Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

NewYork 2140By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation.”—Amitav Ghosh, 2017

…Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl or The Water Knife. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Nina Munteanu’s A Diary in the Age of Water. Richard Power’s Overstory. Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water

Diary Water cover finalWhat these novels have in common is that they are all Dystopian Eco-Fiction. Humanity’s key role in environmental destruction serves a strong thematic element. In eco-fiction dystopias (as opposed to political or socio-cultural dystopias such as Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale) the environment—whether forest, ocean, water generally, or the animal world—plays a key character.

Our Literature in the Anthropocene

In 2017, Amitav Ghosh observed that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable). “How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works?” writes Fredrick Albritton Jonsson of The Guardian, who observes that, “for Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by ‘modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.’”

Windup GirlAccording to Ghosh, plots and characters of contemporary literature tend to reflect the regularity of middle-class life and the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences, one that depends on a principle of uniformity. Change in Nature has been perceived as gradual (or static by some) and never catastrophic. Extraordinary or bizarre happenings were left to marginal genres like the Gothic tale and—of course—science fiction. The strange and unlikely have been externalized: hence the failure of modern novels and art to recognize anthropogenic climate change.

From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity’s men have consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, many saw its basis in a homeostatic balance of the natural order as confirmation of Nature’s infinite resilience to abuse. They failed to recognize that we are Nature and abuse of Nature is really self-abuse.

Jonsson suggests that these Enlightenment ideas are essentially ideological manifestations of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels, giving rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world. “The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant [and dangerous] expression.”

barkskins

Louise Fabiani of Pacific Standard suggests that novels are still the best way for us to clarify planetary issues and prepare for change—even play a meaningful part in that change. In her article “The Literature of Climate Change” she points to science fiction as helping “us prepare for radical change, just when things may be getting too comfortable.”

Referring to our overwhelming reliance on technology and outsourced knowledge, Fabiani suggests that “our privileged lives (particularly in consumer-based North America) are built on unconscious trust in the mostly invisible others who make this illusion of domestic independence possible—the faith that they will never stop being there for us. And we have no back-ups in place should they let us down.” Which they certainly will—given their short-term thinking.

TheOverstory“To counteract this epidemic of short-term thinking,” says Fabiani, “it might be a good idea for more of us to read science fiction, specifically the post-apocalyptic sub-genre: that is, fiction dealing with the aftermath of major societal collapse, whether due to a pandemic, nuclear fallout, or climate change.”

I suggest widening the genre to include good dystopian eco-fiction, which includes not just post-apocalyptic tales but also cautionary tales, worlds in upheaval, and satires. Dystopian literature is ultimately an exploration of hope through personal experience. The eco-fiction protagonist navigates their dystopia by learning meaningful lessons—lessons that pertain directly to our reader in their current world. This is because the premise of a dystopia lies squarely in the present world. Good dystopias can enlighten and suggest possibilities; they can warn and herald. At the very least, they incite the necessary conversation.

On the Role of Dystopian Eco-Fiction

NaturalSelection-front-webI recently shared a panel discussion with writer Kristen Kiomall-Evans at the 2019 Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston entitled: “On the Role of (Dystopian) Literature and Environmental Issues: Can Books Save the Planet.” The audience of mostly women shared enlightened input in an open discussion, which spanned a range of topics and directions from what dystopian literature actually is to whether we are turned off by its negativity—that it may be too close to reality and makes us cringe and want to hide. One person even brought up Game of Thrones as an example; which I then bluntly suggested was not real “story”—it is a stream of episodic sensationalism and horror—aimed at thrilling shock value, not fulfilling meaning.

The group explored what Eco-Fiction is and the possibility of how eco-fiction writers can influence their audience to engage in helping the planet and humanity, in turn.

 “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. 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 explored several areas in which writers could elucidate ways to engage readers for edification, connection and participation. We discussed optimism, new perspectives, envisioning our future, and imaginative use of “product placement” to gain reader engagement and galvanize a movement of action.

Optimism in Story

I pointed out that good dystopias—like all good fiction—follow a character and story arc that must ultimately resolve (which Game of Thrones may never do, certainly not well—J.R.R. Martin’s books series upon which it is based are not even finished yet!). Eco-Fiction Dystopias often conclude with a strong element of hope, based on some positive aspect of humanity and the human spirit—which may include our own evolution. Think Day After Tomorrow, Year of the Flood, Windup Girl, The Postman, Darwin’s Paradox.

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPress copyIn 2015, I joined Lynda Williams of Reality Skimming Press in creating an optimistic science fiction anthology with the theme of water. My foreword to Water addressed this point:

As we drank Schofferhoffers over salmon burgers, Lynda lamented that while the speculative / science fiction genre has gained a literary presence, this has been at some expense. Much of the current zeitgeist of this genre in Canada tends toward depressing, “self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality,” Lynda remarked. Where was the optimism and associated hope for a future? I brought up the “hero’s journey” and its role in meaningful story. One of the reasons this ancient plot approach, based on the hero journey myth, is so popular is that its proper use ensures meaning in story. This is not to say that tragedy is not a powerful and useful story trope; so long as hope for someone—even if just the reader—is generated. Lynda and I concluded that the science fiction genre could use more optimism. [As a result,] these stories explore individual choices and the triumph of human imagination in the presence of adversity. [Each story explores] the surging spirit of humanity toward hopeful shores.

New Perspectives in Story

Evans spoke of the emergence of and need for a strong voice by marginalized groups who would be most affected by things like habitat destruction and climate change. The poor and marginalized will most certainly make up the majority of climate change refugees, starved out and water shorted, and suffering malnutrition, violence and disease.

FifthSeason-JemisinEvans pointed out that afro-American writers (e.g., Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin) and indigenous writers (Cherie Dimaline, Daniel Wilson, Drew Hayden Taylor) are an exciting voice, providing a new and compelling perspective on ongoing global issues.

I would add that the “feminine” voice—the voice of women and the voice of ecology and those who embrace the gylanic voice—are needed. This was strangely not mentioned in the group—perhaps because we were all women—but one. Such a voice can help personalize the experience to readers, by creating discovery, connection and understanding—and ultimately serving a key force in engaging readers to act.

Envisioning Our Future Through Story

One audience member shared a yearning for an optimistic focus through an envisioned world where solutions have successfully created that world. She wasn’t so much suggesting writing a utopia, but including elements of future wishes as an integral part of the world, following Ghandi’s wise advice: be the change you seek. In a recent interview in which I also participated in The Globe and Mail on women science fiction writers, Ottawa writer Marie Bilodeau addressed this concept:

“the best part about writing science fiction is showing different ways of being without having your characters struggle to gain rights. Invented worlds can host a social landscape where debated rights in this world – such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia – are just a fact of life.”

People are looking for hopeful fiction that addresses the issues but explores a successful paradigm shift. One that accurately addresses our current issues with intelligence and hope. The power of envisioning a certain future is that the vision enables one to see it as possible.

Product Placement in Story

Editor and naturalist Merridy Cox suggested that writers could make motivating connections through altruistic (not market-driven) “product placement.” She gave the example of an Ash tree. The Ash (Fraxinus species) could subtly make its name, its character and ecology known in the story, along with its plight—its destruction by the non-native invasive emerald ash borer. The use of metaphor and personification would easily link the Ash to a character and at the same time illuminate the reader on a real aspect of the environment to consider. Another example she gave was of the threatened bobolink bird, now all but gone. The bobolink originally made its home in the tallgrass prairie and other open meadows. As native prairies were cleared for farming, the bobolink was displaced and moved to living in hayfields and fallow fields—building their nests on the ground in dense grasses. Changing farm practices (shorter crop rotation and earlier maturing seed mixtures) are now destroying the bobolink’s last refuge.

bobolink-chicks-mom

Bobolink mother and her chicks

 

Such “product placement” essentially gives Nature and the environmental a personalized face that can easily interact with the story’s theme and its characters. “Product placement”—like symbol—lies embedded in its own story. In the case of the bobolink, it is a story of colonialism, exploitation, and single-minded pursuit at the expense of others not considered, known or understood. These examples have anthropogenic connections to human behaviour, action and knowledge—all related to story and theme.

MockUpEcology copyIn my new writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character I discuss and explore how some authors do this impeccably. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Powers, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Hardy, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Janet Fitch, John Steinbeck, David Mitchell, Joanne Harris and many others.

Writing for the Anthropocene

Learn how to write for the Anthropocene: from Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections and symbols between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

The Ecology of Story will be released by Pixl Press in July 2019.

 

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

“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.

 

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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.

Publishers Weekly Praises Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change & “The Way of Water”

Publishers Weekly writes:

cli-fi-exile anthology2017“In his introduction to this all-original set of (at times barely) futuristic tales, Meyer warns readers, “[The] imaginings of today could well become the cold, hard facts of tomorrow.” Meyer (Testing the Elements) has gathered an eclectic variety of eco-fictions from some of Canada’s top genre writers, each of which, he writes, reminds readers that “the world is speaking to us and that it is our duty, if not a covenant, to listen to what it has to say.” In these pages, scientists work desperately against human ignorance, pockets of civilization fight to balance morality and survival, and corporations cruelly control access to basic needs such as water. The most affecting tale, Wendy Bone’s “Abdul,” is also the least futuristic, an emotional story that touchingly contrasts Western guilt against the life of a captive orangutan. The anthology may be inescapably dark, but it is a necessary read, a clarion call to take action rather than, as a character in Seán Virgo’s “My Atlantis” describes it, “waiting unknowingly for the plague, the hive collapse, the entropic thunderbolt.” Luckily, it’s also vastly entertaining. It appears there’s nothing like catastrophe to bring the best out in authors in describing the worst of humankind.”

My story The Way of Water is one of 17 stories in Exile’s anthology, published in May 2017. It was originally published in English and Italian [La natura dell’acqua] by Mincione Edizioni [print] and Future Fiction [ebook] in Rome in early 2016. The Way of Water is a near-future vision that explores the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with resource warfare. An ecologist and technologist, Nina Munteanu uses both fiction and non-fiction to examine our humanity in the face of climate change and our changing relationship with technology and Nature … through water.

la natura dell'acquaShe imagines its coolness gliding down her throat. Wet with a lingering aftertaste of fish and mud. She imagines its deep voice resonating through her in primal notes; echoes from when the dinosaurs quenched their throats in the Triassic swamps.

Water is a shape shifter.

It changes yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth like a gypsy, stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted.

Dizzy and shivering in the blistering heat, Hilda shuffles forward with the snaking line of people in the dusty square in front of University College where her mother used to teach. The sun beats down, crawling on her skin like an insect. She’s been standing for an hour in the queue for the public water tap.

The Way of Water takes place in Toronto, Ontario in Canada, mostly on or near the campus of the University of Toronto.

In The Way of Water, Nina Munteanu pens her love letter to water, exulting it as a liquid that has semi-magical properties. Munteanu recognizes the chimerical quality of water, its unique ability to shift and change, to purify and taint, and the incredible way that it makes up most of our body mass and therefore shapes us as well.

nina-TV-nov2015A limnologist (lake ecosystem biologist) by trade, Munteanu recognizes the incredible way that water shapes life and brings attention to the fact that water connects us to each other just as water connects with other water, forming bonds. She evokes in the reader a sense of reverence for water and an awareness that the same water that flows through our bodies have flowed through the bodies of our ancestors, cycling through life since the first life forms coalesced.

In recognizing the preciousness of water, she also recognizes its precarity and the danger that capitalist systems pose when they lay claim to water and seek to own it. “The Way of Water” evokes a sense of awareness about issues of access to water and about the dangers of imbalances in that access.”—Derek Newman-Stille, Speculating Canada

 

book-patio2 copy“Water covers every aspect of this science fiction story that pits the vulnerable citizen against the evil multinational corporation in a dystopian Canada sometime in our future. Water is presented in its multiplicity of facets: in the science behind its composition, in its history, in it’s symbolic nature and different physical states; water is a giver and taker of life, and is the form in which the friendship of protagonists Hilda and Hanna functions. Water is also magic and the ultimate righter of wrongs committed to it and to a humanity it gives life to. Within this framework, Munteanu spins a thought-provoking tale that projects where our headlong pursuit of profit may one day lead us to, and how nature will ultimately, with a little human coaxing, be the only one to correct the balance.”—Shane Joseph, Canadian author of Fringe Dwellers

“Nina Munteanu with The Way of Water suggests that this element is also a form of laNaturaDell'Acqua-coverlove; a story to read, not only to deal with the possible but, above all, to understand that the time still available for “love” might be less than what you believe.”—Simone Casavecchia, SoloLibri.net (read the original Italian review here)

The Way of Water is a story of the kind you hope is science fiction but you fear is not.”—Massimo Luciani, NetMassimo (read the original Italian review here)

 

 

nina-2014aaNina 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.