There were stories in sweat. The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing…Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.
So begins Paolo Bacigalupi’s speculative thriller The Water Knife, set in the near-future in the drought-stricken American southwest. Where corrupt state-corporations have supplanted the foundering national government. Where water is the new gold—to barter, steal, and murder for. Corporations have formed militias and shut down borders to climate refugees, fomenting an ecology of poverty and tragedy. Massive resorts—arcadias—constructed across the parched landscape, flaunt their water-wealth in the face of exploited workers and gross ecological disparity. Water is controlled by corrupt gangsters and “water knives” who cleverly navigate the mercurial nature of water rights in a world where “haves” hydrate and “have nots” die of thirst.
Paolo Bacigalupi is just one of many authors of compelling dystopian eco-thrillers that engage readers in climate change—many with strong water themes: Margaret Atwood, Emmi Itäranta, Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, Barbara Kingsolver, Upton Sinclair, Ursula Le Guin, JoeAnn Hart, Frank Herbert, John Yunker, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Bradley, Nathaniel Rich, David Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Claire Vaye Watkins, J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux, Thomas Wharton—just to name a few.
My upcoming novel by Inanna Publications—A Diary in the Age of Water coming out in 2020—explores the socio-political consequences of corruption in Canada, now owned by China and America as an indentured resource ‘reservoir’; it is a story told through four generations of women and their unique relationship with water during a time of great unheralded change. On February 17, 2046, limnologist Lynna writes in her diary about her mother Una:
“Bald, alle das wasser verschwindet,” She said in her quiet voice of certainty. She always spoke in her mother tongue when it came to water. Soon, all the water will be gone. “Und so werden wir.” And so will we. “Es wird das Ende des Zeitalters des Wassers sein.” It will be the end of the Age of Water.
Una always seemed to follow the thalweg. She seemed to always know what water was doing. Even when it braided and curled in on itself. Even when human-made obstructions got in the way; like the increased water tax, followed by the severe water-use quota. Like water, Una found a way around it.
I wish I had that skill.
Science fiction explores our water crisis through premises of extreme water shortage and devastating violence (floods, droughts and storms), water diversion, and hoarding. Premises explore weather manipulation, the consequences of extensive deforestation and the massive extinction of species. Some—such as Claudiu Murgan’s Water Entanglement—even explore water as a character, as though water has gone rogue, unruly. Perhaps even vengeful…
Today, we control water on a massive scale. Reservoirs around the world hold 10,000 cubic kilometres of water; five times the water of all the rivers on Earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the Earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by eight millionths of a second in the last forty years.
Millennia ago, we adapted and lived by the rhythms of the global water cycle. We have since harnessed the power of water; we captured it and diverted it and changed it in ways to suit our own rhythms. Our unprecedented power over the planet’s water has advanced our civilizations immeasurably. But water remains our Achilles’ heel; it has the potential to limit our ambition like no other resource on Earth.
If climate change is the planet’s response to humanity’s relentless exploitation, water is its archangel.
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 science fiction show that follows this premise of Earth’s devastation: 3%; The 100; The Titan; Orbiter 9; even Lost in Space.
Science fiction is suited to this role; it is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind and can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity. The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premises based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s Year of the Flood) to dystopias (e.g., Itäranta’s The Memory of Water). Science fiction has always been the pre-eminent literature of metaphor and history; it has lately matured in the Anthropocene to incorporate the edgy realism of literary fiction to give us potent environmental relevance. Sub-genres now include eco-fiction, climate fiction, and cli-fi.
Ellen Szabo, author of Saving the World One Word at a Time: Writing Cli-Fi suggests that the ability to make environmental issues less political and more personal (through story) permits more engagement by readers and a higher likelihood of action toward justice: we are more likely to take action on the things we love and know. It’s all about connection.
“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action, which is perhaps why cli-fi’s appeal among young adult readers holds such promise. As the scientists and leaders of tomorrow, they may be most capable of addressing climate and water issues where previous generations have failed, writes J.K. Ullrich of The Atlantic. As Margaret Atwood wrote in MaddAddam, “People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”
We tend to live very much in the here and now, Bacigalupi told an audience at the University of Seattle when describing humanity’s lack of planning for the future. But, he added, “with science fiction, I can give you a [here and now] experience far into the future,” and allow a reader to truly experience “what it’s like to be a climate refugee” or be someone with no legal access to water. An extrapolated science fiction future provides a visceral opportunity to see our future selves in a way that promotes serious consideration, says Bacigalupi. By putting us there, we have a better chance of making those extrapolations into consequence.
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 our inclination to self-interest makes us far too prone to suspicion and distrust: when we meet the unknown—the “other” so often portrayed in science fiction—we tend to respond with fear and aggression over curiosity, hope and kindness. Something we need to work on if we are going to survive.
Science fiction—the highest form of metaphoric and visionary art—is telling us something. Are we paying attention?
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.