“Solaris” by Stanislaw Lem and Steven Soderbergh–Book and Film Review

Steven Soderbergh’s stylish psychological thriller, released November 2002 in the United States by 20th Century Fox, eloquently captures the theme of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 book. Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is an intelligent, introspective drama of great depth and imagination that meditates on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. Soderbergh’s Solaris is a poem to Lem’s prose. Both explore the universe around us and the universe within. Not particularly palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers, Solaris will appeal more to those with a more esoteric appreciation for art.

When I recently saw the 2002 20th Century Fox remake of Solaris, I was blissfully unaware of its legendary history. I say blissfully because I harbored no pre-conceived notions or expectations and therefore I was struck like a child viewing the Northern Lights for the first time. The stylish, evocative and dream-like imagery flowed to a surrealistic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez like the colors of a Salvador Dali painting. It was only later that I discovered that Russian experimental director, Andrei Tarkovsky, had previously filmed Solaris in 1972 based on Lem’s masterful 1961 book of the same name. Reprinted by Harcourt, Inc. with a new cover featuring a sensual image from the 2002 film, the original book was translated in 1970 from the French version by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox for Faber and Faber Ltd.

Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is a dark psychological drama. Soderbergh faithfully captures the intellectual yet sensual essence of Lem’s book by tempering the language and movements. Featuring a fluid and haunting soundtrack, his film flows like a choreographed ballet. There is a dream-like quality to it that is enhanced by creative use of camera angles, unusual lighting, tones and contrast, and sparse language. Solarisis not an action film (no one gets shot, at least not on stage), yet the tension surges and builds to its irrevocable conclusion from frame to frame like a slow motion Tai Chi form.

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (played with quiet depth by George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (played sensitively by Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Lem packs each page of his slim 204 page book with a wealth of intellectual introspection. Through first person narrative, he intimately unveils the complicated influence of this arcane force on Kelvin. Lem explains it this way: “I wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.” (Author’s Website.) Such an incomprehensible entity would serve as a giant mirror for our own motives, yearnings and versions of reality. For me the contrast presented by such an arcane alien force emphatically—but also ironically—defines what it is to be human. It is only when faced with what we are not that we discover what we are. Later in the book, Kelvin cynically observes: “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.” In the film Gibarian sadly proclaims of the Solaris mission: “We don’t want other worlds—we want mirrors.” In the book, Lem has Snow deliver a similar message, but neither Gibarian or Snow realize that these two desires may be one and the same.

Lem’s existentialist leaning is provided throughout the book and even alluded to in the name he chose for the space station: Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind for which Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver (which grew back daily). It is interesting that Soderbergh chose to send Prometheus to a fiery crash and named Kelvin’s dead wife, Rheya, after the Greek goddess, mother of Zeus and all Olympian gods. In a late passage of Lem’s book, a devastated and sorrowful Kelvin formulates a personal theory of an imperfect god, “a god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure … a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfills no purpose—a god who simply is.”

Soderbergh addresses Lem’s existential vision with several brief but pivotal scenes. One occurs when Kelvin’s dead friend, Gibarian, returns to him in a dream on Prometheus and responds to Kelvin’s question, “What does Solaris want?” with: “Why do you think it has to want something?” Another scene occurs as a flashback to a dinner on Earth, when the real Rheya, prior to her suicide, argues with both Gibarian and her own husband about the existence of an all-knowing purposeful God, which both men argue is a myth made up by humankind: to Kelvin’s suggestion that “the whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Rheya insists that she’s “talking about a higher form of intelligence,” to which Gibarian cuts in with: “No, you’re talking about a man in a white beard again. You are ascribing human characteristics to something that isn’t.” Kelvin fuels it with: “We’re a mathematical probability,” which prompts Rheya’s challenge: “How do you explain that out of the billions of creatures on this planet we’re the only ones conscious of our immortality?” Neither man has an answer. Gibarian later commits suicide on Solaris rather than deal with the manifestation of his conscience. And I can’t help but wonder if the underlying reason for his inability to reconcile with his “demon” is because he was unequipped to, given his nihilistic beliefs.

Gibarian also tells Kelvin (and we must remember that all this is Kelvin really saying this to himself through his memory of the character): “There are no answers, only choices.” It is interesting then that the first pivotal choice in the story is made by the Doppelganger Rheya (also a manifestation of Solaris but a mirror of Kelvin’s own mind) and it is a choice made out of love: to be annihilated, rather then serve as an instrument of this unknown alien power to study the man she loves.

Some critics have called Soderbergh’s Solaris pretentious, boring and devoid of action and intimacy. I strongly disagree. It is simply that, as with Lem’s original story, Soderbergh’s Solaris does not surrender its messages easily. The viewer, as with the reader, must intuitively feel his or her way through the fluid poetry, free to interpret and ponder the questions. This is what I think good art should do. And I feel both the original book and Soderbergh’s movie do this with enthralling brilliance.

Where Soderbergh and Lem depart lies more in each artist’s personal vision and belief. Soderbergh seems to view the forces that drive our universe as the manifestation of an arcane motive more readily known through spirituality, perceived by the heart, and existing as a matter of belief. Lem, however, suggests that these forces are random and without purpose, defined by science, and perceived by the mind. Still, Lem is not proclaiming a nihilism of his own: he believes we are defined by the questions we ask and Lem asks a great deal of questions—leaving the reader to do the answering.

Reviewer Rick Kisonak asserted that Lem’s “novel is an icy meditation on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. It poses countless metaphysical questions and makes a point of answering none of them. In Soderbergh’s hands, however, Solarisbecomes a celebration of romantic love, which culminates in the revelation of a caring, forgiving creator. At the end of his book, Lem writes [Kelvin ponders]: ‘the age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris [life ends but not love] is a lie, useless and not even funny.’ The director ignores the author in favor of just such a poet” (Film Threat, [Online]). Kisonak is referring here to Rheya’s interest in Dylan Thomas and its reference throughout the movie. Another reviewer, Dennis Morton, goes so far as to suggest that the screenplay of Solaris is the first stanza of the poem, which ends with: “…though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion” (Santa Cruise Sentinel, [Archived online])

While I agree with some of Kisonak’s reasoning, I think he has missed the point of Lem’s book. If one continues to read from the passage Kisonak quoted above—as Kris Kelvin transcends from what he “thinks” in his intellect to what he feels and “knows” in his heart, to accept his (and humanity’s) destiny with humble fatalism—we learn that Lem ends his book in much the same way as Soderbergh’s movie: life ends but not love. The endings are physically different, in keeping with some radical alterations from the book in the movie’s setting (e.g., the original Solaris station is located on the planet and Lem assiduously describes Kelvin’s observations and interactions with the alien ocean; whereas Soderbergh’s crew virtually never leave orbit and the planet remains aloof in the background, reflecting Soderbergh’s focus). Yet, Kris makes the same choice in faith and love in both book and movie (although the choices play out differently). In matters of faith and love, here is what Kris has to say in the book: “Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? … In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation … I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the end of both movie and book, Kris Kelvin lets go of his fears and lets his spirit rise in wonder at what astonishing things Solaris (and the universe) will offer next.

In the final analysis, both book and movie are incredibly valuable but for different reasons. Soderbergh paints an impressionistic poem, using Kafkaesque brushstrokes on a simpler canvas, to Lem’s complex tapestry of multi-level prose. Lem challenges us far more by refusing to impose his personal views, where Soderbergh lets us glimpse his hopeful vision. I think that both, though, come to the same conclusion about the ethereal, mysterious and eternal nature of love. On the one hand, love may connect us within a fractal autopoietic network to the infinity of the inner and outer universe, uniting us with God and His purpose in a collaboration of faith. On the other hand, love may empower us to accept our place in a vast unknowable and amoral universe to form an island of hope in a purposeless sea of indifference. Whether love mends our souls to the fabric of our destiny; enslaves us on an impossible journey of desperate yearning; or seizes us in a strangling embrace of unspeakable terror at what lurks within—surely, then, love is God, in all its possible manifestations. This is unquestionably the message that unifies book and movie. And it is one worth proclaiming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Buried in Print’ Reviews “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Nina Munteanu’s novel A Diary in the Age of Water (2020) will not suit every reader.” 

“It’s hard to resist identifying the author with Lynna, the most prominent character, who also works as a limnologist, although her employment is increasingly precarious, as her timeline hastens toward ecological devastation.

A predominantly female cast, a mythic forming narrative and, most saliently, the focus on water, all made this an interesting read for me.

The book’s epigraphs are from Maude Barlow and the chapter’s epigraphs from textbook definitions (sometimes excerpts from limnology tests), and there are even cutaway diagrams that you’d expect in lecture hall.

Ultimately it exists in an in-between place, some mystical elements of the generational tale possibly alienating the dedicated science-y readers and the instructional elements possibly alienating fiction devotees. And, yet, I read on: strangely compelling.”

Buried in Print
Forest swamp in Kawarthas in spring, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

What Ecology Can Teach Us: “Rogue Harvest” by Danita Maslan

Farmer’s field, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Sometime in the future, Earth is recovering from a devastating 50-year plague that has destroyed most of its natural forests and grasslands and killed two out of every three people. Environmental technocrats now run the world under strict rule: while virgin ecosystems are re-created from original templates through genetic engineering, no human is permitted to set foot in these sanctuaries. As sanctuaries grow ever larger, humanity is pressed into over-crowded cities where boredom and strife dominate. The Emerald Coalition hires reclamation company EcoTech to “recreate the world their great, great grandparents lost.” But their ecosystems are morphing into “aberrations” (new species with surprising properties), which would shock the applied Ecology community—except EcoTech is keeping it a secret. So begins Danita Maslan’s eco-thriller Rogue Harvest by Red Deer Press. Published in 2005, this powerful environmental story is as relevant today as it was fifteen years ago. Perhaps more so.

In his Foreword to Maslan’s book, Hugo-winning author Robert J. Sawyer, shared a story from a 2004 presentation he gave at Mount Royal College in Calgary. In his presentation, Sawyer lamented that science fiction seemed to pull in opposite directions to such an extent that any message was cancelled by its opposition. The example he gave in the Foreword came from two bestselling authors: Kim Stanley Robinson whose Forty Signs of Rainwarned of rising temperatures due to climate change; and Michael Crichton, who denied global warming as fearmongering in State of Fear. According to Sawyer, Rogue Harvest provided a fresh story grounded in the balance of a third perspective—not a neutral middle-ground, but “one that shears away at right angles from the current polarized debate, taking our thinking in new directions by predicting both environmental collapse andenvironmental salvation.” 

Told through the unruly character of Jasmine, Rogue Harvest explores a post-plague world in recovery. After radical environmentalists from Green Splinter assassinate her father, Jasmine enlists a street-smart mercenary to help her vindicate her father’s call to open the forbidden preservesto the public. This leads Jasmine into the depths of the genetically re-created South American rainforest, where political intrigue, corporate greed and violence collide in a combustible mix. This is where it gets messy—which biology certainly is. But it gets messy for other reasons. Human-reasons. Reasons of power-mongering and lack of compassion. The very reasons why the environmental technocrats established their hands-off edict in the first place. This is explored through great irony in Rogue Harvest. An irony that L.E. Modesitt, Jr. astutely notes, “[the environmental technocrats] prove that, given power, they’re just like everyone else.” Just as there remain uncompassionate exploiters and pillagers in the likes of harvester Gunther Vint, who heedlessly pollutes the rainforest as he harvests it.

buttressed strangler fig in Costa Maya jungle (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The South American rainforest provides some of the most vivid, colourful and memorable scenes in the book. Maslan traveled to the tropics and ensured accurate science of this incredibly rich ecosystem through Mark W. Moffett’s The High Frontierand Donald Perry’s Life Above the Jungle Floor, as well as Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata. It is in the South American recreated jungle that the key elements—and posed questions—of the story play out. 

In his testimonial to Rogue Harvest, Hugo Award Finalist James Alan Gardner poses: “We see both sides of an ecological conundrum that resonates with the present day: how can we live in harmony with our environment, neither vandalizing it nor walling it off as too precious to touch?”

This is the tantamount question. Can our species achieve this balance? Rogue Harvest answers this clarion call with mixed optimism. While showcasing the propensity for greed and careless exploitation, the book also reveals a more altruistic and kinder side of humanity. One that promises hope and light to our darker side. But, is this realistic, given our current dominant worldview? 

On page 149 in Rogue Harvest, Jasmine’s politician father Owen Lamberin defends his position of wishing to open up the protected Nature preserves to regular folk by proclaiming, “Do they want to keep us out forever? Then who are we reseeding the globe for if not for us?” This is later echoed by Jasmine to justify flouting the preservationist edicts of the Emerald Coalition. When I first read this passage, part of me rankled. Does not the natural world have an intrinsic value and right to simply be? Must we justify all things by our own presence and direct use of them? Surely functional ecosystems provide ecosystem services for planetary wellness that benefit ALL life, not just humans, and not all directly. For example, our terrestrial and marine forests provide necessary oxygen and climate balance (by removing excess carbon dioxide) that benefits all life on the planet. Ecologists—particularly Canadians—recognize the benefit of ‘preservation’ (wilderness that is not accessed by humans) over ‘conservation’ (areas where humans extract resources with some environmental risk) and the need for both to exist for the planet’s overall well-being. This is based on the simple fact that not all humans behave as they should. Those of us who follow a utilitarian neo-liberal worldview of consumption and “othering nature” are not acting as efficient partners in the natural world. Many see themselves as apart from Nature, above Her, even, and will act less than kindly. Current deforestation of the Amazon and the old-growth forests of British Columbia, are just two examples that reflect this destructive “Nature othering” force. 

Ancient red cedar tree in Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In contrast, indigenous peoples on the planet incorporate Nature in their beliefs, philosophies and way of life. They conduct themselves with humility and the utmost respect for the natural world of which they are a part. Knowing that they are part of Nature, they act accordingly, with respect. They are efficient partners, taking only what they need, thanking Nature for her gifts, and giving back in return in a process of reciprocal altruism and mutualism.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of “Gathering Moss” and “Braiding Sweetgrass” writes:

“In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave these to us, as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well. 

These gifts are also responsibilities, a way of caring for each other. Wood Thrush received the gift of song; it’s his responsibility to say the evening prayer. Maple received the gift of sweet sap and the coupled responsibility to share that gift in feeding the people at a hungry time of year. This is the web of reciprocity that the elders speak of, that which connects us all. I find no discord between this story of creation and my scientific training. This reciprocity is what I see all the time in studies of ecological communities. Sage has its duties, to draw up water to its leaves for the rabbits, to shelter the baby quail. Part of its responsibility is also to the people. Sage helps us clear our minds of ill thoughts, to carry our good thoughts upward. The roles of mosses are to clothe the rocks, purify the water, and soften the nests of birds … Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher.”

Robin wall kimmerer

  

Wall-Kimmerer is talking about a way of life through willing participation and an attitude of great respect and humility. But many non-indigenous people do not ascribe to this philosophy and way of life—with dire consequence to our environment and our own welfare. In Rogue Harvest Maslan rightfully demonstrated the continued presence of this destructive force in humanity even as a respectful and thankful attitude was shown by Jasmine and her harvesting team. The question is: How many does it take to spoil this balance?

It would be close to fifteen years after Rogue Harvest was published that I would finally read Maslan’s book—this year, in 2020, during an ongoing planetary-wide plague. Ironically, only two years after Danita’s debut novel, my own debut eco-thriller Darwin’s Paradox was released by Dragon Moon Press in 2007. And the theme was eerily similar: struggling with the devastation of an environmental plague (Darwin Disease), the Gaians—environmental technocrats who run the world—have isolated humanity from Earth’s treasured natural environment. One main difference between Rogue Harvest and Darwin’s Paradox is that in the latter book the technocrats have kept the public ignorant of how the environment has recovered, ensuring its safety from destructive human hands—except for the ‘enlightened’ Gaians, who secretly live out in the beauty of a recovered natural world and commute to the indoor world. However, as the environment recovers, humanity deteriorates in its cloistered indoor world. Darwin’s Disease—related to indoor living—sweeps across humanity with debilitating genetic deterioration, violent death and the promise of extinction.  This is something the self-professed deep ecology Gaians—akin to Maslan’s Emerald Coalition—are content to see in—if it means preserving the natural world.

Both the Gaians and Maslan’s Emerald Coalition demonstrate a lack of faith in humanity and an unrealistic need to restore environments to their pristine pre-human levels; something that is highly unrealistic—and doomed to fail. “Aberrations” (as Maslan’s characters called them) are part of the natural process of adaptation and change inherent in the natural world. As a practicing ecological consultant, I was constantly running against an idealised and unrealizable notion to put everything back to what it used to be. For several decades ecologists were tasked to restore habitats to their pristine condition—when the notion of “pristine” was impossible to achieve, let along discern. It would have been like turning back the clock of history to prevent John F. Kennedy from being shot–with its own unknown consequences. Ecologists finally realized that in lieu of “restoration” and looking back, we needed to “rehabilitate” by looking forward. This is what Nature has always done. Nature adapts. So must we. Our management programs must incorporate Nature’s ever-changing processes of resilience and look forward—not backward—to achieve a sacred balance. 

If there is a deeper message in Maslan’s book, it is this: that our salvation—and the salvation of the world—lies in not obsessing on returning to a past pristine state (with attempts at over-protection), but in looking forward to healing and nurturing a world in which we have a place. This would involve reimagining our niche (our job) as efficient partners in an ever-evolving and changing natural world, by casting off the parasitoid1 role we’ve all too often assumed and replacing with a role of mutualism2. But … and there is a huge BUT here. This will only work if we pursue this approach with integrity. With our eyes and hearts open to Gaia’s sacred plan of which we are a part. Robin Wall Kimmerer shows us the way through Traditional Ecological Knowledge:

“If each plant has a particular role and is interconnected with the lives of humans, how do we come to know what that role is? How do we use the plant in accordance to its gifts? The legacy of traditional ecological knowledge, the intellectual twin to science, has been handed down in the oral tradition for countless generations. It passes from grandmother to granddaughter gathering together in the meadow, from uncle to nephew fishing on the riverbank … How did they know which plant to use in childbirth, which plant to conceal the scent of a hunter? Like scientific information, traditional knowledge arises from careful systematic observation of nature, from the results of innumerable lived experiments. Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher. Plant knowledge comes from watching what the animals eat, how Bear harvests lilies and how Squirrel taps maple trees. Plant knowledge also comes from the plants themselves. To the attentive observer, plants reveal their gifts.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

But is this possible? To return to Sawyer’s remark and Gardner’s question, can we achieve this sacred balance and harmony? For many of us, I think, yes. But for many more, I’m not sure. And that is what worries me. It is my firm belief that until our worldview embraces humility in partnership with the natural world—until we cast off our parasitoid archetype of self-serving, neo-liberal, capitalist ideologies—we will remain hampered in our journey forward towards a sacred balance. And time is running out for us. Time to rewrite our story.

In Maslan’s book, humanity is given a second chance to prove itself worthy of inclusion. Her book is a call to action. Can we do this before it’s too late for us? Time to listen and learn from our indigenous peoples. Time to learn about Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Time to slow down, set aside our egos, and use all our senses to learn from Birch, Bear, and Beaver…

Cedar pine forest in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

1.parasitoid is a term that describes a parasite that grows on the body of another organism from which they get nutrients and shelter. Unlike typical parasites, a parasitoid usually kills its host (Munteanu, 2019).

2.mutualism describes an ecological interaction between two or more species that increases fitness in both, through direct interaction and co-adaptation. Two examples include vascular plants and mycorrhizae, their fungal partners, and flowering plants and their pollinating insects. Even predators act in some form of mutualism when their role of culling weaker individuals from the prey gene pool is considered (Munteanu, 2019). 

References:

  • Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2003. “Gathering Moss.” Oregon State University Press, Corvalis. 168pp.
  • Munteanu, Nina. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 198pp.
White cedar tree and stump in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, 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 Best Books I Have Read This Year—2020

Author and reviewer Lee Hall recently compiled their list of the twenty best books they read in 2020. Says Lee:

It’s hard to believe that we’ve got to this point but we have. For all the words you could use to describe the dumpster fire that is and was 2020 I am going to use the word grateful. 

Grateful for the authors who have provided me with not only an escape through their wonderful works but grateful to them for providing a vital centre pillar of content for this blog – reviews. Some of these creators have become friends and important connections in the world of online authoring for me. This post is dedicated to them and the best books I have read this year. 

While the criteria of ‘best books’ is derived mainly from my own personal taste it is also influenced by how many views the review got on here along with my admiration for the author. These works are an extension of some wonderful personalities who make up an incredible community.

A Diary in the Age of Water was among the books Lee chose for 2020 reading:

‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ by Nina Munteanu

A truly important once in a generation read that flows like a wild river right through your imagination and heart– Quote from my review

I’m being 100% serious when I say ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. For what it stands for is truly a statement towards our own damning of this beautiful planet and our most precious resource – water. Canadian Author Nina Munteanu has put together a masterful look at where we could possibly end up if we don’t act. This one was another Reedsy Discovery find and thus totally justified my joining of the platform well and truly!

LEE HALL

Country road in winter, 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.

“A Diary in the Age of Water” Reviewed by Kirkus Reviews, The Winnipeg Free Press and The Miramichi Reader

Nina Munteanu’s cli-fi eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” just released in summer of 2020 received several favourable reviews from Kirkus ReviewsThe Winnipeg Free Press, and The Miramichi Reader. The speculative novel about four generations of woman and their unique relationship with water was recently awarded the Literary Titan Award for a book that “expertly delivers complex characters, intricate worlds, and thought provoking themes. The ease with which the story is told is a reflection of the author’s talent in exercising fluent, powerful, and appropriate language.”

“While bringing attention to the current politicization of climate change, the story maintains important underlying themes like family, love, forgiveness, and the complexity of the human soul. The author has gone to great lengths to show that there are different layers to each character, none fully evil nor fully good. A Diary in the Age of Water is an exceptional and thought-provoking dystopian fiction.”
—LITERARY TITAN (4-star)

“In Canadian ecologist Munteanu’s novel, a child in a world of climate disaster discovers hidden truths about the past in a mysterious journal. In a story set centuries in the future, a young girl with four arms named Kyo lives on the last vestige of a planet damaged by climate crisis, water scarcity, and a cataclysm brought on by semi-divine figures called the Water Twins. Kyo comes across the 21st-century journal of a limnologist named Lynna; over two decades, the journal’s author details Earth’s fate with scientific observations on the harm wrought by corporate greed, as well as her own personal struggles raising a child in a world of catastrophe and authoritarianism. She’s a deeply relatable and tragically flawed character who’s wracked by doubt, fear, and cynicism—a stark contrast to her fierce environmentalist mother, Una, and her spiritual, idealistic daughter, Hildegard. What unites them all is the study of water: its intrinsic properties, its mysteries, and ultimately its necessity to the planet. In poetic prose (“We’re going down in a kind of slow violence”) with sober factual basis, Munteanu transmutes a harrowing dystopia into a transcendentalist origin myth…the author asks uncomfortable questions and explores the effects of one generation’s actions upon the next as they ripple outward like a stone dropped in a pond. A sobering and original cautionary tale that combines a family drama with an environmental treatise.”
—KIRKUS REVIEWS

Futuristic novel awash with water warnings

“An engaging epistolary novel. An ecologist and environmental activist herself, Munteanu has no difficulty voicing a fully formed literary character who is both scientifically literate enough to understand how quickly human society is entering its final ebb, and humane enough to mourn the fullness of this tragedy.

The prose here is beautiful and purposeful in the tradition of environmentally and socially minded novelists such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood… It comes down to water: ice sheets, rain and drought, the loss of water tables and the collapse of marine ecologies in an acidifying ocean. The pulse and rhythm of life on this planet is water. Its death throes, too, can be read in the flow of water.

Munteanu has produced something which joins George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, Le Guin and Atwood, a warning of the direction we are heading that will be valuable even if we manage to avert disaster.”
—Joel Boyce, WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

“A Diary in the Age of Water commands reader interest on a number of levels…a chilling but believable portrayal of what might happen as fresh water becomes scarcer… Munteanu’s novel provides a cautionary note for what might happen if we fail to pay attention to this precious resource.”
—Lisa Timpf, MIRAMICHI READER

Short Synopsis

A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of the Earth and humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to her world and to water. Water plays both metaphoric and literal roles in this allegorical tale of humanity’s final journey from home—where male sterility, heat-shock proteins, horizontal gene transfer, and virgin-births rule a changing world of water securitization through ambitious environmental manipulation (e.g., resurrecting the US Army Corps of Engineers 1960s NAWAPA/CeNAWP plan to create the 800 km long Rocky Mountain Trench reservoir and divert most of northern Canada’s water to the USA—drowning a fifth of BC). 

Told in far-future and near-future frames, the central part of the story is a diary by a limnologist, whose personal account creates a terrifying realism to the geo-political tension of water securitization, plague containment, and police oppression—the diary spans from 2045 to 2064 (when the diarist disappears herself). 

The cli-fi novel begins centuries from now in the dying northern boreal forest with young KYO, a blue water nymph with multiple arms who dreams of the past and of being a normal human. She is on her way to the library to memorize a textbook on the Age of Water and there discovers a piece of her past from that age when The Water Twins destroyed the world. Kyo discovers a diary by a limnologist (who happens to be the mother of one of the Twins). Intrigued, Kyo drops the textbook and reads the diary. The diary, by cynical limnologist LYNNA, describes a near-future Toronto in the grips of severe water scarcity. The gritty memoir describes Toronto in a time when China owns the USA and the USA owns Canada, and aggressively mines its water. While lamenting the greed and destructive nature of her race, Lynna self-servingly helps murder three people; she also gives birth to rebel daughter HILDA (one of the Water Twins) who destroys her world through water and gives virgin-birth to the next stage in human evolution: a mutant who becomes one of the Disappeared who returns centuries later in a dying world as the water keeper Kyo. 

“A Diary in the Age of Water” explores identity and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

Poplar trees in northern Ontario in fall (photograph 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 Legacy of Trees: Purposefully Wandering Vancouver’s Stanley Park

Winter on Sea Wall StanleyPark

Winter on the sea wall (Heritage House)

“In the gorgeously colourful fall of 2017, I had a sudden thought: “I live next to Stanley Park, one of the world’s most beloved and best parks. How have I not noticed? Of course I had noticed, but I hadn’t taken that awareness inside. I barely knew the park. I have lived beside this park for twenty-five years. I first saw the crescent beach of English Bay and the storytelling totems in the park in 1961, fifty-nine years ago. Have I been asleep? Can I wake up? Is it time?

If I am going to get to know this park—this Stanley Park—and call it “my park,” I will have to wander it purposefully, path by path, plaque by plaque, monument by monument, rock by rock, tree by tree, blossom by flowering blossom, through every season, and allow its layers of history to seep into me as though it were a living, breathing being.

Actually, it is.

Legacy of Trees Nina Shoroplova

This is how Nina Shoroplova begins her book “The Legacy of Trees” by Heritage House, 2020, a book all about “Purposeful Wandering in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.”

The beautifully laid out 288-page book with colour photos is a feast for the mind and the heart. Although the book provides an excellent human and natural history of the park—from its pre-colonial existence, and logging history, to its creation and uses and description—at its root is an expression of wonder for this natural gem in the middle of a bustling city and a true love of trees.

Shoroplova approaches the forest with the heart of a poet. Her passion for nature—and trees, particularly—lights each page with joyful discovery. Shoroplova brings this passion to Stanley Park, one of Canada’s iconic parks, and one worth both visiting and knowing through many aspects from history to ecology and from forest ecosystem to legacy tree.

Each year, Stanley Park welcomes more than eight million visitors from around the world. In the summer of 2013, Travel & Leisure magazine ranked Stanley Park second among the world’s twenty-eight most beautiful city parks in the world. In 2014, TripAdvisor named Stanley Park the best park in the world. The park features 400-hectares of natural coastal temperate rainforest with 27 km of trails and scenic views of water, mountains, and truly majestic trees. The rainforest holds an old-growth forest of +400-year old Douglas-firs and some of the largest grand firs in the world. The park also features an 8.8 km seawall, totem poles and six beautiful gardens.

Map of Stanley Park

Map of Stanley Park, Vancouver

Early in the book, Shoroplova describes a particular experience with a weeping beech in Shakespeare Garden with something close to reverence:

“When I first walked under its canopy of falling dark green drapery, tears came to my eyes. Somehow, the generosity of that tree, offering its shade and comfort to all who stand, walk, and drive underneath its south-facing leaves, opened my heart.” She then added, “As a friend says, ‘trees are divine beings.’”

Shoroplova shares why she feels calmed, centred, and connected in a forest, particularly in Stanley Park:

Hemlock on Cedar StanleyPark

Hemlock growing on cedar stump (Heritage House)

Maybe it’s because the change in a forest is constant yet unobservable, unobtrusive. Maybe it’s because I, as a human being, am so insignificant in size compared with the giants around me. Or because I, as a human being, have lived for such a short time compared with the ancient living beings around me. Or the green and the tree pheromones are so calming…

I used to feel this way when I skied downhill and when I breastfed my babies. I feel this way when I stand in the ocean and await the next wave and the next. I feel this way with my grandchildren. That’s what being in the forest does for us…It brings us to the present moment. That’s the gift.”

Victorian woman giant trees 1901

Woman wanders among the Seven Sisters giants, 1901 (Heritage House)

There is an abiding quality about trees and a living forest that is reassuring. “Trees are supportive, yet ambitious,” writes Shoropova. They are “quiet yet communicative, flexible yet strong, adaptive yet true to type.” They connect us to a larger world in a way that is both awe-inspiring and familiar.

“Learning the histories of the legacy trees in Stanley Park deepens our knowledge of the people of Vancouver—our history, our origins, our values,” Shoroplova explains in her opening chapter. These stories also show how Vancouver is maturing and evolving alongside its park forests and gardens. “We are shaking off the colonial identity that the park exhibited for so many decades and embracing the values of reconciliation with the first inhabitants of this land, the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh. We are also reclaiming what we can of the original nature of this land while honouring our communal history.”

Loggers springboard system Douglas-fir-1890s

Loggers using springboards to chop down a Douglas-fir giant, Stanley Park, 1890s (Heritage House)

Shoroplova arranged her tree stories into three parts: Part 1: The Trees Were Always There—trees that were already growing on the peninsula headland that became the federal reserve and then Stanley Park; Part 2: The First Trees Are Planted—those that were planted during the colonial and imperial years of the park (up to 1960); Part 3: The Park Grows Up—the years of growing independence.

Complete with old photos and original maps, Shoroplova offers several well-described and mapped routes to learn about and appreciate the beauty of the park. Her accurate science and historical accounts are dispensed in easily-digested and understood parcels through the language of conversation. The narrative is both charming and intriguing from the sad tale of the sentinel big Douglas-fir at the entrance to Stanley Park in 1894 to the princess-poet Pauline Johnson’s naming of Lost Lagoon and stories of historic events.

GeorgiaSt Entrance StanleyPark-bigfir-1894

Georgia Street entrance to Stanley Park in 1894 (Heritage House)

In a particularly engaging chapter of the book (Chapter 8), Shoroplova compares humans to trees and, through some interesting observations on tree physiology and behaviour, she draws some interesting conclusions. One example is her description of a tree’s heartbeat: how trunk and branches use a very slow pulse of contraction and expansion to send water up and out to every branchlet and leaf. Or how trees essentially breathe in more oxygen during the day (during active photosynthesis) and breathe out more carbon dioxide at night (during respiration without photosynthesis). Shoroplova likens it to “one slow breath for every twenty-four hours.” Shoroplova extends this fractal idea to the “suggestion that the northern hemisphere of Earth breathes in every summer and breathes out every winter. One slow planetary breath for every twelve months.”

Shoroplova also discusses two theories that explain the phenomenon of crown shyness, only seen in deciduous trees: “One is that trees of the same species avoid both being shaded by and shading each other. They take up space that is not already filled, allowing each other space to grow and breathe and capture the sun’s rays. The opposing theory is that stormy weather breaks off branches that are very close to each other. I suspect a mixture of both theories is at work.”

NurseryTree StanleyPark

Decaying log provides nutrients and substrate for other life (Heritage House)

Shoroplova continues her comparison in describing the life and death of a tree. “The death of a tree is a very drawn-out affair, taking years and even decades, as the tree changes from being healthy to having its health impinged on in some way, to losing more of its branches … to becoming a standing snag, and finally to falling to the forest floor. The decomposition—the composting—of one tree provides the soil for the birth and regeneration of many others. When a tree falls in the forest, its fallen form—minerals, fibre, and glucose—nourishes all the other life forms in its environment…Fallen trees become nurse logs for seedling trees, especially for western hemlocks.” In Chapter 9, Shoroplova shares how the forest—like the ocean—releases negative ions that help in general feelings of wellness as these ions “neutralize all the free radicals that result from our natural body processes or that exist as environmental toxins.”

RemainingSevenSister burl

Western red cedar with burl, remaining Seven Sister in Stanley Park (Heritage House)

In Chapter 12, Shoroplova describes the cathedral-like grandeur of the Seven Sisters grove of western redcedars and Douglas-firs as witnessed by Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson in 1911 and the sad narrative that followed. The fame of this stately grove of giants became their undoing—in the early 1950s the Park Board cut them down, citing safety reasons. The seven stately trees became seven sad stumps—with just one western redcedar with a large burl of the originals remaining. In 1988 the Park Board planted seven young Douglas-fir trees to replace the Seven Sisters. It will take time but eventually they may rival the Seven Sisters in majestic height. The single original sister still stands, prompting Shoroplova to “return to feel the history embedded in this single sibling.”

PaulineJohnson feather

E. Pauline Johnson

“But in all the world there is no cathedral whose marble or onyx columns can vie with those straight, clean, brown tree-boles that team with the sap and blood of life. There is no fresco that can rival the delicacy of lace-work they have festooned between you and the far skies. No tiles, no mosaic or inlaid marbles are as fascinating as the bare, russet, fragrant floor outspreading about their feet. They are the acme of Nature’s architecture, and in building them she has outrivalled all her erstwhile conceptions. She will never originate a more faultless design, never erect a more perfect edifice. But the divinely moulded trees and the man-made cathedral have one exquisite characteristic in common. It is the atmosphere of holiness.”—E. Pauline Johnson, Legends of Vancouver, 1911.

ProspectPoint 1891

Prospect Point, Stanley Park, 1891 (Heritage House)

Subsequent chapters are devoted to singular trees and charming stories throughout the various gardens and paths of Stanley Park. Shoroplova brings them all to life with an animated history that weaves through the park to the present day.

Nina looking up dougfir-LHP

Nina Munteanu looks up at giant Douglas-fir in Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by M. Ross)

She ends on a high note for me by invoking the wisdom of UBC ecologist and forester Suzanne Simard, who parses out four simple solutions to forest managers. They include: 1) know the local region and ecology and act accordingly; 2) stop or at least curtail most logging of the old-growth forests; 3) save the legacies, the mother trees and networks so they can pass their wisdom onto the next generation of trees; 4) help regenerate the biodiversity of forest ecosystems by planting and allowing natural regeneration. “Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they’re super-cooperators,” says Simard in a TED talk in June 2016. From Simard’s message I travelled to Ira Sutherland’s TEDx talk in October 2019, about the giant trees in Vancouver, which include Stanley Park; his message was also direct: 1) this is our story; and 2) Nature proves resilient.

I give Shoroplova a top score for ending her wonderful exposé on Stanley Park trees with action. Once we have connected with a forest and with a particular tree, we have walked through a door into awareness and ultimately responsibility. The wisdom and actionable message is clear. It isn’t enough to be a bystander. Just as E. Pauline Johnson raised the flag of awareness a hundred years ago for indigenous peoples and Nature by association, we must do the same. Or it will disappear. Sutherland points out that many of the sites where he has documented giant mother trees are not protected.

Bill Stephen, superintendent of urban forestry (retired), in his foreword to the book, wisely suggests how to use the book:

Read it first in a leisurely manner at home, and internalize the park’s history since its dedication in 1888. Then tuck it into your backpack and take it with you as a companion on your park wanderings. Take it on your smartphone or tablet as an ebook. Follow the maps, and use a maps app to enter the latitude/longitude coordinates of your place of interest for the day. Re-read its tales in the presence of the very trees about which it speaks, time travel with them, and return to the city with a richer sense of the connections between the trees of this great park and its human and animal actors. Then repeat…”

Vancouver StanleyPark bridge

North side of Sea Wall with view of north shore and Lion’s Gate Bridge, Stanley Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Johnson, E. Pauline 1911. “Legends of Vancouver.” Library of Alexandria. 196pp. E. Pauline Johnson (Takehionwake) was a daughter of a Mohawk Chief and a white mother.  She was one of Canada’s most famous performers, poet, feminist and indigenous activist of the Victorian era. Pauline Johnson documented legends, told to her by her great friend, Squamish Chief Joe Capilano, in the Vancouver newspaper, The Daily Province, and then a book, ‘Legends of Vancouver’, in print now for over 100 years.

Nombre, Antonio Donato. 2010. “The Magic of the Amazon: A river that flows invisibly all around us.” TEDx Talk, 21:27 min. November, 2010. The Amazon River is like a heart, pumping water from the seas through it, and up into the atmosphere through 600 billion trees, which act like lungs. Clouds form, rain falls and the forest thrives. In a lyrical talk, Antonio Donato Nobre talks us through the interconnected systems of this region, and how they provide environmental services to the entire world. A parable for the extraordinary symphony that is nature.

Simard, Suzanne. 2016. “How Trees Talk to Each Other.” TED Talk, 18:20 min. June, 2016. “A forest is much more than what you see,” says ecologist Suzanne Simard. Her 30 years of research in Canadian forests have led to an astounding discovery — trees talk, often and over vast distances. Learn more about the harmonious yet complicated social lives of trees and prepare to see the natural world with new eyes.

Shoroplova, Nina. 2020. “Legacy of Trees: Purposeful Wandering in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.” Heritage House Publishing Co.Ltd., Vancouver. 288pp.

Sutherland, Ira. 2019. “The Great Vancouver Forest: A Story of Place.” TEDx Talk, 21:04 min. Oct. 2019. Growing up among the tall forests near UBC, Ira Sutherland developed an appreciation and curiosity for forests early on. This talk invites his audience to explore Vancouver’s extensive forests and to hopefully see trees in a new light (for more information, see http://www.vancouversbigtrees.com)

 

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

Craig Russell’s “Fragment” in the time of COVID-19

Fragment-CraigRussellCraig Russell begins his eco-thriller Fragment with a TV interview of glaciologist Kate Sexsmith in Scott Base Antarctica. The interview is interrupted by what turns out to be four runaway glaciers that have avalanched into the back of the Ross Ice Shelf and a fragment the size of Switzerland surges out into the open sea. Hence the title: Fragment.

The original slide / wave and ensuing tsunami wipes out both Scott Station and the American McMurdo Station. The TV station records the moment:

Where Kate had stood to touch the map of Antarctica moments before, something hit the wall like an artillery round. It left a ragged hole through wall and map alike, framing an eerie light-show. A sheet of jewels flickered, glinting greens and blues, until a white mountain appeared and the screen went black.

Ross Ice Shelf 4

Ross Ice Shelf, Antartica

With astute prescience, Russell reveals humanity’s behaviour in the stress of such a momentous event: from scientists who understand the global significance of this rogue fragment to those who minimize its effect such as the media and tourist industry who wish to exploit this anomaly and self-centred politicians obsessed with protecting their status.

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Antartica

 

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Senator Inhofe and infamous snow ball

My first thought was: he’s stereotyping a little. Then COVID-19 broke out to become a global pandemic. The reactions of scientists, media and certain politicians (e.g. the Trumps of the world) have played out with COVID-19 just as Russell had predicted with Fragment. Then again, good science fiction reaches deeply into a society’s core being, our motivations, fears and strengths; this is why science fiction is so eerily good at predicting. The best way to predict possibilities of the future is to understand the present and, as Russell demonstrates, science fiction writers are in touch with the zeitgeist of the world.

Reflecting the American government’s ridiculous denial of climate change, and calling to mind Republican Senator Inhofe’s snow ball in the senate scene, Russell’s character David Rookland (Washington’s Science Advisor) uses the glacier avalanche and fragment that he (purposely) misunderstands to illustrate with equal lack of logic the same misguided myth: “these theorists claim that around the world, glaciers have been receding. Thankfully, as you can see in the second photo, dear old Mother Nature has proven them wrong again.”

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Blue whale

 

Russell’s chapters devoted to the POV of character Ring, a young blue whale also fragmented from his pod, are particularly touching and powerful. Chased alternatively by Killer whales and human hunters, Ring must warn his kind of the danger posed by the fragment. In one chapter Ring observes that “there’s a special taste to the air here, a tang carried north from the twin Smoking Mountains, which send their steamy vapors into the sky forever.”

Russell then weaves an inspiring legend among the blues about a whale named Long-Throat and the “hard/noisy things” that came to hunt. Men slaughtered so many and scattered the pods in all directions. According to the legend of Long-Throat, the faint bitter smell of the Smoking Mountains brought the pods together again. This had been a time, thinks Ring, when the pods were not afraid to be different, or of new places and strange experiences. But no more. “The Slaughter scarred his race and young Blues are fed fear with their mother’s milk. Fear that never heals, never sleeps. Fight it though he may, that fear lives inside him too.” Ring hopes that, by facing this new fear of the fragment and its incredible power to devastate (any whale caught under its massive moving force will drown), “the old fear can be allowed to sink away.” His course is clear: he must compose a new song to warn other blues. Ring ends up doing far more than sound the warning of the moving behemoth to his people when he is discovered by an American nuclear missile submarine. What follows is what I think is the real story and its magic.

Ross Ice Shelf

Ross ice shelf, Antarctica

The book is appropriately titled Fragment because in some ways the fragment is a main character, carrying the theme. It is herald, harbinger, and misunderstood by many. Its power is greatly underestimated by others, and it is set apart from its fold to become something else. Like Ring and his people. Like humanity, even. Just as the Corona virus pandemic (currently ravaging the world as I write this article) promises to change every aspect of our world, so too does the fragment.

The fragment: “….Its northern rim is a world of chaos. Pack-ice, bulldozed by the Fragment, has been swept up into a bramble, miles deep, piled up and over itself in a frozen explosion. The corpses of countless penguins lie within, broken by the onslaught. Behind this jumble rises the Wall. A hundred metres above the water line and six hundred below, the Shelf is old, formed before Columbus stumbled his way across the Atlantic. In the Fragment’s back, imbedded like spears, are vast sections of the four glaciers. Byrd, Nimrod, Beardmore, and Shackleton. Truly ancient, each is a fortress, hard as granite, laminated layer upon layer over millennia…The creatures of the sea meet the wall in their millions. The air breathers, penguins, seals, dolphins, and so on, have no hope. They swim and die, exhausted and drowned. For many of the water breathers like fish and squid, the drop in temperature near the Fragment is too much…Some species of fish, well able to withstand the cold, succumb instead to the unfamiliar fresh water that has begun to pool around the Fragment.”–Craig Russell, Fragment

In a scene near the end of the book, which could be taken out of our current COVID-19 crisis, Russell describes how carefully considered warnings by scientists are downplayed as “alarmist” resulting in devastating inaction:

When Kate Sexsmith presents a possible scenario of the Fragment smashing into Europe, the Chairman of the European Fragment Conference counters with “in that highly unlikely event” all is under control by the world community. To this dangerous platitude, Sexsmith challenges (only to receive a mealy-mouthed double-speak reply):

“Respectfully, Mr. Chairman, [says Sexsmith] the world has faced plenty of hurricanes, tidal waves, and earthquakes. But we have no historical event to compare with the Fragment. And Europe isn’t the only place in danger. There are millions of people at risk on the Caribeean islands. Many are poorly educated and have no resources of their own. When do we mov them? How do we move them? Who is prepared to take them in? And based on Stanley [which was totally destroyed by the Fragment] who is prepared to take them in on a permanent basis?”

“We are not blind to these concerns, Doctor [says the chairman]. But we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist approach. Our scientific community’s reputation for sound council is too important to risk…”

But when great disaster strikes, all peoples (whales and humanity) come together in solidarity. With new humility, kindness and wisdom. I was astonished at the way Russell pulled things together toward a unique resolution. I give Craig Russell five stars for the courage to end his book the way he did. It was pure magic. The kind of magic we all want to see more of in this currently beleaguered, divisive and consumer-obsessed world.

Antarctica ice

Antartica

As Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort said of COVID-19, the Fragment “might just turn the world around for the better [as] an amazing grace for the planet.”

Antarctica melting

Antarctica melting

 

Whales and Intelligence:

Scientists are still finding ways to assess “intelligence”, particularly in life that isn’t human. Whales have been shown to have emotional intelligence. They show signs of empathy, grief, joy, and playfulness. All of these learned behaviors, types of intelligence, and signs of teamwork have led scientists to think about groups of whales in new ways.

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Blue whale

Most humans believe that our ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other animals, but cetaceans may be superior. According to a comparison of cetacean to primate brains from Michigan State University, “They have the distinct advantage over us in that their primary sense is the same as their primary means of communication, both are auditory. With primates, the primary sense is visual and the primary means of communication is auditory.” Communication is so great in cetaceans that there is a strong possibility they are able to literally project an “auditory image” that replicates a sonar message they may receive.  MSU describes it this way: “So a dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”

Specialized brain cells called spindle neurons are most often associated with an organism’s ability to “recognize, remember, reason, communicate, perceive, adapt to change, problem solve and understand.” Spindle neurons have been isolated in the brains of both whales and dolphins, which suggests that whales do a lot more thinking than previously thought. Dolphins, for example, have been known to recognize themselves in mirrors, solve problems, follow recipes, and associate a part of their anatomy with that of a human’s (such as when a dolphin waves it’s fin whenever a trainer waves their arm). Recent studies even indicate that dolphins are capable of creating personalized whistles that act as names for individual members of a pod. With this name, dolphins are able to communicate more efficiently while roaming the open seas.

mother calf humpback whale

Mother humpback and her calf

In a Scientific American article entitled “Are Whales Smarter Then We Are?” R. Douglas Fields writes: Logically, brain function and intelligence must relate to the number of neurons. Intelligence resides in the neocortex (the thin, convuluted “rind” of the brain) rather than in other, underlying areas devoted to controlling vital housekeeping functions for the body, so Eriksen and Pakkenberg focused their investigation there. The frontal lobes of the dolphin brain are comparatively smaller than in other mammals, but the researchers found that the neocortex of the Minke whale was surprisingly thick. The whale neocortex is thicker than that of other mammals and roughly equal to that of humans (2.63 mm). However, the layered structure of the whale neocortex is known to be simpler than that of humans and most other mammals. In particular, whales lack cortical layer IV, and thus have five neocortical layers to humankind’s six. This means that the wiring of connections into and out of the neocortex is much different in whales than in other mammals. The researchers’ cellular census revealed that the total number of neocortical neurons in the Minke whale was 12.8 billion. This is 13 times that of the rhesus monkey and 500 times more than rats, but only 2/3 that of the human neocortex. What can account for the fact that whales have bigger brains — and similarly thick neocortexes — but fewer neurons? Eriksen and Pakkenberg found that there were 98.2 billion non-neuronal cells, called glia, in the Minke whale neocortex. This is the highest number of glial cells in neocortex seen in any mammal studied to date. The ratio of neocortical glial cells to neocortical neurons is 7.7 to 1 in Minke whales and only 1.4 to 1 in humans. This finding may indicate a tendency for larger glia/neuron ratios as brain mass increases to support the growing neurons. But when one considers other recent research revealing that glia play an important role in information processing (see “The Other Half of the Brain,” fromn Sci. Am. April 2004), one is left to wonder. Is the whale brain intellectually weaker than the human brain, or just different? They have fewer neurons but more glia, and in traditional views of the glia, the neurons count for much more.

In her article in One Green Planet entitled “Whales and Dolphins Might Be The Smartest Animals”, Madison Montgomery leaves us a strong message and exhortation: “While it appears that cetaceans have incredible abilities to feel emotions, understand complex problems and communicate in ways we can’t even imagine, humans don’t seem to value this. Because we assume we are so smart, we put the other creatures of the world underneath us. Knowing how dynamic cetaceans are, keeping them in glorified bathtubs and forcing them to do tricks for food is insulting and cruel. Could you imagine the pain of living in a small room your entire life and having to do flips to be fed? Sounds like a miserable existence, doesn’t it?”

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

 

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way…

Windup GirlPaolo Bacigalupi’s 2015 biopunk science fiction novel The Windup Girl occurs in 23rd century post-food crash Thailand after global warming has raised sea levels and carbon fuel sources are depleted. Thailand struggles under the tyrannical boot of ag-biotech multinational giants such as AgriGen, RedStar, and PurCal—predatory companies who have fomented corruption and political strife through their plague-inducing and sterilizing genetic manipulations. The story’s premise could very easily be described as “what would happen if Monsanto got its way?”

Bacigalupi’s story opens in Bangkok, “City of Angels”, now below sea level and precariously protected by a giant sea wall and pumps that run on bio-power:

Windup Girl-closeIt’s difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult not to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen. But the Thais are stubborn and have fought to keep their revered city of Krung Thep from drowning. With coal-burning pumps and leveed labor and a deep faith in the visionary leadership of their Chakri Dynasty they have so far kept at bay that thing which has swallowed New York and Rangoon, Mumbai and New Orleans.

Energy storage in this post-oil society is provided by manually-wound springs using cruelly mistreated genehacked megodonts—elephant-slave labor. Biotechnology dominates via international mega-corporations—called calorie companies—that control food production through genehacked seeds. The companies use bioterrorism and economic hitmen to secure markets for their products—just as Monsanto is currently doing. Plagues (some they created, others unintended mutations) have wiped out the natural seed stock, now virtually supplanted by genetically engineered sterile plants and mutant pests such as cibiscosis, blister rust, and genehack weevil. Thailand—one of the economically disadvantaged—has avoided economic subjugation by the foreign calorie companies through some ingenuity—a hidden seedbank of diverse natural seeds—and is now targeted by the agri-corporations.

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future Bangkok envisioned by Julien Gauthier

Bacigalupi’s opening entwines the clogged and crumbling city of Bangkok and its swarming beggars, slaves and laborers in a microcosm of a world spinning out of control:

Overhead, the towers of Bangkok’s old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows long ago blown out, great bones picked clean. Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun. The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scald chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements.

Anderson Lake is a farang (of white race) who owns an AgriGen factory trying to mass-produce kink-springs—successors to the internal combustion engine) to store energy. The factory is in fact a cover for his real mission: to find and exploit the secret Thai seedbank with its wealth of genetic material. We later discover that Lake is an economic hitman and spy whose previous missions have destroyed entire countries for the sake of monopoly.

Emiko is an illegal Japanese “windup” (genetically modified human), owned by a Thai sex club owner, and treated as a sub-human slave. When she meets Lake, he cavalierly shares that a refuge in the remnant forests of northern Thailand exists for people like her (the “New People”); Emiko dreams of escaping her bonds to find her own people in the north. But like Bangkok itself, both protected and trapped by the wall against a sea poised to claim it—a bustling city of squalor caught up in the clash of new and old—Emiko cannot escape who and what she is: a gifted modified human—and possible herald of a sustainable future—vilified and feared by the very humanity that created her.

 

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Bangkok’s floating market

Bangkok emerges as a central character in a story that explores the paradox of conflicting dialectics battling for survival in a violently changing world. Anyone who has spent time in Bangkok will recognize the connective tissue that holds together its crumbling remnants with ambitious chic. Just like the novel’s cheshires: genetically created “cats” (made by an agri-giant as a “toy”) that wiped out the regular cat Felis domesicus.

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Cheshire Cat of “Alice in Wonderland”

Named after Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat, these crafty creatures have adapted well to Bangkok’s unstable environment. The cheshires exemplify the cost of unintended consequence (a major theme in the novel); the cheshires also reflect the paradoxical nature of a shape-shifting city of Thais, Chinese and Malaya refuges who struggle to survive in a place that is both haven and danger:

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Cheshire cat disappearing

The flicker-shimmer shapes of cheshires twine, yowling and hoping for scraps … The old man’s flinch is as hallucinogenic as a cheshire’s fade—one moment there, the next gone and doubted … The devil cats flicker closer. Calico and ginger, black as night—all of them fading in and out of view as their bodies take on the colors of their surroundings.

Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai is a righteous white shirt—the strong arm of the Ministry of the Environment. He is a faithful Thai Buddhist, whose only weakness is his sense of invincibility borne from a mistaken sense of government integrity. Revered by fellow white shirts as the “Tiger of Bangkok,” he is incorruptible—we find out that he may be the only person in the entire place who refuses to be swayed by bribes. A true and passionate believer in the cause he is fighting for—the very survival of the environment and his people by association—Jaidee is ruthless in his raids and attacks on those who wish to open the markets of globalization and potential contamination. Early in the novel, Jaidee reflects on humanity’s impact on the ecological cycle:

All life produces waste. The act of living produces costs, hazards, and disposal questions, and so the Ministry has found itself in the centre of all life, mitigating, guiding and policing the detritus of the average person along with investigating the infractions of the greedy and short-sighted, the ones who wish to make quick profits and trade on others’ lives for it.

Bacigalupi astutely identifies the tenuous role of any government’s environment ministry—to protect and champion the environment—within a government that values its economy more highly and when, in fact, most of the time its members operate quietly in the pocket of short-sighted politicians and business men who focus myopically on short-term gain. “The symbol for the Environment Ministry is the eye of the tortoise, for the long view—the understanding that nothing comes cheap or quickly without a hidden cost,” Jaidee thinks. The United States EPA is a prime example of such paradox—in which the agency’s top executive is in fact a former industrialist who lobbied for deregulation. The current EPA no longer fulfills its role as guardian of the environment. In Canada, I have witnessed terrible conflict between one ministry with another in a game of greed vs. protection. Bacigalupi showcases this diametric with his characters Pracha (Environment) and Akkarat (Trade).

Abandoned Shopping Mall now Koi Pond

Abandoned supermarket now a giant koi pond, Bangkok

The rivalry between Thailand’s Minister of Trade and Minister of the Environment represent the central conflict of the novel, reflecting the current conflict of neo-liberal promotion of globalization and its senseless exploitation (Akkarat) with the forces of sustainability, fierce environmental protection and (in some cases) isolationism (Pracha). Given the setting and the two men vying for power, both scenarios are extreme and there appears no middle ground for a balanced existence using responsible and sustainable means. Emiko, who represents a possible future, is precariously poised; Jaidee, the single individual who refuses to succumb to the bribes of a dying civilization—is sacrificed: just as integrity and righteousness are violently destroyed when chaos threatens and engulfs.

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“Windup Girl” Bangkok dam

Various reviewers of the novel identify the gaijin (foreigner) Anderson Lake as the closest thing to a protagonist. In fact, Lake never manages to rise from his avatar as the human face to the behemoth of ruthless globalization, the face of a Monsanto-look-alike. He is an unsympathetic and weak character, who—despite showing some feelings for the windup girl—connives and lacks human compassion to the end. Not a protagonist. During a meeting with the Minister of Trade, in which Lake hubristically offers “aid”, Akkarat confronts Lake on the destruction of his greedy corporation: “Ever since your first missionaries landed on our shores, you have always sought to destroy us. During the old Expansion your kind tried to take every part of us. Chopping off the arms and legs of our country…With the Contraction, your worshipped global economy left us starving and over-specialized. And then your calorie plagues came.” Lake shrugs this off and continues his aggressive exchange with the minister—sealing his fate beneath Nature’s relentless tsunami.

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Twug tank, imagined by Rob Davies

Jaidee—who is brutally killed on page 197 of the novel with another 200 pages to go—remains Bacigalupi’s only character of agency worth following. The Tiger of Bangkok represents the Ministry of Environment’s hard policy of environmental protection—the only thing that kept Thailand from falling to the global mega-corporation’s plagues. With Jaidee’s demise, we tumble in free fall into a “Game of Thrones” miasma of “who goes next—I don’t care.” While I continued to read, it was more from post-traumatic shock than from eager interest. It was as though I’d lost a good friend—my safety anchor in a horrid place—and was now set adrift. I drifted, alone, amid the remaining characters—each pathetic in their own way—on a slow slide into the wrathful hell of a vengeful Nature. I found myself rooting for the cheshires and windups, experiments-turned victims-turned adapted survivors of a vast unintended consequence in human greed.

Perhaps that is what Bacigalupi intended.

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Concept of megadonts in “Windup Girl”

And yet, there is unsmiling monosyllabic Kanya, Jaidee’s not-so-pure lieutenant, now promoted to his position and eager to atone for her former betrayal—we learn that she was planted as a Trade mole in Environment. Struggling to do the right thing after Jaidee’s murder, Kanya emerges as the true protagonist in the novel. As we learn more of her unfortunate history and gain a clear understanding of her complex motivations (we get no such insight into Lake), Kanya’s journey unfolds through heartbreak and redemption. Kanya picks up Jaidee’s spirit—literally—and, accompanied by his phii (his ghost), tries to settle the warring factions to gain peace for a rioting city. Of course, it doesn’t work and the gaiji devils return in full force as Akkarat hands over Thailand and its precious seedbank to the American corporations.

Happy with Akkarat’s coup, corporate mogul Carlyle says to Lake: “The first thing we do is go find some whiskey and a rooftop, and watch the damn sun rise over the country we just bought.”

Instructed to take the AgriGen gaigi to the vault and hand over the seedbank to them, “Kanya studies the people who used to be called calorie demons and who now walk so brazenly in Krung Thep, the City of Divine Beings.” Jeering and laughing with no respect, the gaiji behave like they own the place. In a sudden moment of clarity—inspired by Jaidee’s phii—Kanya then singlehandedly creates her own coup by executing the AgriGen gaigi and instructing the monks to dispatch Thailand’s precious seedbank safely to the jungle wilderness. Husked of its precious treasure, the city implodes.  Floodwater pumps and locks fail to sabotage. Then the monsoons arrive. The City of Angels gives in to the sea that chases refugees into the genehack-destroyed outer forests.

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Paolo Bacigalupi

While Kanya triumphs in her own personal battle, she remains less agent of change than feckless witness to Nature’s powerful force as it unfurls like a giant cheshire and sends dominoes crashing into one another.

Fittingly, Bacigalupi’s Epilogue belongs to the windup girl and the cheshires. And an uncertain future with promise of change.

And that is certainly what Bacigalupi intended.

 

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Bangkok sunset by Julien Gauthier

 

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.

 

Audiobook Blog Tour of The Splintered Universe Trilogy: Book 3 “Metaverse”

We continue our Audiobook series blog tour with Book 3 “Metaverse” of Nina Munteanu’s “The Splintered Universe Trilogy,” a science fiction detective adventure, starring the indomitable Galactic Guardian, Rhea Hawke.

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“Dawn Harvey breathed incredible life into the lead character, Rhea Hawke–both sarcastic and vulnerable at the same time; a detective with a cynical edge, and sultry voice tinged with wiry sarcasm. The story unfolded through Rhea’s narrative like an old film noir as she unraveled mysteries that led to the greatest one: her own.”–Amazon Review

Book 1, Outer Diverse: January 8-14
Book 2, Inner Diverse: January 15-21
Book 3, Metaverse: January 21-28

The tour with blog sites includes spotlights, reviews, audio excerpts, Rhea’s proverbs, character profiles, guest posts, interviews of author, narrator (and character Rhea Hawke!)

Join the third part of the audiobook tour with “Metaverse“, the last book of the trilogy.

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In Metaverse (Book Three) the scintillating conclusion of the Splintered Universe Trilogy, Rhea Hawke travels back to Earth, hoping to convince an eccentric mystic to help her defend humanity from an impending Vos attack–only to find herself trapped in a deception that promises to change her and her two worlds forever.

 

“An action packed adventure! I really enjoyed the narration by Harvey for this second book. She has a large cast of characters to portray and she did them all excellently! I felt like each was easily distinguishable and had their own quirks. The story … had a great amount of action to keep me interested the whole time. I feel like I truly understand more about this crazy and exciting world. I can’t wait to see how this all ends up, but I’m now 100% invested in Reah and her companions! ”–The Book Addict 

TOUR SCHEDULE for METAVERSE

Follow the itinerary for “METAVERSE“, Book 3 of the trilogy (Jan 22-28):

Jan. 22nd:
Assorted Nonsense (Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Rhea’s Proverbs)

Jan. 23rd:
Lilly’s Book World (Review, Spotlight + Audio Excerpt)

Jan. 24th:
Book Addict (Review, Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Interview with Rhea Hawke, Rhea’s lexicon Giveaway)

Jan. 25th:
Dab of Darkness Book Reviews (Review, Interview with Rhea Hawke, Splintered Universe Lexicon)

Jan. 26th:
Jazzy Book Reviews (Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Rhea’s lexicon, Giveaway)

Jan. 27th:
The Book Addict’s Reviews (Audio Excerpt, Character Interview, Rhea’s lexicon)

Jan. 28th:
Chapter Break (Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Character Interview)

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“A master of metaphor, Munteanu turns an adventure story into a wonderland of alien rabbit holes… a fascinating and enthralling read.” (Craig Bowlsby, author of Commander’s Log)

“A rollicking science fiction plot with all the trappings…Hawke is a maverick in the wild west tradition…a genetic mystery with lethal powers.” (Lynda Williams, author of Okal Rel series)

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What a rollicking tour it’s been! If you missed any of it, just go back to the previous posts here to find the archived blog posts of the tour.