When Water Speaks: quotes from A Diary in the Age of Water

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking the bully is your friend…You can play with the bully. But don’t make him your friend. Demand his respect. Or you will become the bully.”

Una Dresden

“Lyrical and dystopian, ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ is as much an ode to water as it is a cautionary tale about the dire implications of climate change.”

FOREWORD CLARION 5-STAR REVIEW
Jackson Creek after a heavy snow in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

When Writers Use the Present—or the Past—to inform The Future in Their Science Fiction Novel

The Darwin duology by Dragon Moon Press, depicting the late 21st Century, by Nina Munteanu

In my 2007 novel Darwin’s Paradox and its 2010 prequel Angel of Chaos—dystopian tales set in an unrecognizable post-climate change Canada at the end of the 21st Century—the father of the main character lectures his impressionable young daughter about how climate change helped create the heathland scrub that replaced the mixed woodlands of the old Carolinian and sub-Boreal environments:

“What’s over there?” She points to a far, dark hill. 

“Woodland. This was all forest before the cities got built and the climate changed.” 

“Climate changed?” 

“Yes, honey.” He focuses on the distance. “Caused the revolution thirty years ago. Since then the Ecologists have virtually eliminated our greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the planet will be feeling the effects of global warming for decades to come. Perhaps centuries.” 

“They saved the planet, didn’t they?” 

His brows knit. “Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t,” he says enigmatically. 

I’d originally written the novel and its prequel in the seventies, before entering university. So, you might think that I was incredibly imaginative and prescient to come up with such climate devastation. But this simply isn’t so (well, not entirely, anyway). Just as with Margaret Atwood—who says: “When I wrote the Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real-life somewhere at some time”—I was simply reading the signs.

Margaret Atwood demonstrating a fire-proof version of her book The Handmaid’s Tale

When it came to climate change, of course, I had some help. During my days at university, studying limnology, and in the 1980s and ‘90s when I worked as an environmental scientist and consultant, I encountered evidence of a changing environment and climate; people in the environmental sciences certainly knew the dangers of climate change long before it entered the common zeitgeist.

Science fiction dystopias aren’t so much predictive as realistically projecting possibilities based on current or past social patterns (these past social patterns, as Santayana notes, have a way of returning to us when we don’t pay attention to them). This notion lies at the root of the term cautionary tale and what makes one truly harrowing or terrifying; we sense to our very core how likely these scenarios are.

My near-future climate dystopia released by Inanna Publications in 2020

Response to my 2020 cautionary tale A Diary in the Age of Water reflects this visceral reaction by readers who shared that this blur of fiction with non-fiction and sense of realism—a “this could happen” quality—totally unbalanced them and engrossed them. Comments included “unique and captivating,” “unsettling and yet deliciously readable,” “strangely compelling” “scary and comforting at the same time,” “made my heart clench,” “a book of genuine power.”

Scene from Michael Radford’s film “Nineteen Eighty-Four” released in 1984, based on George Orwell’s 1949 novel

Indeed, many successful predictions have been made 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 CCTV installed in the United Kingdom. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report accurately predicted personalized ads, voice-controlled homes, facial and optical recognition, and gesture-based computing. Self-driving cars were showcased in many speculative books and films such as Bladerunner, and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

Scene from the film Minority Report with Tom Cruise

But many speculations have also not been realized. No flying cars—OK, some companies such as Toyota, Hyundai and Tesla are working on prototypes. While NASA plans to construct a surface habitat called Artemis Base Camp so that astronauts can remain on the moon’s surface for days or perhaps even weeks, it is far from happening soon. Also, no rotating space stations and space elevator–yet.

Many envisioned totalitarian/dystopian states in speculative fiction have also not been realized (e.g. We, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, The Dispossessed, V for Vendetta )—though one could argue that aspects of each world envisioned by an author has occurred or is occurring in some form. One need only recall Edward Snowdon’s disclosures of NSA’s insidious surveillance to see parallels with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And as Margaret Atwood famously said in the quote above, nothing goes into her stories “that have not happened in real-life somewhere at some time.”

“The function of science fiction is not only to predict the future but to prevent it.”

Ray Bradbury

There 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. Science fiction writer and futurist David Brin says that he is “more interested in exploring possibilities than likelihoods, because a great many more things might happen than do.”

In his book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism Peter Frase writes: “the importance of assessing possibility rather than likelihood is that it puts our collective action at the centre, while making confident predictions only encourages passivity.” In his 2010 essay, David Brin cites Orwell’s 1984 as a “self-preventing prophecy” that helped prevent the scenario (at least in its fullest).

George 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 that, “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? Hardly. Hugo Award-winning novelist Robert J. Sawyer argues 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.”

References:

Brin, David. 2010. “The Self-Preventing Prophecy: Or How a Dose of Nightmare Can Help Tame Tomorrow’s Path.” in Abbott Gleason et al. eds., On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future. Princeton University Press, Princeton, p.222.

Frase, Peter. 2016. “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.” Verso Press, London. 150pp.

Country road in the Kawarthas during a foggy morning, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Power of Diary in Fiction—with Focus on “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu

Last August I was invited by the University of Saskatchewan to give a talk at 20/21 Vision, their conference on Speculating in Literature and Film in Canada. My presentation was entitled “The Power and Relevance of Diary in Near-Future Mundane Science Fiction.”

The use of mundane realism through setting and events—particularly through letters or diary—creates powerful narrative that uniquely engages the reader with metaphor, allegory, and archetypes through additional sensibilities and personal connections. Devices such as POV, tense, and voice help create this form of storytelling.

What Is a Diary?

Diaries are first person accounts of real events relevant and meaningful to that person’s life experience. They are written in casual conversational language, usually a chronological account of daily life over lifetime, have wide scope; and are autobiographical.

If the scope is more narrow and focused, we have a memoir. The memoir is often focused by theme (e.g., addiction, loss, parenting, war, etc.). Memoirs are usually written in scenes and may trade accuracy for dramatic effect (emotional truth over historical truth). Anne Frank’s diary is a mundane account of her tragic short life in Nazi Germany; Yoko Ono experienced Hiroshima during World War 2.

If the focus is by topic, we get a journal (e.g. nature journal, grief journal, travel journal). Henry Henry David Thoreau’s journal became a manifesto for living simply with Nature; Sister Gargi’s journal was an ode to a spiritual movement.

Examples of memoirs and journals

Non-Fiction in Fiction

The play of non-fiction in fiction is achieved through several tools. This includes:

  • use of point of view such as first person or second person; writing as an epistolary novel—or a series of letters—such as The Colour Purple
  • displaced narrative such as The Great Gatsby
  • detached autobiography such as To Kill a Mockingbird
  • interior monologue such as Finnegan’s Wake.
Examples of fictional diaries

Fictional diaries play on historical truth through emotional truth through narrator voice and use of metaphor. This provides authenticity, meaning, relevance, and impact to the story. Reality and fiction blur through realized premise that provides a gritty realism to the dramatization and intensifies the experience The diarist’s ability to introspect provides great insight for the reader to the protagonist’s inner voice, their eccentricities, and self-delusions. These provide great intimacy with the character.

Most fictional diaries are memoir-like because they are usually based on THEME which carries the meaning of the story. In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver effectively uses several first person voices—of the mother and her four daughters—to provide more perspectives of the story.

Mundane Science Fiction

Mundane science fiction is a niche literary movement from 2004 focused on near-future realism—also called speculative fiction or literary SF. The focus is on already existing technology and plausible extensions—no ray guns, warp drives or time travel. The premise lies in existing circumstances and events. It has similarities with hard science fiction, cyberpunk, ecopunk, ecofiction and climate fiction. Mundane science fiction incorporates elements of literary fiction and mainstream fiction to achieve a strong sense of realism.

Examples of mundane science fiction

Mundane science fiction is the literature of near-future realism that explores how environmental and technological changes will change our lives. Christopher Cokinos calls mundane science fiction the “science fiction that functions more as compass than chimera.” Examples include cautionary tales and dystopias, all predicated on and launched from real events and phenomena—and including my own recent climate fiction “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

“A Diary in the Age of Water”: Mundane SF with Fictionalized Diary 

A Diary in the Age of Water” is the climate-induced journey of humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to water… Centuries from now, in a dying boreal forest in what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, yearns for Earth’s past—the Age of Water, before the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity. Looking for answers and plagued by vivid dreams of this holocaust, Kyo discovers the diary of Lynna, a limnologist from a time just prior to the destruction. The diary spans a 40-year period in the mid-21st century and describes a planet in the grips of severe water scarcity. Lynna in her work for the international utility that controls everything to do with water, witnesses and records in her diary the disturbing events that will soon lead to humanity’s demise.

The story begins and ends in the far future with the blue being Kyo, who finds the diary of the limnologist, Lynna. The story is hard SF with a strong basis in science. This is obvious through the narrator, who is a scientist, and the form of the diary itself, in which each entry has an epigraph from a science textbook related to the experience in the entry. Lynna also includes sketches, formulas and other references to science and these appear in the entries.

The diary portion of the book is a first person narrative nested within the larger 3rd person narrative of Kyo in the far future. Its SETTING is based on many real events with dramatized fiction stitched in. This blurs what’s real and what’s fiction. VOICE and POV are used to achieve differing scope and time perspectives between the diarist’s world and that of the future being. We get insight into the inner voice of the diarist through 1st person voice; this is contrasted with the 3rd person voice of the future being—they remain on the outside, looking in. The PLOT is essentially that of a young future human “in discovery”, a metaphoric coming of age for humanity.

The diary format includes the use of:

  • short entries with epigraphs and quotes from fact
  • conversational voice of intimacy with introspection, opinion, and judgment
  • outer conflict with family and colleagues
  • inner conflict with motivations and truths
  • metaphoric connections with water
  • illustrations embedded in the diary entries
Two pages with illustrations in ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’

The diarist is a real and flawed protagonist—this makes her more like us and we are more likely to empathize with her despite her considerable flaws … Lynna makes mistakes and does some terrible things, but the diary allows the reader to find out more about why she does these things, what motivated her and how she feels, including remorse and regret. This allows the reader to forgive Lynna, even as her own daughter cannot, even as she cannot. This becomes key to the story, which is about forgiveness. The diary abruptly ends with pages torn out and Kyo is anxious to know what happened to both Lynna and her world. So is the reader.  

Responses to “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Readers and reviewers had interesting responses, some paradoxical:

The blur of real events/history and fictional action brought the story into living colour. Several readers confided in me that they often did not know what was non-fiction and what was fiction and that this confusion made the book more gripping. Several reviewers, caught up in the blur of non-fiction with fiction, accused the book of being overtly polemic, when it was the fictional diarist who was proselytizing and being protective and narrow-minded; one need only look to the diarist’s daughter and her actions to see another voice).

In their analysis, reviewers gave the following visceral responses:

In her review of ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ in The Temz Review, Marcie McCauley writes:

Munteanu “invites readers to recognize themselves in the ‘historical’ story and to project themselves into her imagined future…the diary…operates as a doorway…Munteanu combines methodologies, familiar literary motifs with text and images from non-fiction…She does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book is a bridge between them.”

That blur with reality makes readers both love and hate the novel and it is precisely this that makes them read on. They are thoroughly invested. They need to know how it turns out, as though this is real lives at stake.

Red maple leaf sits on mossy log of old growth forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Integrate Place in Fiction To Deepen Meaning

This past August, I participated in the When Words Collide Online 2022 Writing Festival.  one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

My presentation on the role of place in story kicked off the festival.

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

The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

Nina Munteanu

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and was also featured in the WWC recorded panel called “What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?” The presentation overviewed topics covered in the book, such as:

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

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the white pine forests and the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both are exploited by the white settlers, with intentions to subdue and controll:

The Gatineau forest was noisy, echoing with ax blows and the rushing crackle of falling timber, with shouted warnings and orders. The axmen cut the great pines, but only a few in each plot were suitable for squaring. The rest were left to rot on the ground … unwanted trees lay prostrate, severed branches everywhere, heaps of bark and mountains of chips … There were so many trees, what did it matter? Maine men were used to waste—it was usual—but this was beyond anything even they had seen. 

In the Penobscot settlement, the trees fell, tracks inched through the forests, only one or two then seven, then webs of trails that over the decades widened into roads. The roads were muddy, sometimes like batter, sometimes thick and clutching until late summer; when they metamorphosed into choking dust so fine it hung in the air long after a horse and carriage passed, settling on the grass as the English people settled on the land … Fields of wheat and hay took the land, these fields enclosed by linked stumps, the root wads of the forest that had once stood there turned on their edges to bar the white man’s cows and sheep. 

I concluded the presentation with a writing exercise asking participants to write about the psychology of a place and how they related to it.

Writers attending the presentation / workshop eagerly participated and produced some evocative narrative that contained good metaphor and sensual writing. Here are a few:

Freyja on their high school gym: “I remember rallies and lectures and sweating, running in circles for an hour and a half. The gym stayed the same but the population of people got smaller and smaller over the years. One year a kid hit his head on the wall and went into a coma. Longest seven seconds in my life.”

Roma: “As soon as I get a whiff of old pages in a book, I am reminded of Uncle Leo. The coffee coloured leather jacket he always wore had seen better days and like him, still retained most of its luster. He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, born during a storm and considered a tempestuous child. Our family just didn’t understand his passion.”

Angela: “I stood on the bridge in Moscow. My mother was talking with a friend. She couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be posted here. I looked down at the river. And at the bridge. It would be so easy to just jump over the fence and land in the water. It was a sunny day. The heat was oppressive. I wanted to do it. But I stood still.”

Kylie: “The stuffy air was full of the smell of bodies and heat. The din of laughing and talking, and yelling surrounded me.”

To find out more on how place can add depth and meaning to your writing, see my third writing guide, The Ecology of Story: Place as Character.

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts: Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor; Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several exercises and detailed case studies.

Boat dock at sunset, Ladner Slough of Fraser River, BC (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Climate Cultures Magazine Lists Nina Munteanu’s “A Diary in the Age of Water” Among Eight Eco-Fiction Novels to Read

Writer and curator Mary Woodbury shares eight novels about water where fact and fiction mingle, tried by imagination, to reveal important truths about our shifting relationships with this vital and lively agent in an era of climate crisis,” writes the magazine Climate Cultures.

In an article entitled, “Where Waters and Fictions Meet,” Mary Woodbury opens with this:

“While facts are something we can and should pay attention to as we follow scientific integrity, models, and reports, another mode of telling the story about water has been alive forever: churned, spoken, and written by authors who dream up fictional stories related to our past, present, and future world. Where fact and fiction mingle like this is an area of reflection and speculation, tied by imagination. These tales of water ripple out once the pebble sinks in. The intersectionality of diverse water fiction results in reader empathy, learning, inspiration, and shared commonalities around the world. Local dignity comes alive against a backdrop of planetary crises.”

She chooses the following eco-novels to discuss:

“Land-Water-Sky (Ndè-Ti-Yat’a)” by Katłıà
“Oil on Water” by Helon Habila
“A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu
“The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Memory of Water” by Emmi Itäranta
“Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin
“Lagoon” by Nnedi Okorafor
“Bangkok Wakes to Rain” by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Here’s what she writes about my novel:

Ancient Eastern Hemlock in Catchacoma old-growth forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Interviewed on her latest short story “Robin’s Last Song”

Left: cover of Apex Magazine Issue #128 in which my story appears; Right: cover of 2021 anthology published in fall 2022.

I was recently interviewed by Alberta writer Simon Rose about my latest eco-fiction short story “Robin’s Last Song”, which was recently published by Apex Magazine in its 2021 Compilation Anthology. Below is the interview:

Simon: Congratulations on publishing your short story “Robin’s Last Song” in Issue 128 of Apex Magazine and soon in the Apex Magazine 2021 Compilation Anthology. I’m curious about the title? Whose last song is it? Is Robin the name of a human or the bird?

Nina: Both, actually. The title is both literal and metaphoric. The premise of the story is based on the alarming trend of disappearing birds. The robin, a common bird in Ontario where the story takes place, is a good sentinel for what is happening with bird populations around the world. Robin is also the protagonist’s name; she was named after the robin, her mother’s favourite bird.

Recently fledged robin rests on patio chair, Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Simon: Robin’s Last Song is obviously eco-fiction. What’s it about?

Nina: Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology.

Discarded robin’s egg to deter predators, found on a woody trail in Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Simon: How did you come to write this particular story about birds and what is “soundscape ecology”?

Nina: Since I was a child, the burgeoning SF writer in me had dared to imagine a world without the sound of birds—I thought it utterly bleak and, recognizing an ever-polluting world, I feared for my feathered relatives. I didn’t follow through with a story until September 2019, when I was approached by Oliver Hockenhull, the guest editor of subTerrain Magazine, to write a piece on technology and the environment. The timing was interesting; I’d just read two impactful things that resonated with me.

The first was the October issue of Science Magazine that reported a staggering decline in North American birds. Kenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers had estimated that three billion birds of various species had disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970. That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades. To make it clear, we aren’t talking about rare birds going extinct; these declines are of common birds throughout the world. The wrens, sparrows, starlings, and, of course, the robins. I was devastated; I could not imagine a world without the comforting sound of birds. What would it be like if the birds all disappeared? This brought me back to my childhood fears.

The second article I ran across talked about an emerging bioacoustics tool, soundscape ecology, that measures biodiversity and the health of an ecosystem, mostly through bird sound which well represents ecosystem health. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who had been conducting long-term recordings for decades noted how the dawn chorus in many areas had greatly diminished if not vanished altogether.

Bernie Krause, soundscape ecologist recording a soundscape in Florida

I now had my premise and my connection with technology. The title of my original story for subTerrain was “Out of the Silence”. This story focused on the technical aspects of the premise and solution. When I was approached for a story in February 2021 by Francesco Verso, the guest editor of Apex Magazine Issue #128, I rewrote the story with a stronger focus on the protagonist’s personal journey and connection with the bird catastrophe, how she coped with Asperger’s syndrome and the failure of her tool to predict the disaster. Hence the change in the title to “Robin’s Last Song”.

Cover of subTerrain Issue #85 in which “Out of the Silence” appears

Simon: Without wanting to bring in spoilers, isn’t there a twist to the story, suggesting a cautionary tale that touches on the dangers of genetic engineering?

Nina: Yes, thanks for bringing that up. I was already primed with research into genetic engineering for the sequel to my 2020 eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.” I wanted to make the bird disappearance in “Robin’s Last Song” into a dramatic catastrophe linked to our own dangerous ecological tampering. I had the notion of using a gene hacking disaster to create ecological calamity and how this might affect birds. I wanted to make “Robin’s Last Song” a realizable work of fiction in which science and technology play both instigator of disaster and purveyor of salvation. Our biogenetic technology comes to us as a double-edged sword in the form of gene-editing, proteomics, DNA origami, and CRISPR—just to name a few. These biotechnological innovations promise a cornucopia of enhancements: from increased longevity and health in humans to giant disease-resistant crops. But, for every ‘magic’ in technology, there is often unintended consequence. Unforeseen—or even ignored—casualties and risks. I suppose my ultimate question with this story is: will synthetic biology redesign Nature to suit hubris or serve evolution? Science doesn’t make those decisions. We do.

Simon: Tell us a little bit about the Apex Magazine 2021 Compilation Anthology (that came out in both print and digital versions August).

Nina: The 350+ page anthology compiles all original short stories published in Apex Magazine during the 2021 calendar year. Published through Apex Book Company, it features 48 stories from a diverse group of new and established writers and the cover features award-winning artwork “Entropic Garden” by Marcela Bolivar. Check this link for more about the anthology and where to get it.

Cover art for Apex 2021 Compilation Anthology (art by Marcela Bolivar)

Simon: Are you still coaching writers and such?

Nina: Yes, I am, Simon. Did you know that I’ve been coaching writers to publication for close to twenty years? When I’m not teaching writing at the University of Toronto or George Brown College, I help writers with craft on their novels and short stories through my coaching services. You can find out more at: www.NinaMunteanu.me.

Nina teaches a writing class in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia

Simon: Tell us a little about any writing projects you’re working on these days.

Nina: I’m always busy with science articles for various online and print magazines and my own blogs. I’m also currently finishing a speculative eco-fiction novel that is a loose sequel to “A Diary in the Age of Water.” It’s set throughout Canada, from the Maritimes to the Arctic Circle, and spans a wide timeline from the Halifax Explosion of 1917 to the vast NAWAPA reservoir created a century and a half later by drowning British Columbia’s Rocky Mountain Trench. It’s a fast-paced thriller that focuses on four homeless people who battle corporate intrigue, kidnapping, human experiments and a coming climate plague.

Robin’s First Song: fledgling sits on a black walnut tree branch, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu’s “Water Is…” Discussed in Book Club

This month of September (September 8 and 22 at 2 pm) the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough Non-Fiction Book Club will discuss my book “Water Is…”

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

When the Meridional Overturning Circulation Shuts Down

Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) (drawing by Nina Munteanu, from “A Diary in the Age of Water” Inanna Publications, 2020)

March 6, 2055

Before leaving for the university this morning, I watched a news report on the storm that devastated the northwest coast of Britain last week. Over a thousand people were affected by the sudden deluge, severe winds, and flooding. Scientists are blaming another major AR (Atmospheric River). That’s the tenth so far this year for both Britain and Western Europe. Not surprising either. Due to the global temperature increase, the air holds more moisture, so these atmospheric rivers are growing in frequency and intensity. They are consequently wreaking havoc on the Atlantic west coast and the European coasts. I can hear Daniel’s ghost hissing in my ear: Between the relentless sea level rise and these storms, we’re fracked. The ARs that roar about like angry banshees have picked up the slack left by the stagnating great ocean conveyor. The conveyor or Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)— circulates ocean water very much like in a lake, with dense cold water sinking beneath warmer, less salty water. Sunken water flows south along the ocean floor toward the equator; then warm surface water from the tropics flows north to replace the water that sank, keeping AMOC moving and preventing stagnation. As the Arctic turns into the Atlantic, dumping in more and more freshwater, the sinking is beginning to stop and the machine is slowing down. Freshwater is taking over the world. Like a giant wrench in an anarchist’s hand, it’s jamming the conveyor. Scientists underestimated how climate forcing would accelerate Arctic sea ice melt and increase precipitation. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation—the great ocean conveyor—is in the process of stalling. It accounts for at least a quarter of the planet’s heat flux. We in the Northern Hemisphere are already seeing its effects: the rivers in Europe are drying up, forcing farmers to try to grow crops in the snow; the angriest storms in history are battering our maritime coast. In the meantime, the entire Southern Hemisphere is growing steadily hotter as the Indian and Asian monsoons dry up. Imagine the dynamic sea turning into a stagnant pond. No one really knows what this all means. It is likely that the oceanic plankton—our last food source—will crash or go toxic. It will probably be both.

—Lynna Dresden (scientist) in A Diary in the Age of Water

“Global ocean circulation will not change abruptly, but it will change significantly, in this century,” writes Cecilie Mauritzen, scientist with the Climate Department of the Norwegian Meteorogical Institute in Chapter 2 of “Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications”. Yet other researchers who study ancient climate change point to evidence that the AMOC can turn off abruptly. I suppose this depends on one’s definition of “abruptly.”

Mauritzen adds that “the potential for a significant change in global ocean circulation is considered one of the greatest threats to Earth’s climate: it presents a possibility of large and rapid change, even more rapid than the warming resulting directly from the build-up of human-induced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” An AMOC collapse would promote major cooling in most of the northern hemisphere, but also strengthen storm tracks in the North Atlantic and lead to further warming in regions of the southern hemisphere.

Climate models of an AMOC shutdown suggest a severe cooling in the whole northern hemisphere, particularly the regions closest to the zone of North Atlantic heat loss (the “radiator” of the North Atlantic central heating system). A shut down of the AMOC circulation would bring extreme cold to Europe and parts of North America, raise sea levels on these coastlines and disrupt seasonal monsoons that provide water to much of the world. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.

What climatologists like Mauritzen don’t discuss is the profound effects on the Earth’s biological community supported by this global circulation. The result of an AMOC stall may result in a massive ecological collapse and our existential end due to creatures so small only a microscope can see them.

In the above quote from my eco-fiction novel A Diary in the Age of Water the scientist Lynna Dresden highlights one of the most discernable effects of an AMOC shutdown: extreme weather, a cold snap with more angry and wetter storms in the north, particularly Europe, that could last hundreds of years. Scientists report that when AMOC stopped near the end of the last Ice Age, the cold spell lasted a thousand years.

Illustration of oceanic plankton (by Nina Munteanu, in “A Diary in the Age of Water” Inanna Publications, 2020)

But Lynna also talks about our primary producers, the phytoplankton (and their cousins the zooplankton). The phytoplankton—which is made up mostly of single-celled diatoms—drift on the ocean currents and sustain all life from producing the first source of a massive food chain to sequestering carbon, creating clouds and rain, and helping to create fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe.

According to Velasco et al. in Nature, “An AMOC shutdown could lead to the collapse of North Atlantic plankton stocks.”

When plankton populations crash, recovery is slow. Plankton ecosystems in Earth’s oceans took 3 million years to fully recover after the mass extinction event 65 million years ago, according to scientists at the University of California—Santa Cruz. In their 2006 paper in the journal Geology, the researchers concluded “that the time required to repair food chains and reestablish an integrated ecosystem is extremely long.”

Perhaps even more likely is that the plankton will only partially crash; more likely is a shift in its distribution and characteristics with many going extinct and some even exploding in numbers. This is called a regime shift—a widespread and prolonged change of a biological system due to climate change—something that is occurring throughout the world right now.

Coccolithophores under electron microscope (image by NASA)

For instance, a study in NRDC reported a massive surge in plankton in the Arctic Barents Sea in 2020. Researcher Brian Palmer shared that “phytoplankton blooms are growing faster and thicker than ever seen before.” Summer blooms of Coccolithophores (unicellular Protista with calcium carbonate plates) generally occur from July through September in the Barents Sea when this shallow northern sea is ice free. The 2020 study showed that these blooms are thicker and more extensive as nutrients influx from other oceans. A recent Stanford study indicated that the growth rate of phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean has increased 57 percent in the last twenty years.

While higher productivity may naively seem a good thing, these blooms are problematic: to begin, their growth is often not synchronous with what might feed on them, creating waste and detrimental trophic cascades (see below); although the algal blooms absorb more carbon, this higher carbon also contributes to the acidification of the ocean, which, in turn, impacts the phytoplankton: their growth, behaviour, and succession. The dying blooms may also liberate the excess carbon under certain circumstances. This becomes a positive feedback cycle with ever more impact.

Algal bloom in the Barents Sea (image by NASA)

Stephanie Dutkiewicz, principal research scientist in MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, says that while scientists have suspected ocean acidification might affect marine populations, the group’s results suggest a much larger upheaval of phytoplankton—and the species that feed on them. “The fact that there are so many different possible changes, that different phytoplankton respond differently, means there might be some quite traumatic changes in the communities over the course of the 21st century. A whole rearrangement of the communities means something to both the food web further up, but also for things like cycling of carbon.” Dutkeiwicz’s team also found that the interactive behaviour, including competition, among phytoplankton species might change.

Regime shifts also cause trophic cascades.

The guillemot seabird is an example of one casualty. The guillemot, which typically nests on the Isle of Shetland off the coast of Scotland, is starving and few are nesting. This is because the guillemot feed on sandeel fish that have all but disappeared because the cold-water plankton the fish eat have moved north. The historically icy waters between England and Scandinavia have become too warm for the plankton to survive. Of course, if the AMOC stalls, these warming waters may cool substantially.

References:

Dybas, Cheryl Lyn. 2006. “On a Collision Course: Ocean Plankton and Climate Change.” BioScience 56(8): 642-646.

Mauritzen, Celilie. 2009. “Ocean Circulation Feedbacks”,  Chapter 2 of “Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications,” Martin Sommerkorn and Susan Joy Hassol, editors. World Wildlife International Arctic Programme. 97pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto. 300pp.

Palmer, Brian. 2020. “A Massive Surge in Plankton Has Researchers Pondering the Future of the Arctic.” NRDC September 09, 2020.

Schmittner, Andreas. 2005. “Decline of the marine ecosystem caused by a reduction in the Atlantic overturning circulation.” Nature 434: 628-633.

Velasco, Julian A. et. al. 2021. “Synergistic impacts of global warming and thermocline circulation collapse on amphibians” Nature, Communications Biology 4(141)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Apex Magazine To Release 2021 Anthology Fall 2022 with Nina Munteanu’s “Robin’s Last Song”

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Apex Magazine will release its 2021 Anthology this fall with my short story, Robin’s Last Song in it.

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology.

Apex Issue #128 and upcoming 2021 Year Issue with Nina Munteanu’s “Robin’s Last Song”

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

“Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

Bird Population Decline

The number of birds in North America has declined by three billion, some 30 percent, over the last half-century. The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birdsKenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

Bird population change since 1970 (image The New York Times)

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Robin’s egg in the forest, discarded from the nest to divert predators (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Plowing of fields, deforestation, wetland draining, climate change and other land use clearing and treatments have caused great habitat loss. In addition, neonicotinoid pesticides make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel.

A robin fledgling rests on a patio chair (photo by Merridy Cox)

Common bird species are vital to ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and help regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats lose their functionality. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California. Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, lamented that: “This is the loss of nature.”

The Trump administration heinously and foolishly demolished or maimed several key bird protection acts, which hopefully the new administration has or will reinstate in full force: Migratory Bird Treaty Act; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; National Fish and Wildlife Act; and the Endangered Species Act.

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings for many decades recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

Bernie Kraus creating one of his soundscapes

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction and Warning

Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

Rachel Carson and her iconic book “Silent Spring”

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life.

And it’s making us sick too.

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ Listed as Ecological Fiction That Inspires Action

In the Spring 2021 Issue of Ecology & Action, author and Dragonfly.eco publisher Mary Woodbury lists some of her favourite eco-fiction that inspires action. Nina Munteanu’s clifi eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” is among them:

“Fiction exploring humanity’s impacts on nature is becoming more popular. It has the distinct ability to creatively engage and appeal to readers’ emotions. In fact, it can stir environmental action. A survey I took last year showed that 88% of its participants were inspired to act after reading ecological fiction.

Principled by real science and exalting our planet’s beauty, these stories are works of art. They live within classic modes of fiction exploring the human condition, but also integrate the wild. They can be referred to as “rewilded stories.” The following Canadian titles are some of my favourites in this genre.”

Mary Woodbury, Dragonfly.eco
Mossy cedar tree in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (image and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.