The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

EcologyOfStory coverI remember a wonderful conversation I had several years ago at a conference with another science fiction writer on weird and wonderful protagonists and antagonists. Derek knew me as an ecologist—in fact I’d been invited to do a lecture at that conference entitled “The Ecology of Story” (also the name of my writing guidebook on treating setting and place as a character). We discussed the role that ecology plays in creating setting that resonates with theme and how to provide characters enlivened with metaphor.

Derek was fascinated by saprotrophs and their qualities. Saprotrophs take their nutrition from dead and decaying matter such as decaying pieces of plants or animals by dissolving them and absorbing the energy through their body surface. They accomplish this by secreting digestive enzymes into the dead/decaying matter to absorb the soluble organic nutrients. The process—called lysotrophic nutrition—occurs through microscopic lysis of detritus. Examples of saprotrophs include mushrooms, slime mold, and bacteria.

Recipearium CostiGurguI recall Derek’s eagerness to create a story that involved characters who demonstrate saprotrophic traits or even were genuine saprotrophs (in science fiction you can do that—it’s not hard. Check out Costi Gurgu’s astonishing novel Recipearium for a thrilling example). I wonder if Derek fulfilled his imagination.

I think of what Derek said, as I walk in my favourite woodland. It is early spring and the river that had swollen with snow melt just a week before, now flows with more restraint. I can see the cobbles and clay of scoured banks under the water. Further on, part of the path along the river has collapsed from a major bank scour the previous week. The little river is rather big and capricious, I ponder; then I consider that the entire forest sways to similar vagaries of wind, season, precipitation and unforeseen events. Despite its steadfast appearance the forest flows—like the river—in a constant state of flux and change, cycling irrevocably through life and death.

Cedar trunk base

Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I’m writing this, the entire world struggles with life and death in the deep throws of a viral pandemic. COVID-19 has sent many cities into severe lock down to prevent viral spread in a life and death conflict. I’ve left the city and I’m walking in a quiet forest in southern Ontario in early spring. The forest is also experiencing life and death. But here, this intricate dance has seamlessly partnered death and decay with the living being of the forest. Without the firm embrace of death and decay, life cannot dance. In fact, life would be impossible. What strikes me here in the forest is how the two dance so well.

cedar log patterns2 copy

Cedar log, patterns in sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I walk slowly, eyes cast to the forest floor to the thick layer of dead leaves, and discover seeds and nuts—the promise of new life. I aim my gaze past trees and shrubs to the nearby snags and fallen logs. I’m looking for hidden gifts. One fallen cedar log reveals swirling impressionistic patterns of wood grain, dusted with moss and lichen. Nature’s death clothed in beauty.

The bark of a large pine tree that has fallen is riddled with tiny beetle holes drilled into its bark. Where the bark has sloughed off, a gallery of larval tracks in the sapwood create a map of meandering texture, form and colour.

Beetle bore holes pine log

White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes (photo by Nina Munteanu)

larval tracks in pine wood

Beetle larval tracks in pine sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nearby, another giant pine stands tall in the forest. Its roughly chiselled bark is dusted in lichens, moss and fungus. The broad thick ridges of the bark seem arranged like in a jigsaw puzzle with scales that resemble metal plates. They form a colourful layered mosaic of copper to gray and greenish-gray. At the base of the tree, I notice that some critter has burrowed a home in a notch between two of the pine’s feet. Then just around the corner, at the base of a cedar, I spot several half-eaten black walnuts strewn in a pile—no doubt brought and left there by some hungry and industrious squirrel who prefers to dine here.

The forest is littered with snags and fallen trees in different stages of breakdown, decomposition and decay. I spot several large cedar, pine, oak and maple snags with woodpecker holes. The snags may remain for many decades before finally falling to the ground.

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

WoodpeckerHole on cedar

Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms in various stages of life and death and decay. Trees lie at the heart of this ecosystem, supporting a complex and dynamic cycle of evolving life. Even in death, the trees continue to support thriving detrivore and saprophytic communities that, in turn, provide nutrients and soil for the next generation of living trees. It’s a partnership.

Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, writes Trees for Life; and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems.

Snags and rotting logs on the forest floor provide damp shelter and food for many plants and animals. Most are decomposers, including earthworms, fungi, and bacteria. As the wood decays, nutrients in the log break down and recycle in the forest ecosystem. Insects, mosses, lichens, and ferns recycle the nutrients and put them back into the soil for other forest plants to use. Dead wood is an important reservoir of organic matter in forests and a source of soil formation. Decaying and dead wood host diverse communities of bacteria and fungi.

TurkeyTail fungus on tree-LR

Turkey tail fungus, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mother Archetypes

Wood tissues of tree stems include the outer bark, cork cambium, inner bark (phloem), vascular cambium, outer xylem (living sapwood), and the inner xylem (non-living heartwood). The outer bark provides a non-living barrier between the inner tree and harmful factors in the environment, such as fire, insects, and diseases. The cork cambium (phellogen) produces bark cells. The vascular cambium produces both the phloem cells (principal food-conducting tissue) and xylem cells of the sapwood (the main water storage and conducting tissue) and heartwood.

stages of tree life

Forest ecologists defined five broad stages in tree decay, shown by the condition of the bark and wood and presence of insects and other animals. The first two stages evolve rapidly; much more time elapses in the later stages, when the tree sags to the ground. These latter stages can take decades for the tree to break down completely and surrender all of itself back to the forest. A fallen tree nurtures, much like a “mother” archetype; it provides food, shelter, and protection to a vast community—from bears and small mammals to salamanders, invertebrates, fungus, moss and lichens. This is why fallen trees are called “nursing logs.”

uprooted stump carbon cushion fungus

Uprooted tree covered in fungi, lichen and moss (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

rotting maple log2

Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I stop to inspect another fallen tree lying on a bed of decaying maple, beech and oak leaves. When a fallen tree decomposes, unique new habitats are created within its body as the outer and inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood decompose at different rates, based in part on their characteristics for fine dining. For instance, the outer layers of the tree are rich in protein; inner layers are high in carbohydrates. This log—probably a sugar maple judging from what bark is left—has surrendered itself with the help of detrivores and saprophytes to decomposition and decay. The outer bark has mostly rotted and fallen away revealing an inner sapwood layer rich in varied colours, textures and incredible patterns—mostly from fungal infestations. In fact, this tree is a rich ecosystem for dozens of organisms. Wood-boring beetle larvae tunnel through the bark and wood, building their chambers and inoculating the tree with microbes. They open the tree to colonization by other microbes and small invertebrates. Slime molds, lichen, moss and fungi join in. The march of decay follows a succession of steps. Even fungi are followed by yet other fungi in the process as one form creates the right condition for another form.

rotting maple log

Rotting maple log, covered in carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most hardwoods take several decades to decompose and surrender all of themselves back to the forest. In western Canada in the westcoast old growth forest, trees like cedars can take over a hundred years to decay once they’re down. The maple log I’m studying in this Carolinian forest looks like it’s been lying on the ground for a while, certainly several years. The bark has fragmented and mostly fallen away, revealing layers of sapwood in differing stages of infestation and decay. Some sapwood is fragmented and cracked into blocks and in places looks like stacked bones.

Black lines as though drawn by a child’s paintbrush flow through much of the sapwood; these winding thick streaks of black known as “zone lines” are in fact clumps of dark mycelia, which cause “spalting,” the colouration of wood by fungus. According to mycologist Jens Petersen, these zone lines prevent “a hostile takeover by mycelia” from any interloping fungi. Most common trees that experience spalting include birch, maple, and beech. Two common fungi that cause spalting have colonized my maple log. They’re both carbon cushion fungi.

Spalting

Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

hypoxylon-close

Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Brittle cinder (Kretzschmaria deusta) resembles burnt wood at maturity. Deusta means “burned up” referring to the charred appearance of the fungus. Hypoxylon forms a “velvety” grey-greenish cushion or mat (stroma). As the Hypoxylon ages, it blackens and hardens and tiny, embedded fruitbodies (perithecia) show up like pimples over the surface of the crust.

Blue-green fungus on log

Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Much of the exposed outer wood layer looks as though it has been spray painted with a green to blue-black layer. The “paint” is caused by the green-stain fungus (Chlorociboria) and blue-stain fungus (Ceratocystis). The blue-green stain is a metabolite called xylindein. Chlorociboria and Ceratocystis are also spalter fungi, producing a pigment that changes the color of the wood where they grow. While zone lines that create spalting don’t damage wood, the fungus responsible most likely does.

Spalting is common because of the way fungi colonize, in waves of primary and secondary colonizers. Primary colonizers initially capture and control the resource, change the pH and structure of the wood, then must defend against the secondary colonizers now able to colonize the changed wood.

Intarsia using blue-green spalted wood

Details of 16th century German bureaus containing blue-green spalted wood by the elf-cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens

Wood that is stained green, blue or blue-green by spalting fungi has been and continues to be valued for inlaid woodwork. In an article called “Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia” Daniel Elkind writes of how “the technique of intarsia–the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images–has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship.” The article explores “the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from the most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus.”

Shapeshifting Characters

moss hiding under leaves

Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find moss everywhere in the forest, including beneath the forest floor. Moss is a ubiquitous character, adapting itself to different situations and scenarios. Like a shapeshifter, moss is at once coy, hiding beneath rotting leaf litter, stealthy and curious as it creeps up the feet of huge cedars, and exuberant as it unabashedly drapes itself over every possible surface such as logs, twigs and rocks, and then proceeds to procreate for all to see.

Moss is a non-vascular plant that helps create soil; moss also filters and retains water, stabilizes the ground and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Science tells us that mosses are important regulators of soil hydroclimate and nutrient cycling in forests, particularly in boreal ecosystems, bolstering their resilience. Mosses help with nutrient cycling because they can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants.

Moss with spores water drops2

Green moss gametophyte with sporophytes growing out of it (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mosses thrive in the wet winter and spring, providing brilliant green to an otherwise brown-gray environment. Even when covered in snow (or a bed of leaves), moss continues its growth cycle, usually in the leafy gametophyte stage. When the winter is moderate, like it is near Toronto, sporophyte structures can already appear on stalks that hold a capsule full of spores.  In the spring the capsules release spores that can each create a new moss individual. Moss is quietly, gloriously profligate.

Symbiotic Characters

Many twigs strewn on the leaf-covered forest floor are covered in grey-green lichen with leaf-like, lobes. On close inspection, the lichen thallus contains abundant cup-shaped fruiting bodies. I identify the lichen as Physchia stellaris, common and widespread in Ontario and typically pioneering on the bark of twigs—especially of poplars, and alders.

Lichen fruiting-best-2 copy

Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia) (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lichens are a cooperative character; two characters in one, really. Lichens are a complex symbiotic association of two or more fungi and algae (some also partner up with a yeast). The algae in lichens (called phycobiont or photobiont) photosynthesize and the fungus (mycobiont) provides protection for the photobiont. Both the algae and fungus absorb water, minerals, and pollutants from the air, through rain and dust. In sexual reproduction, the mycobiont produces fruiting bodies, often cup-shaped, called apothecia that release ascospores. The spores must find a compatible photobiont to create a lichen. They depend on each other for resources—from food to shelter and protection.

Forest as Character

Sunset 1 Niagara

Sunset in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy personified trees as interpreters between Nature and humanity: from the “sobbing breaths” of a fir plantation to the stillness of trees in a quiet fog, standing “in an attitude of intentness, as if they waited longingly for a wind to come and rock them.” Trees, meadows, winding brooks and country roads were far more than back-drop for Hardy’s world and his stories. Elements of the natural world were characters in their own right that impacted the other characters in a world dominated by nature.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story, particularly in allegories that rely strongly on metaphor. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
—excerpted from The Ecology of Story: World as Character

 

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

 

 

 

Artist Costi Gurgu Explains his Cover Art for The Splintered Universe Trilogy

Get Rhea-HawkeGOODWhen I first met Costi and Vali Gurgu at the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal several years ago, I had no idea that Costi would end up creating the stunning book covers for The Splintered Universe Trilogy or that his wife, Vali, would serve as the model for the hero of my story, the relentless and steely detective, Rhea Hawke. You can find his cover art and other artworks on Costi’s illustration site.

 

Nina: Hi, Costi. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. 

Costi: Hi, Nina. The pleasure is mine.

 

Nina: You came up with a “Triptych” design for the Splintered Universe Trilogy. What inspired you to come up with it and what do you like about it?

Costi: There is the danger of spoilers in this answer. The fact is that your main character, Rhea, undergoes a certain evolution from a regular human being to… let’s just say something else. And that evolution has three parts, one for each book of the trilogy and it also has a touch of divine. So, the triptych design, so often used for religious paintings, fits like a glove on the entire concept.

Microsoft Word - trilogy-poster03.docx

Nina: Your design for Outer Diverse (and designs for the other two covers) carries a powerful image that conjures a portal or gateway into another world (which is what the trilogy is about). The reader is drawn into an infinite landscape, looking in, and Rhea is looking out. Can you tell us a little about how you conceived this compelling design. Is there a meaning behind the symbols and colours you used? 

Costi: To be honest, the initial idea was for the red ring to be a sort of mapping device and a radar combined into one, since Rhea travels great distances in her quest. Then I realized it might as well be a portal device on top of everything else and serve all her travelling needs.

There were two options —either we would look with her outside, to whatever target she had, or look towards her. I thought that it would be more powerful if we could look towards her and see her determined face, see the unflinching resolution in her eyes, while she’s pondering her next move and readying herself to use the device once again. But to look towards her and see her in a confining room of a space ship, or such, would have defeated the purpose. So I needed to have her against the infinite landscape as the backdrop. She is in a continuous journey to discover herself and this journey takes her literally through the infinite spaces of not just one universe.

 

BewareRhea-GOOD copyNina: Yes, I love the metaphoric elements you’ve woven into the design. The image speaks to us on many levels. Do you use music or other devices in your work to evoke your creativity? What other tools did you use to create the stunning covers of Splintered Universe (e.g., animation software, etc.)?

Costi: I’m always listening to music while working. The kind of music varies depending on what I’m working on. If I’m writing for instance, I need instrumental music, without words to influence my own ones. Also, it depends on the kind of feeling and mood I try to generate through my writing or my illustration. Music helps me channel those feelings into the right words or imagery.

Technically speaking, I always start with sketches on paper, which I later scan. I mainly use Adobe Photoshop, but for this illustration I had to use Adobe Illustrator as well. Obviously, the layout and the typography were done in Adobe InDesign.

 

Nina: Your wife, Vali, was the model for Rhea Hawke. I understand you had a great time doing the photo-shoot (p.s., some of the additional shoots can be seen in the Youtube book trailer). I’ve attended several launches and events and both the cover and the model have been extolled. One reader compared Vali to actress Catherine Zeta Jones. How does Vali feel about being somewhat of a celebrity?

Costi: I’m so happy to hear that. You know, I had to decide how to treat her image. I could have gone towards a more glamorous, shiny look, like in a fashion image, or I could just simply keep it more realistic. Despite Vali’s protests, I chose to keep it that way, because I wanted to offer a realistic image of an ex-police officer: a woman who was used to fighting and chasing criminals, rather than taking care of her appearances. Now, to hear that her rougher and tougher image created that kind of reaction gives me a sort of peace and satisfaction.

 

Nina: You and Vali have had rich and varied careers in commercial art, law and writing. You’ve served, for instance, as art director for several high-end magazines including Playboy, and you taught graphic design at the college level. You journeyed from Romania to England and finally to Toronto, Canada. No doubt your law degree helped you in your entrepreneurial pursuits. Did you pursue illustration and design in England?

Costi: Well, three years [after England] saw us going back to Romania; our families expected us to go back to the Bar Association and behave responsibly. But after showing my portfolio around I got a designer job at Playboy Magazine! The Art Director and I launched its first Romanian edition issue a few months later. Three years later I became the Creative Director of MediaPro Group, the largest publishing company in Romania and Vali took on the position of Art Director of Playboy Magazine.

Two years later we came to Canada to pursue a dream. So, yes, I could say that my law degree created the perfect opportunity for me to discover my passion for visual arts. It took me to England and eventually to Canada. Life is funny that way.

 

Nina: Does Vali help you with your work and do you help her with hers?

Costi: We help each other a lot in our work. Because we worked together in our first legal job and after that in our first design job, we have become a team. We have different approaches to the art process and we have different styles. I went deeper into illustration to complement my design skills, while she chose photography to do that.

Even now, for the most important projects we have for our different employers we involve each other not only for need of feedback, but also for need of different ideas and fresh approaches. We basically complement each other.

Not to mention that she’s always my first reader for any piece of fiction I write. She’s the toughest reader I have but in the same time I know she’s also the most sincere one.

 

Nina: Thanks so much, Costi, for joining us. I wish you the best of luck in all your writing and illustration projects. It’s been an honor to work with you.

Costi: Again, my pleasure, Nina.

Microsoft Word - Rhea Triptych.docx

In Metaverse, the third and last book of The Splintered Universe Trilogy, Detective 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.

You can listen to a sample recording of Outer Diverse, Inner Diverse, and Metaverse through Audible.

audible listen

Microsoft Word - trilogy-poster03.docx

 

GIVE AWAY! GIVE AWAY! GIVE AWAY! GIVE AWAY! GIVE AWAY! GIVE AWAY!

Rhea likes to use proverbs as barbs and to unhinge her opponent when she gets nervous or feels trapped. Send me a good proverb for Rhea to use and I will send you a code to obtain a free Audiobook from Audible. Codes are limited, so it will be first come, first serve until we’re out. Send your proverb to Nina Munteanu at: nina.sfgirl[at]gmail.com.

 

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.

 

 

“The Ecology of Story: World as Character” Launched at Type Books, Toronto

ECOLOGY_Poster-web2UofT instructor and writer Nina Munteanu launched the third book in her acclaimed “how to write” series at Type Books, Toronto, on July 4th, 2019. The launch of “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” celebrated writing and place through readings, songs and talks by local writers, poets and singers.

“The Ecology of Story” was created to address the need for writers to better acknowledge the central role of place in story and better address the interrelatedness of environment with character on a journey.

“The Ecology of Story” appears in two parts; Part 1 is dedicated to basic ecology with a focus on strange and wonderful relationships in the natural world; Part 2 integrates metaphoric connections between character and place/environment to deepen meaning in story.

 

 

audience01

Launch at Type Books

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

The Ecology of Story” teaches the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character in fiction. For excerpts of the book go to EcologyOfStory.

presenters01

Launch presenters

Launch at Type Books

Poet and song writer Honey Novick opened the launch with an inspirational song. Ted Nolan, Maureen Scott Harris and Nehal El-Hadi read poems and works that addressed lost rivers, particularly of Toronto. Merridy Cox discussed the science of binomials. Costi Gurgu read from his most recent work Reciparium, and Cheryl Xavier read her poem to the Banyan tree. Honey closed with another song, ending the formal part of the event.

Launch Presenters

Honey NovickHoney Novick is a poet, voice teacher, singer and songwriter. Honey is the winner of the Empowered Poet Award, CAPAC, Yamaha Classical Music Competition in Japan, among others. Honey wrote music for CBC’s Morningside and sang for Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

 

Ted NolanTed NolanE. Martin Nolan—is a poet, essayist, editor and voice of the trees. He teaches in the Engineering Communication Program at the University of Toronto and is a PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics at York University. His latest work is a chapbook written in collaboration with some trees entitled: “Trees Hate Us.”

 

MaureenScottHarrisMaureen Scott Harris is a poet, essayist, and rare books cataloguer. A UofT grad in Library Science, she received the Trillium Book Award for poetry for Drowning Lessons and was the first non-Australian to be awarded the 2009 WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize for her essay, “Broken Mouth: Offerings for the Don River, Toronto.”

 

Nehal El-HadiNehal El-Hadi is a writer, researcher, editor and journalist, who explores the intersections of body, technology, and space. Her writing has appeared in academic journals, literary magazines, and forthcoming in anthologies and edited collections. She is currently a visiting scholar at York University and sessional faculty at the University of Toronto.

 

MerridyCoxMerridy Cox is a naturalist, photographer, editor, indexer and poet. She is also managing editor of Lyrical Leaf Publishing. Merridy has a degree in biology and museum studies;  her poetry focuses mostly on the natural world around her; her poems and photographs are published in several literary anthologies. She has edited several books, including this one!

 

Costi GurguCosti Gurgu is a graphic designer and illustrator as well as an award-winning science fiction and fantasy novelist and short story writer who is published in anthologies and magazines throughout the world. He is a former lawyer and was art director for lifestyle and fashion magazines in Europe before moving to Canada. His latest novel—RecipeArium—was called the new new weird by Robert J. Sawyer and was nominated for an Aurora Award.

 

cheryl-xavierCheryl Antao-Xavier is an editor, interior book designer and publisher with IOWI. She has been publishing emergent writers since 2008 and continues to offer self-publishing solutions to writers and companies and organizations. She recently released her book: “Self-Publishing the Professional Way: 5 Steps from Raw Manuscript to Publishing.”

 

Launch sign outside

 

 

 

nina-2014aaa

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

 

 

 

Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine and Superionic Ice

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

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

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

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

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

Ice Phases - unit cells

Ice phases–unit ‘cells’

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

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

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

hexagonal-water-crystal

Hexagonal structure of water crystal (snowflake)

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

Ice Phases

Ice phases Ih to XV at different temperatures and pressures

Liquid Crystals & Polywater

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Phase of Water

ice_ih_molecular_arrangement

Hexagonal structure of bulk water and ice Ih

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

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

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

superionic ice

Superionic ice

Superionic Ice

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

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

gas giants2

Gas giants in our solar system

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

Superionic Ice3

Superionic ice nearly as hot as the sun

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

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

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

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

Superionic-Ice-Giant

Superionic ice giant

When Ice Flows

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

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

Neptune

Neptune

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

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

References:

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

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

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

 

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.

 

Creating the Ecotone at ToRo Fest

ToRoFestOn October 5, 6 2018, I participated in the second ToRo Fest International Salon of Literature, Visual Arts & Music, put on by Tradicious at the Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education on 918 Bathurst Ave.

After attending the gala opening on Friday, I arrived early Saturday morning and had a chance to wander the two art galleries of the fest before the crowds came. One gallery featured the deep narrative art of nine-year old Sophia Leopold-Muresan. Bright and flowing with child-wisdom, her art was playful, whimsical and thoughtful.

Otilia Gruneantu Scriuba

Otilia Greneantu Scriuba stands next to “Fusion”

Otilia Greneantu Scriuba’s abstract art featured cultural symbols such as water, the wave, the horizontal line to convey personal and deep-rooted narratives. The description on her website reads: “Otilia’s art orients images within collages. Parts of her paintings juxtapose original disparate fragments with origins drawn from different historic epochs and through different geographical spaces. Throughout her work she employs important cultural symbols such as: the water, the wave, the horizontal line, the square, the horse, the butterfly, the fish, the egg, the shell and the feather. In addition, she uses other symbols from some of the most important artistic periods: Victoria by Samotrace, human figures by Fidias Metopes, and Venus by Botticelli. Otilia Gruneantu Scriuba creates complex compositions while managing to harmonize her found elements in a unitary image.”

Cioata-Haunted House

“Haunted House” by Doru Ciota

The surreal realism of Romanian artist Doru Cioata—a mix of detailed graphic design, intricate sketches and paintings—evoked a powerful metaphoric narrative. Seeing this art reminded me of the power of image in writing and my own adventure with image and writing. Several months ago, I was invited to write a flash fiction story based on a chosen Group of Seven painting for an anthology coming out next year. It was one of the most thrilling, fun and difficult projects I’d embarked on—and the most fulfilling. See my article on how visual art and writing communicate.

Alice WaterIs

Alice with “Water Is…”

The three-track ToRo Fest ran the whole day with over fifteen book launches, literary presentations—including my talk on “Water Is…”—games, poetry readings, and panels, in addition to excellent live music from piano to guitar and drums.

I participated with Costi Gurgu (author of Aurora-nominated RecipeArium) in Claudiu Murgan’s panel on publishing models: “Publishing your book is not what it used to be: think hard and pick one: traditional vs. self-publishing vs. hybrid.” Costi, Claudiu and I discussed the pros and cons of each model, providing our experiences with these publishing types.

Nina-Costi-Claudiu-panel

Costi Gurgu, Nina Munteanu, and Claudiu Morgan discuss publishing models

I reprised this subject with my lecture on hybrid publishing at the Mississauga Writers Group meeting on October 13 (at the South Common Community Centre, 11 am). I will also be giving this Hybrid Publishing lecture/workshop in the Toronto City Hall through the Immigrant Writers Association’s “writing and publishing series” of their “Learn with IWA” initiative (October 26, 7-9 pm). The lecture/workshop is open to members (zero to $10) and non-members (fee $15).

Absolutism4

Vali Gurgu makes her move in “Absolutism”

Professor Nicolae Gavriliu of the Antiochian House of Studies gave an interesting lecture on the theology and art of the icon. I also attended a student presentation on global issues faced by marginalized groups from Roma in Romania to married children in Lebanon.

Costi and Vali Gurgu brought their new game Absolutism, a funny card game about surviving dictatorship (which should sell very well in the USA…). Several intrepid players tried their hand at dictatorship—and slavery, depending on whether they were losing or winning. I could hear the laughter clear to the lobby. See more about Absolutism, a fascinating, clever and witty game by author-lawyers who did, in fact, survive a dictatorship.

water is-blood

Ad for “Water Is…” on TTC subway

Several of my science fiction, eco-fiction and historical fantasy books were for sale and some sold out. Alice caught up to me for an autograph and joyfully shared that she’d seen the Pixl Press Water Is… ad on the Toronto subway and had told herself, “I need to meet this person.” Then she did—at ToRo!

A week prior to the festival, I was interviewed by Andreea Demirgian of “Radio Encounters” who called me “The Absolute Dame of Canadian Eco-Fiction”! I was flattered … and humbled. In truth, eco-fiction has become my passion and brand in writing. I realized only recently (in the last few years) that I’d been writing eco-fiction for twenty years but had branded my writing under science fiction. Sometimes, it takes a while to find one’s true voice–and niche. Thanks, Andreea! You can listen to the interview below:

 

 

GreenBeanery-myFlatWhite

enjoying my flat white at the Green Beanery

After much panelling, talking, selling out of my books, and discovering delicious Romanian pastries, I slipped out into the brisk drizzle with a mission: I was in search of good coffee. I spotted the Green Beanery, looking comfortable in an old brick building on the corner of Bathurst and Bloor. I smiled; I knew I’d found my coffee haven. I ordered my favourite from the barista—a flat white— and relaxed in the funky-hipster atmosphere of the café.

It turns out that the Green Beanery is a Canadian trust, created and staffed by environmentalists at Probe International. All earnings support the charity that protects lands and people’s livelihoods. The Green Beanery promotes small coffee farmers who produce niche coffees with characteristics as distinctive and extraordinary as their local ecology and who are less likely to use pesticides or fertilizers (like their larger counterparts). Green Beanery also encourages neighbourhood-based micro-roasting in small coffee shops and local roasteries. Creating niche markets for little known coffee bean varieties helps maintain the world’s store of genetic diversity.

Nina-Juliana-Crina

Nina stands between Juliana Pacso and Crina Bud of Tradicious

As I returned refreshed to ToRo, I realized that Tradicious was doing the same thing as Green Beanery: they had brought in a diversity of international artists in music, visual arts, fiction and poetry, philosophy and even socio-politics to meet, share, and discuss. Tradicious had created an ecotone (where worlds and ideas meet, share and learn) where diversity flourishes.

Well done, Tradicious!

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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 recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Amazing Cover Art, Part 2: Anne Moody and Costi Gurgu

MockUpEcology-2

The cover for Nina’s upcoming writing guide: illustration by Anne Moody; typology & design by Costi Gurgu

In my article “Should You Judge a Book by its Cover”, I wrote about the importance of cover art for book sales and to maintain integrity and satisfaction with the story inside. In the article, I pointed out that, “If you don’t know the author of the book, the nature—and implied promise—of the cover becomes even more important. If the book does not deliver on the promise of the cover, it will fail with many readers despite its intrinsic value. A broken promise is still a broken promise. I say cover—not necessarily the back jacket blurb—because the front cover is our first and most potent introduction to the quality of the story inside. How many of us have picked up a book—intrigued by its alluring front cover—read the blurb that seemed to resonate with the title and image, then upon reading our cherished purchase been disillusioned with the story and decided we disliked it and its author?”

Cover art provides an important aspect of writer and publisher branding. Cover artists understand this and address the finer nuances of the type and genre of the story to resonate with the reader and their expectations of story. This includes the image/illustration, typography, and overall design of the cover. A cover for a work of literary fiction will look quite different from a work of fantasy or romance. Within a genre, subtle qualities provide more clues—all of which the cover artist grasps with acute expertise.

I’ve been fortunate in my history as a professional writer to have had exceptional art work on the books I’ve written or collections and anthologies I’ve participated in (see the mosaic below of many but not all the covers my work has been associated with).

For most of my books, my publisher provided me with a direct link to the cover artist (e.g., Dragon Moon Press, Edge Publishing, eXtasy Books, Liquid Silver Books, Starfire, Pixl Press) and I retained some creative control. I even found and brought in the cover artist for projects I had with Pixl Press.

Anne Moody and Pixl Press

Anne-Studio01 copy

Anne Moody working on her next painting

I met Anne Moody at the environmental consulting firm where I worked after leaving the University of Victoria. I’d taught limnology (the study of freshwater) for several years at UVic, then I joined the Vancouver firm as an aquatic ecologist and environmental consultant. That’s where I met fellow ecologist, Anne. Anne is a plant ecologist who has worked with federal and provincial governments on reclamation and restoration projects. She’s designed and planted marshes throughout the world and has taught at university in her field of expertise.

Anne wasn’t painting then. She started long after we parted our ways—she to a government job and I to a teaching job at The University of Toronto. However, as she mentions in her short bio, Anne has been drawing and painting since childhood—just like me. The difference is that she has come back to the fine arts with an eye for compelling imagery. Using her science knowledge and discipline to work with light, texture and form, Anne creates works of stunning originality that resonate with rugged landscape and with those who belong to it. Her work is, needless to say, fetching for a book cover!

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-web copyWhen Pixl Press started looking for suitable cover artists to rebrand my writing craft series, I showed some of Anne’s work to the director Anne Voute. Pixl Press had already worked with Costi Gurgu and we liked his work. The result of Anne’s illustrations and Costi’s typography and design was a series of stunning covers that branded my books with just the right voice.

Journal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEB copyThe Alien Guidebook Series, of which two books are out so far (The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! and The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice) was designed by Costi with a guidebook brand that would stand out, yet showcase the natural British Columbia landscape art by Anne that I felt strongly connected to. Anne’s cover art for The Journal Writer is one of several studies of Toquart Bay, BC.

FictionWriterCoverWeb copy 2Anne’s illustration for The Fiction Writer (a painting of Knutsford, BC) actually represents the second cover. The Fiction Writer was originally released in May 2009 and the cover portrayed a spiral galaxy—beautifully designed by Virginia O’Dine. The cover overly stressed my science fiction background and did not give a balanced portrayal of the guidebook, which addresses any fiction—not just science fiction. Anne’s portrayal of a field in Knutsford was deemed better suited to a new branding for the series.

MockUpEcology-2I am currently researching and writing the third guidebook in the series—a reference on world building and use of ecology in story—The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

I visited Anne at her ranch near Vanderhoof, B.C., to discuss a cover. Between chores on the 100-acre ranch, gourmet meals from local produce, and lively political discussions over generous amounts of wine—we spent the entire weekend looking over and evaluating Anne’s pieces as potential cover art. Anne had so many good pieces, I became confused with what would work best.

Nina-sedgefield at Annes-closest2 copy 2

Nina stands in Anne’s sedge marsh

Finally on the last day, we stumbled on the perfect one: a painting Anne had done of a photograph her daughter had taken during a wildfire in northern British Columbia. Anne had stylized the photo into its own narrative that was compelling. My publisher was excited by it. We expect Pixl Press to release The Ecology of Story in late 2019.

NaturalSelection-front-web copyAnne’s art work for the cover of Natural Selection: A collection of short stories had originally resonated with me when she had first shown me the original painting at an art show on Vancouver Island. Called Mere Tranquility, her acrylic and oil painting uses shades of aqua, green, blue and yellow to convey a small pond during a quiet summer day. She’d captured the elusive dance of light and water perfectly. I was reminded of the genius of Monet. Anne was delighted to let us use it. Pixl Press commissioned Gurgu to design the cover; his minimalist clean design was pure genius.

The cover for Natural Selection remains one of my favourite covers of all time. And it just so happens that the cover art and design solidly portray the tone and content of the stories within. Bellisima!

 

 

anne-moody-plein-air-painting

Anne Moody painting en plein-air

Anne Moody is a celebrated Canadian artist and plant ecologist. She worked with the British Columbia provincial government in their Department of Environment and now consults for her own company. She has been drawing and painting since childhood and won her first award at a “Painting in the Parks Program” when she was nine.

“I consider myself a realist, strongly tempted by abstract elements wrapped in story,” says Anne. “The images that speak to me are scenes that convey meaning beyond superficial beauty. My compulsion to paint takes charge when an image embedded in my memory will not allow me to rest until I promote it to canvas. My choice of medium, water-colour, acrylics or oil, is dictated by the nature of the image.”

All Nina Munteanu books can be found on most Amazon sites.

Microsoft Word - Publication-COVERS-all-2018.docx

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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 recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

“Absolutism” in the Time of Climate Change

AboutAbsolutism-webOnce upon a time, there will be one absolute ruler who we, the people, call the Supreme Leader (May He Rule Forever). The Supreme Leader will hate immigrants, writers, scientists, environment and extinct species. We, the people under his rule, will be proud to live in our pure and glorious Motherland. Because we’ll have little to eat, no entertainment, no self-respect, no freedom, no rights, and no access to the outside world, we’ll be happy.

This is the ridiculously sublime scenario that underlies Absolutism, the dystopian card game developed by science fiction author Costi Gurgu and game developer/designer Vali Gurgu about surviving dictatorship.

A week ago, I invited Costi to my science fiction writing class at George Brown College to share his experience in writing and releasing his recent book RecipeArium (now on the short list for an Aurora Award). Costi also brought his new game, Absolutism, based on his latest novel Servitude—a near future dystopia.

PlaytestGB2

Playing the game at George Brown

“Play unfathomable scenarios of daily life in a totalitarian society. A funny game for people without shame.”—Absolutism

 

Emerging Dictatorships & “Servitude”—the novel

Costi described how he and Vali came to develop the game: “Based on current global political trends, some could safely assume that in the next 5 to 10 years some present democracies will turn into dictatorships. In Europe for instance, one third of the European countries have nationalistic parties winning their elections—UK, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia. France and Germany came very close. The United States is slowly sliding into dictatorship. Russia and China are no longer communist countries, like North Korea, but they’re dictatorships. They opened their markets to international trades because they saw the wisdom in making profits, but that was as far as they went with the openness. They still rule their people with an iron fist.”

We are now 7.5 billion people on the planet. As climate change (the ultimate dictator) exacerbates tensions over the unbalanced resource scarcities of our over-populated world, fear-mongering and absolute control of the masses through nationalism, isolationism, trade-wars, etc. will logically follow.

Costi and Vali first conceived a card game entirely based on Costi’s dystopian novel Servitude. But, they soon discovered that the game was too grim.

PlaytestGB3

Life under a Dictatorship—Ceaușescu

Costi and Vali had experienced a dictatorship first hand. They’d grown up in Romania under Communist rule, first by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, then under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The dictator ruled for over twenty years before a coup d’etat overthrew him in 1989. Ceaușescu had ordered his military to open fire on hundreds of protesters in Timișoara, setting off the Romanian Revolution and ultimately his own execution by firing squad.

Ceaușescu’s totalitarian regime is still considered one of the most repressive in Eastern Europe. His Securitate (secret police) controlled the population through mass surveillance; they enacted many human rights abuses, censorship and relocation, and suppression of the media and press. Political propaganda infected all forms of education, art, entertainment and media. Non-compliant intellectuals were punished, arrested, or simply disappeared.

Inspired by the personality cult surrounding Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung in North Korea, Ceaușescu started his own cult in the Eastern Bloc by imposing a severe nationalist ideology. His policy of economic collectivization destroyed an already fragile economy and oppressed culture. Under the communist regime, thousands of books and magazines were banned and removed from public libraries and schools; intellectuals’ links to the West were severed; long-standing professional organizations were dissolved; and intellectuals, writers, and teachers were imprisoned and put into labor camps.

In Ceaușescu’s Systematisation program of urban planning—based on North Korea’s Juche ideology—whole settlements were demolished and reconstructed in the image of the state.

Ceaușescu made contraception and abortion illegal under Decree 770, and created incentives for high numbers of births—his idea was to increase the country’s population from 22 million to 30 million by the end of the century. By 1977, Romanians were taxed for being childless in a country already unable to house and feed its children. Sadly, this led to an increasing number of orphans, the highest infant mortality rate in Europe and the deaths of thousands of women who attempted illegal abortions. Orphanages were neglected and developed appalling conditions—most were concrete barracks in slums where many children suffered from frostbite, malnutrition and abuse.

 

“Absolutism”—the game

“Humor is your main weapon in fighting the victorious party and its minions,” say Costi and Vali. “Humor is the one thing that gives people hope and keeps the mental sanity of the masses in the face of oppression.”

And so “Absolutism” was born—a game of twisted strategies, irony and chance. Costi shared that with this game those who have never experienced dictatorship will have a taste of what it is like; the game will also remind those who have escaped oppression by dictatorship what they left behind and why their current freedoms are so precious and important to maintain.

PlaytestGeorgeBrown

players absolutely succumb to the game…

“Maybe after playing Absolutism, people will see that Russia, China, and North Korea are not exceptions,” says Costi. They may realize that “absolutism is not something that can happen only there. It is already knocking on our door.”

Do you have what it takes to survive a totalitarian dictator with a twisted sense of humor? Or to be a successful dictator in the time of climate change?

Having played the game and lost—there is only one winner, of course—I can add that having a twisted sense of humor—is an absolute advantage in the game (along with an absolutely great set of bribe cards!). Thanks to my twisted humor, I was way ahead of everyone and well on my way to becoming the Absolute Ruler, when Costi charged in with a coup d’etat card and I lost all my cards; then the Secret Police rallied behind him and crushed any chance of subversive take over. Maybe next time…

“Absolutism” recently launched on Kickstarter and is still looking for pledges. Make a pledge and help make the game happen—we may never have a better chance at staring unscathed at the face of despotism.

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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.

RecipeArium Delivers a Full Course Thrill

recipearium-costi gurguIn the Green Kingdom, stimulation through the sense of taste has become a powerful and complex art form that rules the lives of the males—the phrils. Not only does it bring pleasure, it can change a phril’s destiny, even guide him into death and beyond. But only if he can afford the services of the artists called Recipears. Without a Recipear, a phril will live and die a pagan, with no chance of an afterlife. The female of the species, called phriliras, cannot experience RecipeArium; they replace it with their faith in one God with changing names. In the world within the huge body of a monstrous beast, the Recipears rule society.

RecipeArium is a tale of sensation and flesh, in which the very hope of an afterlife is determined by one’s sex. The novel takes us on a journey to discover the meaning of love in a boldly imagined world where art is transformative and immortality the destiny of the few.

Carrying the soul of his RecipeArium master within him, Morminiu comes to the royal Court with two objectives: to exact revenge on his master’s enemies and to win for himself the most desired and treacherous position in the realm: Master Recipear of the Kingdom.

Costi-launch

Costi Gurgu, launching at Pierre Leon Gallery

My own testimonial of the book follows:

Gurgu delivers a full course meal of epic transcendence in an alien landscape that is at once grotesque and wondrously compelling.

From the vast and forgotten lands of the Edge of the World to the corrupt decadence and intrigue of the nobility who dwell inside the monstrous Carami, Gurgu’s Recipearium unveils a fascinating world in transformation. Recipearium is a sensual metaphoric tale that explores the dialectic quest of duality to realize itself as whole.

Imaginative. Outrageous. Original.

Gurgu subverts traditional fantasy and SF with the promise of new heights in storytelling.

Costi-signing

Costi Gurgy signing his book at launch in Pierre Leon Gallery

The publisher, White Cat Publishers interviewed Costi recently; a few choice questions and answers appear below:

Regarding his aspirations for the book, Costi responded:

First of all, this new release will bring Recipearium to the English speaking market, which is quite a big aspiration in itself. And through Recipearium I hope to open the hearts of North American readers to the rest of my fiction as well as to Romanian Speculative Fiction in general.

To their mention that RecipeArium is considered the “new weird” (even in science RecipeArium launchADASTRAfiction, which is itself considered strange), Costi responded:

Several publishers told me that they hadn’t read anything like it, and therefore they couldn’t compare it to any other book. Yes, at first I wanted to thank them because they practically told me it really was an original novel, but only later I realized that they meant they wouldn’t know how to market it and sell it. They didn’t even know if it would sell, because nobody has sold something similar before.

When I signed the contract in Romania, my Romanian publisher also didn’t know how to market it. So, my editor decided to write and talk about it like any other book and completely ignored that one thing that made it different. He hoped that when the readers discovered it, they would already be hooked and therefore it would be too late for them to freeze in awe. J

It paid off. The story proved a success. Not only because of the awards and the numerous reviews but mostly because of the satisfied readers … So, as a conclusion, I won’t tell you what makes it different from the rest. I want my readers to discover it for themselves. And I promise you it’s not the kind of surprise that goes BANG! It creeps on you slowly.

White Cat then asked Costi to elaborate on his earlier comment about the difference between European and American genre writing. Here’s what Costi said:

Sure. In my opinion there are two major differences. The first one is of perception. In Europe we read fiction works by writers from over seventy countries from all around the world. That is over seventy different cultures in which their authors write stories without worrying that maybe a foreign reader would not understand a certain social, political or cultural event, or a certain attitude, habit or tradition.

Yes, maybe the South American characters act according to a different code of social conduct than Romanians, or maybe French characters’ attitude is strange for a Bulgarian reader, or Chinese motivations are weird to Greeks. But if the story or the characters are gripping enough, all those things don’t stop us from getting the underlying concept from the context and we just keep reading.

The stories we read can take place in real cities or villages from different and unfamiliar parts of the world. Usually the European writer doesn’t care that his readers may have never been in his city and he keeps telling the story as if all his readers are his co-nationals, or even his neighbours.

poster-launchWe embrace the exotic, the foreign, the strange, the unknown… the alien.

American editors have rejected translating huge names from European speculative fiction because they’re considered too strange and not easily understood by North American readers. Because the North American readership has read only North American genre writers for the past fifty years and they wouldn’t accept something different than an American way of perceiving reality and interpreting information. Something that may be too far from the North American system of values.

“But they’re readers of Science Fiction! I mean, they read Science Fiction or Fantasy because they want to be transported to different worlds. You mean that the American readers better understand a story happening on a strange planet or in the underworld, but they will find it difficult to follow a story happening in Bruges, or Warsaw?” I replied.

North American editors don’t appear to have that confidence in their readers. I, on the other hand, have that confidence. It has been proven to me over and over again, that the true SF&F reader, European or North American, is thirsty for new and exotic, and strange, and alien.

The second aspect is technical. It’s about the writing techniques, the story structure, the point of view approach, and so on. It’s an aspect I will not detail here. Suffice to say that while in North America a writer is supposed to write according to a certain and more strict system of technical rules if she’s to be accepted by professional markets, in Europe the editors don’t care if the writer abides by the rules or breaks them, as long as it’s good writing and the readers want more of that author.