“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.

Nina Munteanu Reads on “Sample Chapter Podcast”

I recently appeared on Episode #142 of award-winning “Sample Chapter Podcast” where I had a wonderful interview with Jason Meuschke and read a sample chapter from my recent eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.” 

Jason and I talked about the writing process; what makes good and compelling fiction; creating realistic and interesting characters with flaws–like my flawed detective Rhea Hawke in The Splintered Universe Trilogy‘ writing eco-fiction in which environment can be a character; the “what ifs” in historical fiction and where we get our ideas (The Last Summoner came to me in a dream and later through a single image).

This is what Jason said about Episode 142 of The Sample Chapter Podcast with Nina Munteanu:

Episode 142 is here with a truly delightful author from Canada, Nina Munteanu. In the episode, Nina and Jason discuss character flaws, having the environment be a character in our prose, the “what ifs” in historical fiction, the writer’s “wavelengths”, and much more all before enjoying a magical chapter reading. Enjoy!

Here’s the podcast:

First snow in Thompson Creek marsh, 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” Receives Literary Titan Award

Nina Munteanu’s cli-fi eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was awarded a Silver 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.”–Literary Titan

“A Diary in the Age of Water” received a 4-star review by Literary Titan:

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)

The Legacy of Trees: Purposefully Wandering Vancouver’s Stanley Park

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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.

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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:

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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…”

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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.

Audiobook Blog Tour of The Splintered Universe Trilogy: Book 2 “Inner Diverse”

We continue our Audiobook series blog tour with Book 2Inner Diverse” 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, guest posts, interviews of author, narrator (and character Rhea Hawke!)

Join the second part of the audiobook tour with “Inner Diverse“, Book 2 of the trilogy.

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Rhea Hawke (Vali Gurgu)

In Inner Diverse (Book Two) of this metaphysical space thriller trilogy, detective Rhea Hawke continues her quest for truth and justice in a world that is not what it seems. Rhea’s search takes her to the far reaches of the known universe from the Weeping Mountains of Horus to the blistering deserts of Upsilon 3. Amidst the turmoil of an imminent extra-galactic war, Rhea holds the key even as those she trusts betray her. No one is what they seem…

 

“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 INNER DIVERSE

Follow the itinerary for “Inner Diverse“, Book 2 of the trilogy (Jan 15-21):

Jan. 15th:
Assorted Nonsense (Narrator Interview)

Jan. 16th:
Lilly’s Book World (Review, Spotlight + Audio Excerpt)

Jan. 17th:
Jazzy Book Reviews (Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Rhea’s Proverbs, Giveaway)

Jan. 18th:
Dab of Darkness Book Reviews (Review, Narrator Interview & testimonial, Rhea’s Proverbs)

Jan. 19th:
The Book Addict’s Reviews (Review, Audio Excerpt, Narrator Interview & testimonial, Rhea’s Proverbs)

Jan. 20th:
Book Addict (Review, Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Narrator Interview, Giveaway)

Jan. 21st:
Chapter Break (Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Narrator Interview, Guest Post)

 

“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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Remaining tour continues with Book 3 (“Metaverse“) Jan 22-28. Come join us and share your thoughts.

Science Fiction Asks: Are We Worth Saving?

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Gargantua Black Hole in “Interstellar)

Science fiction, which Ted Gioia of The San Francisco Chronicle calls “conceptual fiction” explores the interaction of humanity with some larger phenomenon that involves science. SF writer Robert J. Sawyer calls it the fiction of the large. Large ideas, large circumstance, large impact. Science fiction is a powerful literature of allegory and metaphor that is deeply embedded in culture. By capturing context, SF is a symbolic meditation on history itself and ultimately a literature of great vision.

Science fiction is the literature of consequence that, in exploring large issues faced by humankind, can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness and a planetary consciousness. Much of science fiction is currently focused in that direction. Terms such as eco-fiction, climate fiction and its odd cousin “cli-fi”, have embedded themselves in science fiction terminology; this fiction has attracted a host of impressive authors who write to its calling: Margaret Atwood, Emmi Itäranta, Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, Barbara Kingsolver, Upton Sinclair, Ursula Le Guin, JoeAnn Hart, Frank Herbert, John Yunker, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Bradley, Paolo Bacigalupi, Nathaniel Rich, David Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Claire Vaye Watkins, J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux, Thomas Wharton—just to name a few. The list seems endless. Of course, I’m one of them too. Many of these works explore and illuminate environmental degradation and ecosystem collapse at the hands of humanity.

Lately, science fiction is asking the question of whether humanity is worth saving and at what expense?

It’s a valid question.

As the first swell of the climate change tidal wave laps at our feet, we are beginning to see the planetary results of what humanity has created and exacerbated. Humanity has in many ways reached a planetary tipping point; a threshold that will be felt by all aspects of our planet, both animate and inanimate as the planet’s very identity shifts.

the great acceleration copyScientists have suggested that we have now slid from the relatively stable Holocene Epoch to the Anthropocene Epoch—the age of humanity. The term arose not from hubris, but in recognition of our ubiquitous and overwhelming influence on large systems and planetary cycles.

GreatDerangement climatechange copyTake water, for instance. Today, we control water on a massive scale. Reservoirs around the world hold 10,000 cubic kilometres of water; five times the water of all the rivers on Earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the Earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by eight millionths of a second in the last forty years. Ponder too, that an age has a beginning and an end. Is climate change the planet’s way of telling us that the  Anthropocene Epoch too shall end? Is that when we end … or transcend?

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

Are we worth saving? Below are a few examples of movies, TV series I’ve lately watched and books I’ve lately read that address this key question to an irresponsible humanity that seems unconcerned that we are destroying our very home. In some the question is subtly implied; in others, not so subtle.

Battlestar Galactica (2004)

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In the pilot of Battlestar Galactica, Commander Adama gives an impromptu speech (not the one he prepared; but one provoked by an argument with his son), which resonates throughout the entire series as cylon and human must refashion themselves and their relationship to each other while they discover the cyclical recursive nature of all things and that “all this has happened before and will again.”

The Galactica ship is about to be decommissioned and has now become a museum since the cylons have disappeared forty years ago. The great battle between the cylons and their human creators ended forty years ago with the cylons disappearing suddenly, never to be heard from again. But that is about to change; as Adama gives his speech, the first strike occurs, followed by a massive attack that almost wipes out the human race.

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Commander Adama

In his speech Adama says:

“The cost of wearing the uniform can be high…but sometimes it’s too high. When we fought the cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question why. Why are we as a people worth saving. We still commit murder because of greed, spite and jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done. Like we did with the cylons. We decided to play God. Create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things you’ve created. Sooner or later the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.”

Interstellar (2014)

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Voyaging to Gargantua Black Hole

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Cooper explores the ice planet

Early on in the science fiction movie Interstellar, NASA astronaut Cooper declares that “the world is a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now. Mankind was born on Earth; it was never meant to die here.”

After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, NASA Professor Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” The human-centred hubris in this colonialist mentality lies in what we have left behind—a planet suffocating from the effects of humanity’s careless and thoughtless activities. What Interstellar circles but does not address is the all-important question: is humanity even worth saving?

The suggestion during the movie’s final moments, is that we are worth saving because we will transcend into wiser benevolent beings: a hopeful gesture based on the power of love.

The Three Body Problem (2014)

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Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem was set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, because, says Liu, “The Cultural Revolution provides the necessary background for the story. The tale I wanted to tell demanded a protagonist [Ye Wenjie] who gave up all hope in humanity and human nature. I think the only episode in modern Chinese history capable of generating such a response is the Cultural Revolution. It was such a dark and absurd time that even dystopias like 1984 seem lacking in imagination in comparison.” (I suppose Cixin did not experience the holocaust of Germany or Stalin’s purge in the Soviet Union).

ThreeBodyProblemIn the story, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. One of the main protagonists is Ye Wenjie, a young woman traumatized after witnessing the execution of her scientist father in a brutal cleansing at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Considered a traitor, young Wenjie is sent to a labour brigade in Inner Mongolia, where she witnesses further destruction by humans:

“Ye Wenjie could only describe the deforestation that she witnessed as madness. The tall Dahurian larch, the evergreen Scots pine, the slim and straight white birch, the cloud-piercing Korean aspen, the aromatic Siberian fir, along with black birch, oak, mountain elm, Chosenia arbutifolia—whatever they laid eyes on, they cut down. Her company wielded hundreds of chain saws like a swarm of steel locusts, and after they passed, only stumps were left.

The fallen Dahurian larch, now bereft of branches, was ready to be taken away by tractor. Ye gently caressed the freshly exposed cross section of the felled trunk. She did this often, as though such surfaces were giant wounds, as though she could feel the tree’s pain… The trunk was dragged away. Rocks and stumps in the ground broke the bark in more places, wounding the giant body further. In the spot where it once stood, the weight of the fallen tree being dragged left a deep channel in the layers of decomposing leaves that had accumulated over the years. Water quickly filled the ditch. The rotting leaves made the water appear crimson, like blood.”

Already cynical about humanity’s failed culture and science—Wenjie acquires a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book and revelation she experiences from it sets in motion her remaining trajectory.

“More than four decades later, in her last moments, Ye Wenjie would recall the influence Silent Spring had on her life. The book dealt only with a limited subject: the negative environmental effects of excessive pesticide use. But the perspective taken by the author shook Ye to the core. The use of pesticides had seemed to Ye just a normal, proper—or, at least, neutral—act, but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to our world. If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil?

As she continued to mull over these thoughts, a deduction made her shudder: Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean.…It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.”

Ye is sent to the Chinese version of SETI and succeeds in sending a message to aliens on Trisolaris. Despite a warning that the Trisolarians mean only to invade, Wenjie invites them to Earth. To ensure the arrival of the Trisolaris aliens, she collaborates with Michael Evans—an oil billionaire’s son who is disgusted with human’s destruction of Nature. Despising humankind in its current state, Wenjie believes the aliens will somehow ensure humanity’s transcendence; Evans, however, applauds the coming invasion as the best route to achieve the eradication of humanity and the survival of the rest of the planet.

The Expanse (2015) 

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Bobby Draper and crew face an unknown enemy on Ganymede Station

 

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Naomi and Holden

The Expanse is a stylish and intelligent science fiction (SF) TV series (on Syfy Channel) based on books by James S.A. Corey. It is set 200 years in the future when humanity has colonized the moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt to mine minerals and water. This sophisticated SF film noir thriller elevates the space opera sub-genre with a meaningful metaphoric exploration of issues relevant in today’s world—issues of resource allocation, domination & power struggle, values, prejudice, and racism. Ever-expanding outward in a frantic search for resources as Earth’s own resources fester in pollution and Earthers languish on “the dole”, colonizing humans on Mars and the Belt have even changed their physiology, culture, language and identity.

The tag line of the first season poster for The Expanse reads: “We’ve gone too far.” The series begins on Ceres with a Belter activist inciting a crowd with talk about how Mars and Earth are squeezing Belters for all their water.

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Avasarala and DeGraaf

Not so subtle signs of our destructive jingoistic determination runs through this series (now in its third season). After Under Secretary Avasarala’s friend Degraaf (Earth ambassador to Mars) becomes a casualty of one of her intel games, Degraaf quietly shares: “You know what I love about Mars?… They still dream; we gave up. They are an entire culture dedicated to a common goal: working together as one to turn a lifeless rock into a garden. We had a garden and we paved it.”

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Miller and Dawes sparring

Ceres born militant activist Anderson Dawes confides to Detective Miller: “All we’ve ever known is low G and an atmosphere we can’t breathe. Earthers,” he continues, “get to walk outside into the light, breathe pure air, look up at a blue sky and see something that gives them hope. And what do they do? They look past that light, past that blue sky. They see the stars and they think ‘mine’… Earthers have a home; it’s time Belters had one too.”

The Martians hold Earth in contempt for their cavalier approach to their resources. Onboard the MCRN Donnager, Martian Lopez asks his prisoner Jim Holden if he misses Earth and Holden grumbles, “If I did, I’d go back.” Lopez then dreamily relates stories his uncle told him about Earth’s “endless blue sky and free air everywhere. Open water all the way to the horizon.” Then Lopez turns a cynical eye back on Holden. “I could never understand your people. Why, when the universe has bestowed so much upon you, you seem to care so little for it.” Holden admits, “Wrecking things is what Earthers do best…”

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Martian marine Bobbie Draper

Then he churlishly adds, “Martians too, by the look of your ship.” Lopez retorts, “We are nothing like you. The only thing Earthers care about is government handouts. Free food, free water. Free drugs to forget the aimless lives you lead. You’re shortsighted. Selfish. It will destroy you. Earth is over, Mr. Holden. My only hope is that we can bring Mars to life before you destroy that too.” When a Ceres-born Detective Miller asks Holden why he left Earth, Holden responds: “everything I loved there was being destroyed.”

The show makes a few opportunities to point out what we are doing to our planet. Cherish what you have. Cherish your home and take care of it. We’re reminded that time and again, we aren’t doing a good job of that. When Martian marine Bobbie Draper travels to Earth for the first time and is compelled to find the ocean, she is met with the stench of sewage and garbage; yet, she looks longingly out to sea, seeing a dream…

Incorporated (2016)

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Incorporated is a science fiction thriller that provides a chilling glimpse of a post-climate change dystopia. Created by David and Alex Pastor and produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ted Humphrey and Jennifer Todd, the TV show (filmed in Toronto, Canada) opens in 82 °F Milwaukee in November 2074 after environmental degradation, water level rise, widespread famine and mismanagement have bankrupted governments. We learn later that Milwaukee Airport served as a FEMA climate relocation centre that resembles an impoverished shantytown. In the wake of the governments demise, a tide of multinational corporations has swept in to control 90% of the globe and ratified the 29th amendment, granting them total sovereignty.

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Corporations fight a brutal covert war for market share and dwindling natural resources. Like turkey vultures circling overhead, they position themselves for what’s left after short-sighted government regulations, lack of corporate check and FEMA mismanagement have ‘had their way’ with the planet. The world is now a very different place. There is no Spain or France. Everything south of the Loire is toxic desert; submerged New York City reduced to a punch line in a joke. Reykjavik and Anchorage are sandy beach destinations and Norway is the new France—at least where champagne vineyards are concerned. Asia and Canada are coveted for their less harsh climates.

Chad-alert copyIncorporated is less thriller than satire; it is less science fiction than cautionary tale.

 “You look to Incorporated for dystopian fiction that expresses our current anxieties,” writes Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly. “What you get is fitful resonance that makes you realize it might be too soon for any show to meet that challenge.”

Or is it more that we may be too late… The question of whether we are worth saving is never asked—it is shown: and perhaps the real reason the show was cancelled after one season.

3% (2016)

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3% is set in the near future after the planet has fallen into a divided haves and have-nots through environmental calamity. Three percent of the population live well on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, called Offshore (Mar Alto). The remaining 97% struggle Inland with poverty and scarcity. A selection process lies between them.

3-poster-title copyEvery year the 97% send their 20-year olds to undergo The Process, a grueling Hunger Games-style contest run by the Offshore elite to replenish their numbers. Only 3% of the candidates will be considered worthy. They must pass psychological, emotional and physical tests to earn a place in Mar Alto.

By the time Season 1 is over, candidates will have committed a full range of desperate and unsavory acts to make the cut—the stakes are high, after all: secure a position in the 3% elite or die in squalor and poverty. After being eliminated during the interview process, one youth throws himself off a balcony of the testing centre.

3% examines the motivations and paradoxes of heroism and villainy, sometimes turning them on their sides until they touch with such intimacy you can’t tell them apart. At its deepest, 3% explores the nature of humanity—from its most glorious to its most heinous—under the stress of scarcity and uncertainty. How we behave under these polarizing challenges ultimately determines who we are. The question of whether we are worth saving is explored through the subtleties—or not so subtle aspects—of a fascist society that practices exterminism. 

Missions (2018) 

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Missions is a French TV series about the race by two ships—the Ulysses and Z1, representing two ambitious billionaires—to explore Mars. It opens in 1967 with the heroic sacrifice of Vladimir Komarov, the pilot of the faulty Soyuz 1, who knew he would not return and accepted his mission to save his best friend, Yuri Gagarin (his backup). This heroic act is mirrored in the last episode of Season 1 with a similar selfless act of heroism by Ulysses psychologist Jeanne Renoir to save her crewmembers who are trying to escape a fatal dust storm on Mars.

missions-posterAfter the 1967 opening scene with Komarov, we go to the present day with psychologist Jeanne Renoir, conducting an experiment on a child: giving them one marshmallow and leaving the room with the instruction that if they don’t eat the marshmallow but wait for her to return, they’ll get two. Jeanne correctly anticipates the child will eat the marshmallow.

Amid developments between the two ship teams in which self-serving agendas, paranoias and blind ambition reign, Jeanne shares a vision with an entity that looks like Komarov, in which he tells her: “Yes, people dream of other places, while they can’t even look after their own planet…You must remember your past in order to think about your future. Do you think Earth has a future?” When Jeanne says she doesn’t know, Komarov challenges, “Yes, you do. They eat their marshmallow right away, when they could have two. Or a thousand. Do you think humanity can continue like that?” Of course she doesn’t think so. Komarov continues, “People have chosen a brief but exciting life. Your species burns the candle at both ends. You know this. And it terrifies you…”

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Jeanne Renoir

From the beginning, we glimpse a surreal connection between Jeanne and Komarov and ultimately between Earth and Mars: from her childhood admiration for the Russian’s heroism on Earth to the “visions” they currently share that link key elements of her past to Mars and Komarov’s strange energy-giving powers, to Jeanne’s own final act of heroism on Mars.

As the storyline develops, linking Earth and Mars in startling ways, and as various agendas—personal missions—are revealed, we finally clue in on the main question that “Missions”—through Komarov and finally Jeanne—is asking: are we worth saving?

The Beyond (2018)

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In The Beyond, the sudden appearance of a wormhole causes the disappearance of astronaut Jim Marcell during EVA on Earth’s orbiting space station, followed by associated calamitous phenomena on Earth. Giant dark spherical clouds then appear and settle all over the Earth, disrupting the world’s population, and setting in motion a series of fearful and aggressive reactions by various sectors of humanity.

The Beyond-poster copyThe Beyond’s climax, discovery and resolution is really more of a question. The movie doesn’t have a tidy end; its solution is veiled with more questions.

The film ends with a cautious hope, implicitly asking that big question: are we (humanity) worth saving? When Jessica asks why humanity was offered a second chance by benevolent beings way beyond our comprehension, the returned Jim Marcell (currently a spokesman for the aliens) shows her the GAD (Golden Archive Drive with video images of Earth and humanity—basically our “hello” message to extra-solar life like the one placed onboard NASA’s Pioneer missions) that had accompanied the ship into the wormhole. The message displayed scenes of mothers and their children, people laughing in joy; it also showed scenes of other aspects of this beautiful planet worth saving: the ocean surf, the forests and wildlife. In our hubris, we have lost our perspective about this planet. Perhaps, it wasn’t so much humanity the alien beings intended to save but the Earth itself; we just come along with it. The Earth is, after all, a beautiful, vital and unique world, rich with life-giving water, trees, animals, creatures of all kinds in a diverse network of flowing and evolving beauty. A planet worth saving and that, frankly, functions better without us.

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

We do not live lightly on this planet.

We tread with incredibly heavy feet. We behave like bullies and, as The Beyond points out, our inclination to self-interest makes us far too prone to suspicion and distrust: when we meet the unknown, we tend to respond with fear and aggression over curiosity, hope and kindness.

Something we need to work on if we are going to survive.

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

 

References:

Carson, Rachel. 1962. “Silent Spring.” Houghton Mifflin. 336pp.

Corey, James S.A. “The Leviathan Wakes.” Orbit. 592 pp.

Liu, Cixin. 2014. “The Three Body Problem.” Tor Books. 400pp.