. That surprises no one, least of all the proponents of the law, which if approved by voters would become the first of its kind in the nation.”

Let’s dig a bit deeper into this truth: “companies behind some of the biggest organic brands in the country—Kashi, Cascadian Farm, Horizon Organic—also joined the anti-labeling effort, adding millions of dollars to defeat the initiative, known as Proposition 37.”

Strom revealed even deeper truths when she disclosed that these well-known “organic” companies are owned by larger conglomerates like Kellogg, General Mills, Dean Foods, Smucker’s and Coca-Cola. Other food companies who had thrown in funds to help defeat the bill for transparency include PepsiCo., Neslé, and ConAgra Foods.

Strom reported that those who support the bill to label GMO products include Whole Foods, Nature’s Path (a Canadian company) Organic Valley, Cliff Bar and Amy’s Kitchen.

Whenever an issue of importance arises, the truth reveals itself. And sometimes in the oddest way. It often slides in through a back door. I’m not just talking about factual truth; I’m talking about resonating hair-standing gut-grabbing truth.

The kind of truth that resonates through you in a scintillating frisson. The kind of truth that stops you mid-stride, like someone shouting your name. Subversive truth. The kind of truth that vibrates deep inside and radiates out in a flood of epiphany.  The kind of truth that stirs your heart in a relentless wave of flaming light.

The kind of truth that “changes” you.

At first glance it’s rather obvious why those fighting the bill were against it: they had something to lose in transparency. The question is, why do they think that way? These giant biotech food companies are feeding the entire world, after all, with revolutionary strains of super-plants. They are doing a great good, surely. Could it simply be a concern that they may lose some customers who do not wish to consume GE products but who are unwittingly doing so now? That is being dishonestly self-serving as well as short-sighted (the European Union has required biotech labeling since 1997—it’s just a matter of time).

Could it be the bad publicity from findings of the long-term effects of GMO products and Roundup on test animals? (See the incendiary paper by French and Italian scientists in Food Chem. Toxicol., referenced below, that started it all).  Despite the barrage of bad press, the paper’s results could not be refuted entirely or ignored (if only from the basis of scientific inquiry and professional due diligence to do with Type II Error).

Or is it more insidious?

Far more insidious than a lie is to dissemble with a half-lie—or half-truth—a truth that veils a festering lie beneath its candy-coated mantle of equivocation. A “truth” so delicious that we want to believe it, even when we see the lie lurking beneath. Little lies always hide bigger lies.

For more than a decade, consumers in North America have purchased cereals, snack foods, and salad dressings, among other products, blithely unaware that these products contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory.

Here’s my witnessed truth: The aggressive multi-million dollar campaign waged by multi-national corporations against transparency in food labeling in the USA is the culmination of self-serving protectionism in a most heinous way. Their decade-long silence and current reluctance to label their products (and all this before the Seralini et al. study) points to a far greater lie.

Since the long-term toxicity study by Seralini et al. was released in Food & Chemical Toxicology, a massive campaign to discredit the study was waged on the Internet. This despite the soundness of the 2-year study, its glaringly obvious results (e.g. test animals died 2-3 times more quickly than controls among many other findings) and the fact that it sets precedent by being the longest and most detailed study ever conducted on a herbicide and a GMO to date; all previous studies by Monsanto labs and others were only 90-day trials (and we now know that these studies were fake studies).

So, what is it to write about the truth?

I’ve been a practicing scientist for over twenty years. I did research and wrote papers that were published in scientific peer-reviewed journals. I diligently used the scientific method, hypothesis-testing, objective observation and appropriate statistics to back up my work. I also write articles for magazines, blogs and places like this site. I write short stories and novels. I write how-to books and guidebooks. And I write letters. Lots of letters. In all this, I have made a point to do my research. I try always to go to the source and verify my information through cross-checking, and various other quality assurance procedures I learned over the years to best represent and communicate the truth.

For instance, in writing this article, I perused many articles that presented both sides of the several issues I covered, including the source paper by Seralini et al.

Science is the rational tool for the pursuit of truth. This is why scientists are burdened to proceed under an objective protocol in their premise presentation, experimental design, methodology and interpretation and conclusions drawn. Because the introduction of error and bias is possible in each of these areas, researchers with integrity ensure through design and quality assurance protocol that these errors and biases are minimized. This includes the use of contols, sufficient sample size and statistical power, blind or even double-blind experiments and more. Experiments are reported with sufficient transparency to be replicated (an icon of good science).

Once they are reported in a paper, results transform from science into politics. Objectivity gives way to agenda. That is inevitable. However, what has changed in the last decade is that science itself has become seconded for agenda. Science by agenda to fulfill a propaganda is flooding in as assuredly as the rising seas of climate change.

Gillis writes: “Fake and flawed studies are so pervasive that the presumed authority of an expert or researcher in a scholarly journal is no longer what it used to be…the traditional knowledge-sharing process has been corrupted.”

Who are the politicians behind the “soldiers” of science and what are their motives? That is where the truth lies.

In the end, I have found that listening to the conviction of my heart, to my inner “soul wisdom”, best serves the truth. Then again I prefer the resonating hair-standing gut-grabbing truth.

 

Reference:

Gillis, Alex. 2019. “The Rise of Junk Science.” Walrus Magazine, Toronto, ON. June 2019.

Seralini, G.-E., et al. 2012. “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize.” Food Chem. Toxicolhttp://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637

Strom, Stephanie. 2012. “Uneasy Allies in the Grocery Aisle.” New York Times, New York, September 19, 2012.

 

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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

NewYork 2140By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation.”—Amitav Ghosh, 2017

…Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl or The Water Knife. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Nina Munteanu’s A Diary in the Age of Water. Richard Power’s Overstory. Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water

Diary Water cover finalWhat these novels have in common is that they are all Dystopian Eco-Fiction. Humanity’s key role in environmental destruction serves a strong thematic element. In eco-fiction dystopias (as opposed to political or socio-cultural dystopias such as Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale) the environment—whether forest, ocean, water generally, or the animal world—plays a key character.

Our Literature in the Anthropocene

In 2017, Amitav Ghosh observed that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable). “How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works?” writes Fredrick Albritton Jonsson of The Guardian, who observes that, “for Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by ‘modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.’”

Windup GirlAccording to Ghosh, plots and characters of contemporary literature tend to reflect the regularity of middle-class life and the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences, one that depends on a principle of uniformity. Change in Nature has been perceived as gradual (or static by some) and never catastrophic. Extraordinary or bizarre happenings were left to marginal genres like the Gothic tale and—of course—science fiction. The strange and unlikely have been externalized: hence the failure of modern novels and art to recognize anthropogenic climate change.

From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity’s men have consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, many saw its basis in a homeostatic balance of the natural order as confirmation of Nature’s infinite resilience to abuse. They failed to recognize that we are Nature and abuse of Nature is really self-abuse.

Jonsson suggests that these Enlightenment ideas are essentially ideological manifestations of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels, giving rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world. “The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant [and dangerous] expression.”

barkskins

Louise Fabiani of Pacific Standard suggests that novels are still the best way for us to clarify planetary issues and prepare for change—even play a meaningful part in that change. In her article “The Literature of Climate Change” she points to science fiction as helping “us prepare for radical change, just when things may be getting too comfortable.”

Referring to our overwhelming reliance on technology and outsourced knowledge, Fabiani suggests that “our privileged lives (particularly in consumer-based North America) are built on unconscious trust in the mostly invisible others who make this illusion of domestic independence possible—the faith that they will never stop being there for us. And we have no back-ups in place should they let us down.” Which they certainly will—given their short-term thinking.

TheOverstory“To counteract this epidemic of short-term thinking,” says Fabiani, “it might be a good idea for more of us to read science fiction, specifically the post-apocalyptic sub-genre: that is, fiction dealing with the aftermath of major societal collapse, whether due to a pandemic, nuclear fallout, or climate change.”

I suggest widening the genre to include good dystopian eco-fiction, which includes not just post-apocalyptic tales but also cautionary tales, worlds in upheaval, and satires. Dystopian literature is ultimately an exploration of hope through personal experience. The eco-fiction protagonist navigates their dystopia by learning meaningful lessons—lessons that pertain directly to our reader in their current world. This is because the premise of a dystopia lies squarely in the present world. Good dystopias can enlighten and suggest possibilities; they can warn and herald. At the very least, they incite the necessary conversation.

On the Role of Dystopian Eco-Fiction

NaturalSelection-front-webI recently shared a panel discussion with writer Kristen Kiomall-Evans at the 2019 Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston entitled: “On the Role of (Dystopian) Literature and Environmental Issues: Can Books Save the Planet.” The audience of mostly women shared enlightened input in an open discussion, which spanned a range of topics and directions from what dystopian literature actually is to whether we are turned off by its negativity—that it may be too close to reality and makes us cringe and want to hide. One person even brought up Game of Thrones as an example; which I then bluntly suggested was not real “story”—it is a stream of episodic sensationalism and horror—aimed at thrilling shock value, not fulfilling meaning.

The group explored what Eco-Fiction is and the possibility of how eco-fiction writers can influence their audience to engage in helping the planet and humanity, in turn.

 “Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action. Margaret Atwood wrote in MaddAddam, “People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

We explored several areas in which writers could elucidate ways to engage readers for edification, connection and participation. We discussed optimism, new perspectives, envisioning our future, and imaginative use of “product placement” to gain reader engagement and galvanize a movement of action.

Optimism in Story

I pointed out that good dystopias—like all good fiction—follow a character and story arc that must ultimately resolve (which Game of Thrones may never do, certainly not well—J.R.R. Martin’s books series upon which it is based are not even finished yet!). Eco-Fiction Dystopias often conclude with a strong element of hope, based on some positive aspect of humanity and the human spirit—which may include our own evolution. Think Day After Tomorrow, Year of the Flood, Windup Girl, The Postman, Darwin’s Paradox.

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPress copyIn 2015, I joined Lynda Williams of Reality Skimming Press in creating an optimistic science fiction anthology with the theme of water. My foreword to Water addressed this point:

As we drank Schofferhoffers over salmon burgers, Lynda lamented that while the speculative / science fiction genre has gained a literary presence, this has been at some expense. Much of the current zeitgeist of this genre in Canada tends toward depressing, “self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality,” Lynda remarked. Where was the optimism and associated hope for a future? I brought up the “hero’s journey” and its role in meaningful story. One of the reasons this ancient plot approach, based on the hero journey myth, is so popular is that its proper use ensures meaning in story. This is not to say that tragedy is not a powerful and useful story trope; so long as hope for someone—even if just the reader—is generated. Lynda and I concluded that the science fiction genre could use more optimism. [As a result,] these stories explore individual choices and the triumph of human imagination in the presence of adversity. [Each story explores] the surging spirit of humanity toward hopeful shores.

New Perspectives in Story

Evans spoke of the emergence of and need for a strong voice by marginalized groups who would be most affected by things like habitat destruction and climate change. The poor and marginalized will most certainly make up the majority of climate change refugees, starved out and water shorted, and suffering malnutrition, violence and disease.

FifthSeason-JemisinEvans pointed out that afro-American writers (e.g., Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin) and indigenous writers (Cherie Dimaline, Daniel Wilson, Drew Hayden Taylor) are an exciting voice, providing a new and compelling perspective on ongoing global issues.

I would add that the “feminine” voice—the voice of women and the voice of ecology and those who embrace the gylanic voice—are needed. This was strangely not mentioned in the group—perhaps because we were all women—but one. Such a voice can help personalize the experience to readers, by creating discovery, connection and understanding—and ultimately serving a key force in engaging readers to act.

Envisioning Our Future Through Story

One audience member shared a yearning for an optimistic focus through an envisioned world where solutions have successfully created that world. She wasn’t so much suggesting writing a utopia, but including elements of future wishes as an integral part of the world, following Ghandi’s wise advice: be the change you seek. In a recent interview in which I also participated in The Globe and Mail on women science fiction writers, Ottawa writer Marie Bilodeau addressed this concept:

“the best part about writing science fiction is showing different ways of being without having your characters struggle to gain rights. Invented worlds can host a social landscape where debated rights in this world – such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia – are just a fact of life.”

People are looking for hopeful fiction that addresses the issues but explores a successful paradigm shift. One that accurately addresses our current issues with intelligence and hope. The power of envisioning a certain future is that the vision enables one to see it as possible.

Product Placement in Story

Editor and naturalist Merridy Cox suggested that writers could make motivating connections through altruistic (not market-driven) “product placement.” She gave the example of an Ash tree. The Ash (Fraxinus species) could subtly make its name, its character and ecology known in the story, along with its plight—its destruction by the non-native invasive emerald ash borer. The use of metaphor and personification would easily link the Ash to a character and at the same time illuminate the reader on a real aspect of the environment to consider. Another example she gave was of the threatened bobolink bird, now all but gone. The bobolink originally made its home in the tallgrass prairie and other open meadows. As native prairies were cleared for farming, the bobolink was displaced and moved to living in hayfields and fallow fields—building their nests on the ground in dense grasses. Changing farm practices (shorter crop rotation and earlier maturing seed mixtures) are now destroying the bobolink’s last refuge.

bobolink-chicks-mom

Bobolink mother and her chicks

 

Such “product placement” essentially gives Nature and the environmental a personalized face that can easily interact with the story’s theme and its characters. “Product placement”—like symbol—lies embedded in its own story. In the case of the bobolink, it is a story of colonialism, exploitation, and single-minded pursuit at the expense of others not considered, known or understood. These examples have anthropogenic connections to human behaviour, action and knowledge—all related to story and theme.

MockUpEcology copyIn my new writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character I discuss and explore how some authors do this impeccably. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Powers, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Hardy, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Janet Fitch, John Steinbeck, David Mitchell, Joanne Harris and many others.

Writing for the Anthropocene

Learn how to write for the Anthropocene: from Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections and symbols between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

The Ecology of Story will be released by Pixl Press in July 2019.

 

 

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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine and Superionic Ice

CatsCradle-KurtVonnegutIn 1963 science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut used the fictionalized concept of ice-IX—a crystalline polymorph of ice that remains stable at room temperature—in his novel Cat’s Cradle.  Ice-nine was a form of water so stable that it never melted and would crystallize all water it touched. It was the Ebola of water…

In Vonnegut’s book, physicist Felix Hoenikker created ice-nine as a tool to help troops easily traverse mud and swamps. Unfortunately, once the process started, it could not be stopped and with a melting point of 114 degrees F, the ice wasn’t likely to melt; in a pivotal scene some of the ice-nine is introduced to the ocean, which freezes solid entirely along with the rest of the planet’s freshwater. This throws the planet into calamity and threatening the natural world with violent storms; tornadoes ravage the landscape.

With all water on Earth crystalized, locked in the Ice-Nine configuration, humanity is lost:

There were no smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The Earth was locked up tight.

In fact, Ice-IX does exist; it was discovered in 1968 and exits under high pressure as a tetragonal crystal lattice but without the properties of Vonnegut’s ice-nine. It forms by cooling Ice III; it has an identical structure to Ice III other than being hydrogen-ordered. According to Dr. Martin Chaplin, London South Bank University, Vonnegut’s ice-nine has no scientific basis: “The actual Ice-IX is a proton-ordered form of Ice-III, and only exists at very low temperatures and high pressures and cannot exist alongside liquid water under any conditions.”

Ice Phases - unit cells

Ice phases–unit ‘cells’

A form of Vonnegut’s Ice-IX was “created” by Harvard researchers recently through a computer simulation that shows how it might be possible for water to remain frozen at body temperature. They showed how a layer of diamond, coated with sodium atoms, kept water frozen indefinitely at up to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The technique only works on a very thin layer of water—a few molecules thick—to successfully keep the ice structure intact. The researchers explain:

In ice, water molecules are arranged in a rigid framework that gives the substance its hardness. The process of melting is like a building falling down: pieces that had been arranged into a rigid structure move and flow against one another, becoming liquid water.

The computer model shows that whenever a water molecule near the diamond-sodium surface starts to fall out of place, the surface stabilizes it and reassembles the crystalline ice structure.

hexagonal-water-crystal

Hexagonal structure of water crystal (snowflake)

Ordinary ice—the kind we skate on—has a hexagonal structure and is called Ice-Ih. It’s the kind of crystal that forms snowflakes (which are all hexagonal). Including the hexagonal arrangement of common ice, scientists have already discovered a bewildering 18 architectures of ice crystal. At different temperatures and pressures, water forms solids that may be hexagonal (Ice Ih) rhombohedral (Ice II and Ice IV), tetragonal (Ice III and IX), cubic (Ice Ic and Ice XIc), or orthorhomboic (Ice XI) in structure. Some forms of frozen water are disordered (non-crystalline). Eighteen crystalline phases of ice polymorphs have been identified based on the structure of the molecules and atoms and their bonds.

Ice Phases

Ice phases Ih to XV at different temperatures and pressures

Liquid Crystals & Polywater

Around the time that Vonnegut’s novel came out, a similar potential phenomenon of contact-induced change to water structure was discovered: polywater.

In 1961, the Russian physicist Nikolai Fedyakin discovered a new polymerized form of water. He had been measuring the properties of water which had been condensed in, or repeatedly forced through, narrow quartz capillary tubes. Some experiments revealed water with a higher boiling point, lower freezing point, and much higher viscosity than ordinary water; it had the consistency of syrup and was 40% denser and 15 times more viscous. Boris Derjaquin, director of surface physics at the Institute for Physical Chemistry in Moscow reproduced the results and used the term anomalous water.

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPress copyThe media spread a panic about polywater-contaminated oceans of “jelly” aka Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.

You can read a compelling version of this scenario in Costi Gurgu’s “Corrosion” in the anthology Water (Reality Skimming Press, 2017) edited by Nina Munteanu.

Subsequent analysis of polywater found that the samples were contaminated with other substances, which explained the changes in melting and boiling points due to colligative properties. Electron microscopy confirmed that the polywater also contained small particles of various solids – from silica to phospholipids, which explained its greater viscosity.

When the experiments which had initially produced polywater were repeated with thoroughly cleaned glassware, the anomalous properties of the resulting water vanished, and even the scientists who had originally advanced the case for polywater agreed it did not exist. The anomalous properties were finally attributed to impurities rather than to the existence of polymeric water molecules.

Fourth Phase of Water

ice_ih_molecular_arrangement

Hexagonal structure of bulk water and ice Ih

The significance of the Russian results was abandoned in the hubbub of scientific embarrassment. “Contaminants” are natural features of water, given its impeccable universal solvent characteristics, and their presence in limited quantities does not necessarily imply that observed features are not relevant to water’s behaviour. The natural question abandoned by the community was this: In the presence of contaminants, why does water take on the interesting features described by Derjaguin’s team? Earlier work by Henniker and Szent-Györgyi had established that water organized itself close to surfaces such as cell membranes.

This was later demonstrated by Gerald Pollack and his team at the University of Washington. Forty years after the polywater debacle, Pollack and other scientists discussed a fourth phase of water, an interfacial water zone that Pollack calls Exclusion Zone water or EZ water, given that it excludes materials. Interfacial EZ water was more stable, more viscous and more ordered, and according to biochemist Martin Chaplin of South Bank University this water was, “hydrophobic, stiffer, superfluidic and thermally more stable than bulk water.” While Chaplin discounts Pollack’s suggested structure for EZ-water (as nonsense), he acknowledges the existence of EZ-water, which forms a liquid ‘phase’ that can be legitimately treated as different from ‘bulk’ liquid water.

Not the same as “polywater” but certainly related. And questions remain.

superionic ice

Superionic ice

Superionic Ice

Recently, the Laboratory for Laser Energetics in Brighton, New York, blasted a droplet of water that created a shock wave, raising the water’s pressure to millions of atmospheres and temperature to thousands of degrees. The water atoms inside the shock wave didn’t form superheated liquid or gas; they froze solid into crystalline ice—something called “superionic ice,” a new phase of water with weird properties. It’s black and hot. And weighs four times as much as normal ice.

According to Joshua Sokol of Quanta Magazine, scientists suggest that this black hot ice may be the universe’s most common form of water. Superionic ice fills Uranus and Neptune and comprises the bulk of giant icy planets throughout the universe.

gas giants2

Gas giants in our solar system

Superionic ice—called  ice XVIII—is a new cubic crystal but with a twist, writes Sokol:

Superionic Ice3

Superionic ice nearly as hot as the sun

All the previously known water ices are made of intact water molecules, each with one oxygen atom linked to two hydrogen atoms. But superionic ice, the new measurements confirm, isn’t like that. It exists in a sort of surrealist limbo, part solid, part liquid. Individual water molecules break apart. The oxygen atoms form a cubic lattice, but the hydrogen atoms spill free, flowing like a liquid through the rigid cage of oxygens.

Sokol adds, “Experts say the discovery of superionic ice vindicates computer predictions, which could help material physicists craft future substances.”

Because its water molecules break apart, said physicist Livia Bove of France’s National Center for Scientific Research and Pierre and Marie Curie University, it’s not quite a new phase of water. “It’s really a new state of matter,” she said, “which is rather spectacular.”

Sokol tells us that computer simulations led by Pierfranco Demontis in 1988 predicted “water would take on this strange, almost metal-like form if you pushed it beyond the map of known ice phases.” Atoms in the water had rearranged into the long-predicted but never-before-seen architecture, ice XVIII: a cubic lattice with oxygen atoms at every corner and the center of each face. “It’s quite a breakthrough,” Coppari said.

Superionic-Ice-Giant

Superionic ice giant

When Ice Flows

The simulations showed that under extreme pressure and heat water molecules break. With the oxygen atoms locked in a cubic lattice, “the hydrogens now start to jump from one position in the crystal to another, and jump again, and jump again,” Millot said. The jumps between lattice sites are so fast that the ionized hydrogen atoms act as positively charged protons and appear to move like a liquid.

This suggests that superionic ice might conduct electricity, like a metal, with the hydrogens acting as electrons. “Having these loose hydrogen atoms gushing around would also boost the ice’s disorder, or entropy. In turn, that increase in entropy would make this ice much more stable than other kinds of ice crystals, causing its melting point to soar upward,” writes Sokol, and continues:

Neptune

Neptune

Other planets and moons in the solar system likely don’t host the right interior sweet spots of temperature and pressure to allow for superionic ice. But many ice giant-sized exoplanets might, suggesting that the substance could be common inside icy worlds throughout the galaxy.

No real planet contains just water. The ice giants in our solar system also mix in chemical species like methane and ammonia. The extent to which superionic behavior actually occurs in nature is “going to depend on whether these phases still exist when we mix water with other materials,” Stanley said. So far, that isn’t clear, although other researchers have argued superionic ammonia should also exist.

References:

Chaplin, Martin. 2019. “Ice Phases” In: Water Structure and Science. Updated May 16, 2019. Online: http://www1.lsbu.ac.uk/water/ice_phases.html

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 583pp.

Sokol, Joshua. 2019. “Black, Hot Ice May Be Nature’s Most Common Form of Water.” Quanta Magazine. Online: https://www.quantamagazine.org/black-hot-superionic-ice-may-be-natures-most-common-form-of-water-20190508/

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.