When Writers Use the Present—or the Past—to inform The Future in Their Science Fiction Novel

The Darwin duology by Dragon Moon Press, depicting the late 21st Century, by Nina Munteanu

In my 2007 novel Darwin’s Paradox and its 2010 prequel Angel of Chaos—dystopian tales set in an unrecognizable post-climate change Canada at the end of the 21st Century—the father of the main character lectures his impressionable young daughter about how climate change helped create the heathland scrub that replaced the mixed woodlands of the old Carolinian and sub-Boreal environments:

“What’s over there?” She points to a far, dark hill. 

“Woodland. This was all forest before the cities got built and the climate changed.” 

“Climate changed?” 

“Yes, honey.” He focuses on the distance. “Caused the revolution thirty years ago. Since then the Ecologists have virtually eliminated our greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the planet will be feeling the effects of global warming for decades to come. Perhaps centuries.” 

“They saved the planet, didn’t they?” 

His brows knit. “Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t,” he says enigmatically. 

I’d originally written the novel and its prequel in the seventies, before entering university. So, you might think that I was incredibly imaginative and prescient to come up with such climate devastation. But this simply isn’t so (well, not entirely, anyway). Just as with Margaret Atwood—who says: “When I wrote the Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real-life somewhere at some time”—I was simply reading the signs.

Margaret Atwood demonstrating a fire-proof version of her book The Handmaid’s Tale

When it came to climate change, of course, I had some help. During my days at university, studying limnology, and in the 1980s and ‘90s when I worked as an environmental scientist and consultant, I encountered evidence of a changing environment and climate; people in the environmental sciences certainly knew the dangers of climate change long before it entered the common zeitgeist.

Science fiction dystopias aren’t so much predictive as realistically projecting possibilities based on current or past social patterns (these past social patterns, as Santayana notes, have a way of returning to us when we don’t pay attention to them). This notion lies at the root of the term cautionary tale and what makes one truly harrowing or terrifying; we sense to our very core how likely these scenarios are.

My near-future climate dystopia released by Inanna Publications in 2020

Response to my 2020 cautionary tale A Diary in the Age of Water reflects this visceral reaction by readers who shared that this blur of fiction with non-fiction and sense of realism—a “this could happen” quality—totally unbalanced them and engrossed them. Comments included “unique and captivating,” “unsettling and yet deliciously readable,” “strangely compelling” “scary and comforting at the same time,” “made my heart clench,” “a book of genuine power.”

Scene from Michael Radford’s film “Nineteen Eighty-Four” released in 1984, based on George Orwell’s 1949 novel

Indeed, many successful predictions have been made in speculative fiction. In 1961, Stanislaw Lem’s novel Return From the Stars predicted the invention of the touch pad, iPhone, iPad and Kindle. The telescreens that monitored the citizens of George Orwell’s Oceania in his dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was reflected, twenty years later, in the first CCTV installed in the United Kingdom. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report accurately predicted personalized ads, voice-controlled homes, facial and optical recognition, and gesture-based computing. Self-driving cars were showcased in many speculative books and films such as Bladerunner, and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

Scene from the film Minority Report with Tom Cruise

But many speculations have also not been realized. No flying cars—OK, some companies such as Toyota, Hyundai and Tesla are working on prototypes. While NASA plans to construct a surface habitat called Artemis Base Camp so that astronauts can remain on the moon’s surface for days or perhaps even weeks, it is far from happening soon. Also, no rotating space stations and space elevator–yet.

Many envisioned totalitarian/dystopian states in speculative fiction have also not been realized (e.g. We, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, The Dispossessed, V for Vendetta )—though one could argue that aspects of each world envisioned by an author has occurred or is occurring in some form. One need only recall Edward Snowdon’s disclosures of NSA’s insidious surveillance to see parallels with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And as Margaret Atwood famously said in the quote above, nothing goes into her stories “that have not happened in real-life somewhere at some time.”

“The function of science fiction is not only to predict the future but to prevent it.”

Ray Bradbury

There are, in most cases, no technological impediments to the flying car, the jetpack, and moon-bases; only cultural ones. “These SF predictions ought to be viewed as visions of where we could be, as opposed to where we will be, or, keeping Bradbury in mind, visions of where we don’t want to go and, thankfully, have mostly managed to avoid to date,” says Steve Davidson of Grasping for the Wind. “Perhaps it’s all cultural,” he adds. Science fiction writer and futurist David Brin says that he is “more interested in exploring possibilities than likelihoods, because a great many more things might happen than do.”

In his book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism Peter Frase writes: “the importance of assessing possibility rather than likelihood is that it puts our collective action at the centre, while making confident predictions only encourages passivity.” In his 2010 essay, David Brin cites Orwell’s 1984 as a “self-preventing prophecy” that helped prevent the scenario (at least in its fullest).

George Orwell wrote his dystopian satire in 1949 about a mind-controlled society in response to the Cold War. The book was a metaphor “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” said Orwell in his 1947 essay Why I Write, adding that, “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a failed novel because the real 1984 didn’t turn out quite like his 1984? Hardly. Hugo Award-winning novelist Robert J. Sawyer argues that we consider it a success, “because it helped us avoid that future. So just be happy that the damn dirty apes haven’t taken over yet.”

References:

Brin, David. 2010. “The Self-Preventing Prophecy: Or How a Dose of Nightmare Can Help Tame Tomorrow’s Path.” in Abbott Gleason et al. eds., On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future. Princeton University Press, Princeton, p.222.

Frase, Peter. 2016. “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.” Verso Press, London. 150pp.

Country road in the Kawarthas during a foggy morning, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

Writing About the Truth…and Other Lies: Monsanto’s Big Cheat

The June 2019 issue of Walrus Magazine addresses a current publishing crisis in academia. In his article “Fake Science Is the New Fake News,” reporter Alex Gillis reveals the alarming rise of fake and bogus professional journals and how scientists are both duped and drawn to publish with them.

The lure came from frustrations of scientists with the very gate-keeping devices that ensure good science is being conducted and accurately reported: high standards for acceptance; long wait times for peer review and publication; and high expense to the scientist. With the advent of online journals and the open-access model (that allowed free access), many scientists flocked to them, claiming more timely and less expensive publication. Unfortunately, the open-access model that made reporting of and access to science more easy, also permitted its exploitation by unscrupulous entrepreneurs who set up predatory (fake) journals. This allowed scientists with less integrity to publish material of lower standard. Even more insidious, the model and its fake journals also supports fake science with an agenda. Essentially, science as propaganda.

1984Nineteen Eighty-Four kind of science.

An example of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four kind of science with corporate motive was revealed in 2018 with the lawsuit against Monsanto (now part of Bayer) in which evidence showed that Monsanto had been funding junk studies to discredit legitimate research about its cancer-causing herbicide, Roundup. A terrible example in 2015 is the fake studies that underplayed risks to children exposed to lead from improperly maintained pipes in the drinking water service lines in Flint, Michigan.

So, what is it to write about the truth?

Here’s a bit of truth from seven years ago: New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom in an article on September 19th, 2012, entitled Uneasy Allies in the Grocery Aisle: “Giant bioengineering companies like Monsanto and DuPont are spending millions of dollars to fight a California ballot initiative aimed at requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. That surprises no one, least of all the proponents of the law, which if approved by voters would become the first of its kind in the nation.”

Let’s dig a bit deeper into this truth: “companies behind some of the biggest organic brands in the country—Kashi, Cascadian Farm, Horizon Organic—also joined the anti-labeling effort, adding millions of dollars to defeat the initiative, known as Proposition 37.”

Strom revealed even deeper truths when she disclosed that these well-known “organic” companies are owned by larger conglomerates like Kellogg, General Mills, Dean Foods, Smucker’s and Coca-Cola. Other food companies who had thrown in funds to help defeat the bill for transparency include PepsiCo., Neslé, and ConAgra Foods.

Strom reported that those who support the bill to label GMO products include Whole Foods, Nature’s Path (a Canadian company) Organic Valley, Cliff Bar and Amy’s Kitchen.

Whenever an issue of importance arises, the truth reveals itself. And sometimes in the oddest way. It often slides in through a back door. I’m not just talking about factual truth; I’m talking about resonating hair-standing gut-grabbing truth.

The kind of truth that resonates through you in a scintillating frisson. The kind of truth that stops you mid-stride, like someone shouting your name. Subversive truth. The kind of truth that vibrates deep inside and radiates out in a flood of epiphany.  The kind of truth that stirs your heart in a relentless wave of flaming light.

The kind of truth that “changes” you.

At first glance it’s rather obvious why those fighting the bill were against it: they had something to lose in transparency. The question is, why do they think that way? These giant biotech food companies are feeding the entire world, after all, with revolutionary strains of super-plants. They are doing a great good, surely. Could it simply be a concern that they may lose some customers who do not wish to consume GE products but who are unwittingly doing so now? That is being dishonestly self-serving as well as short-sighted (the European Union has required biotech labeling since 1997—it’s just a matter of time).

Could it be the bad publicity from findings of the long-term effects of GMO products and Roundup on test animals? (See the incendiary paper by French and Italian scientists in Food Chem. Toxicol., referenced below, that started it all).  Despite the barrage of bad press, the paper’s results could not be refuted entirely or ignored (if only from the basis of scientific inquiry and professional due diligence to do with Type II Error).

Or is it more insidious?

Far more insidious than a lie is to dissemble with a half-lie—or half-truth—a truth that veils a festering lie beneath its candy-coated mantle of equivocation. A “truth” so delicious that we want to believe it, even when we see the lie lurking beneath. Little lies always hide bigger lies.

For more than a decade, consumers in North America have purchased cereals, snack foods, and salad dressings, among other products, blithely unaware that these products contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory.

Here’s my witnessed truth: The aggressive multi-million dollar campaign waged by multi-national corporations against transparency in food labeling in the USA is the culmination of self-serving protectionism in a most heinous way. Their decade-long silence and current reluctance to label their products (and all this before the Seralini et al. study) points to a far greater lie.

Since the long-term toxicity study by Seralini et al. was released in Food & Chemical Toxicology, a massive campaign to discredit the study was waged on the Internet. This despite the soundness of the 2-year study, its glaringly obvious results (e.g. test animals died 2-3 times more quickly than controls among many other findings) and the fact that it sets precedent by being the longest and most detailed study ever conducted on a herbicide and a GMO to date; all previous studies by Monsanto labs and others were only 90-day trials (and we now know that these studies were fake studies).

So, what is it to write about the truth?

I’ve been a practicing scientist for over twenty years. I did research and wrote papers that were published in scientific peer-reviewed journals. I diligently used the scientific method, hypothesis-testing, objective observation and appropriate statistics to back up my work. I also write articles for magazines, blogs and places like this site. I write short stories and novels. I write how-to books and guidebooks. And I write letters. Lots of letters. In all this, I have made a point to do my research. I try always to go to the source and verify my information through cross-checking, and various other quality assurance procedures I learned over the years to best represent and communicate the truth.

For instance, in writing this article, I perused many articles that presented both sides of the several issues I covered, including the source paper by Seralini et al.

Science is the rational tool for the pursuit of truth. This is why scientists are burdened to proceed under an objective protocol in their premise presentation, experimental design, methodology and interpretation and conclusions drawn. Because the introduction of error and bias is possible in each of these areas, researchers with integrity ensure through design and quality assurance protocol that these errors and biases are minimized. This includes the use of contols, sufficient sample size and statistical power, blind or even double-blind experiments and more. Experiments are reported with sufficient transparency to be replicated (an icon of good science).

Once they are reported in a paper, results transform from science into politics. Objectivity gives way to agenda. That is inevitable. However, what has changed in the last decade is that science itself has become seconded for agenda. Science by agenda to fulfill a propaganda is flooding in as assuredly as the rising seas of climate change.

Gillis writes: “Fake and flawed studies are so pervasive that the presumed authority of an expert or researcher in a scholarly journal is no longer what it used to be…the traditional knowledge-sharing process has been corrupted.”

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Sunflowers in Missouri (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Who are the politicians behind the “soldiers” of science and what are their motives? That is where the truth lies.

In the end, I have found that listening to the conviction of my heart, to my inner “soul wisdom”, best serves the truth. Then again I prefer the resonating hair-standing gut-grabbing truth.

Reference:

Gillis, Alex. 2019. “The Rise of Junk Science.” Walrus Magazine, Toronto, ON. June 2019.

Seralini, G.-E., et al. 2012. “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize.” Food Chem. Toxicolhttp://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637

Strom, Stephanie. 2012. “Uneasy Allies in the Grocery Aisle.” New York Times, New York, September 19, 2012.

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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.