‘Overcoming the Monster’ and DuPont’s Dark ‘Magic’

The Ohio River at Parkersburg, West Virginia, contaminated for decades with C8 used by DuPont to make Teflon

I write science fiction and fantasy. On occasion magic or something that stands for magic enters in.

But that’s my fiction. In my ordinary very real life, I tend to be suspicious of claims of ‘magical’ properties, particularly those that claim to provide great convenience and utility with no expenditure (except money). Perhaps it’s my half-German ethic of good old-fashioned honest work; these claims seem like a big cheat: mops that clean the floor spotless without you ever having to bend over or scrub; carpets that resist spills or clean themselves; non-stick pans where cooked food just slides cheerfully from pan to plate without sticking.

In my experience, I have often found that if something seems too good to be true—like magic—there’s a catch. And just like magic in a good fiction story, it comes with great hidden cost.

Enter DuPont and its dark magic…

DuPont Washington Works facility at Parkersburg, West Virginia

DuPont is one of the richest families in the United States since French aristocrat Irénée du Pont de Nemours fled the French Revolution in 1802 and built a gunpowder mill in northeast Delaware. DuPont soon expanded to bombs and poison gas and over its more than a hundred years of operation DuPont has been linked to dangerous products that have caused health problems, particularly to its own workers. By the 1930s DuPont had created leaded gasoline, which ended up causing madness and violent deaths and life-long institutionalization of workers. Certain rubber and industrial chemicals turned the skin of exposed workers blue. Bladder cancers developed in many dye workers.

Spruce trees damaged by Imprelis

Then there was DuPont’s Imprelis, an aminocyclopyrachlor herbicide to control weeds that caused widespread death of mature trees and created ‘killer compost.’ DuPont failed to submit reports to the EPA about potential adverse effects of Imprelis and sold the product with misleading labelling. When damage reports began to surface weeks after Imprelis was introduced, DuPont simply continued to sell the product until the EPA finally banned its sale and DuPont was charged for negligence and violation of FIFRA. A year after the ban, impact from Imprelis use continues to be reported throughout the northern United States for a range of trees including maples, oaks, honey locust, Norway spruce and white pine (stunted, twisted or curled new growth, bud-kill, delayed leaf-out, stem die-back). Trees that initially experienced minor affects from Imprelis later developed more severe damage (e.g. bud formation and cold hardiness).

Concerned over “the tendency to believe [chemicals] are harmless until proven otherwise,” staff doctor George Gehrmann convinced DuPont to create Haskell Laboratories in 1935. The lab became the first in-house toxicology facility; but, due to its position within DuPont, Haskell Lab also inherited limitations on its ability to conduct and report objective science. Just as self-regulation is a ridiculous concept, self-analysis is feckless and fraught with the potential for omission and false reporting. When pathologist Wilhelm Hueper tried to share his results with the scientific community on how dye chemicals led to bladder cancer, he was gagged and fired, and DuPont went on to use the chemicals for decades after in what appeared to become a common pattern for this company.

Early ad for DuPont’s “Happy Pan”

DuPont developed many astonishing products, mostly for warfare, including nylon, Lycra, Saran wrap and, of course, Teflon—their magic non-stick compound. By the late 1940s, they were producing a wide variety of industrial chemicals, synthetic fibers, petroleum-based fuels and lubricants, pharmaceuticals, building materials, sterile and specialty packaging materials, cosmetics ingredients, and agricultural chemicals worldwide. By the early 1950s, a group of Columbia University scientists published several papers describing high rates of cancer in rats exposed to plastics such as vinyl, Saran wrap and Teflon. This did not deter DuPont from continuing its production line for these products.

Representation of 1950s DuPont “Happy Pan”

By 1954, during the ramp up for the Teflon rollout, DuPont’s toxicologist R.A. Dickison noted possible toxicity of the surfactant C8 (PFOA or Perfluorooctanoic Acid) used to make Teflon. By 1961, the same year they rolled out their Teflon-coated “Happy Pan”, DuPont knew C8 was a toxic endocrine disruptor and caused cancer. DuPont’s chief toxicologist Dorothy Hood cautioned executives in a memo that the substance was toxic and should be “handled with extreme care.” It didn’t stop the roll out. By 1982, DuPont had confirmed the high toxicity of C8 in humans.

Teflon-lined Tefal (T-fal) pan made with C8

From the 1960s well past the millennium, DuPont displayed gross criminal negligence in not reporting their in-house findings of C8 toxicity to the EPA, and doing nothing to protect their workers exposed and working with C8 (and eventually their community when C8 leaked into the water supply). For over five decades, DuPont executives chose to: 1) continue using toxic C8 despite its proven toxicity; 2) expose C8 to their own workers without telling them (and even testing their workers without telling them why); 3) dispose of C8 unsafely, releasing the toxin into the communities and the environment; 4) cover up and deny that they did, when they were caught in the act.

Effects of PFOA (birth defect in Bucky Bailey whose mother was on the Teflon line without protection during her first trimester; blackening teeth from the excessive fluoride, from scene in “Dark Waters”)
DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia

Finally, in 2019—sixty-seven years after DuPont knew PFOA was toxic and did nothing—this forever chemical was banned globally under the Stockholm Convention. Unfortunately, by 2019, PFOA was already literally everywhere on the planet in concentrations considered unsafe. Given its high water-solubility, long-range transport potential, and lack of degradation in the environment, PFOA persists in groundwater and is ubiquitously present in oceans and other surface water around the globe. It is found in remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic (where it was not used or manufactured), no doubt transported there through ocean currents and in the air, bound on particles.

Average surface water levels of PFOA and PFOS by country in 2012 (from Kunacheva et al. 2012)

In 2020, NBC News revealed that DuPont was still avoiding its responsibility to clean up its C8 mess and compensate those harmed by DuPont’s negligence. In 2015, DuPont began a series of complex transactions that transferred its responsibility for environmental obligations and liabilities associated with PFAS (C8) onto other entities such as Chemours, Corteva, and NewDupont. If Chemours becomes insolvent, Corteva will be responsible. Corteva does not have the funds to cover tens of billions in estimated PFAS (C8) costs to their victims.

Timeline for DuPont’s use of PFOA (C8) to 2006 (image from The Intercept)

Their Story…My Story…

In his 2006 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write Stories, Christopher Booker told us that there are seven types of plots in story. One is entitled “Overcoming the Monster,” an underdog story where the hero sets out to destroy an evil to restore safety or order to the land. The evil force is typically much larger than the hero, who must find a way, often through great courage, strength, and inventive cunning, to defeat the evil force. This is the story of David and Goliath, of Beowulf and Grendel, of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars, of Jake Sully and Miles Quaritch in Avatar, of Rita Vrataski and the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow. The list goes on…

Miles Quaritch and Jake Sully face off in the film “Avatar”

The “Overcoming the Monster” plot, whether told literally or through metaphor, reflects an imbalance in the world—usually of power—that the hero must right. The true story of DuPont’s evil maleficence reflects the great power imbalance of many large corporations and the evil they enact through willful deception and mischief to increase profit, their god. 

We’ve now come full circle to me and my relationship with magic. For in some terrible way, the story of DuPont is also my story. One of power imbalance, of deception and ignorance. Their deception; my ignorance:

In 1954, the year I was born, DuPont discovered the toxicity of C8 in its Teflon products at its Washington Works plant in Parkersburg—and proceeded to roll it out for mass use.

In 1964, I was ten years old and struggling with my Grade 5 teacher who was trying to curb my unique self-expression. I was already aware of environmental imbalance and destruction in the world. My pet peeve was littering because it demonstrated great disrespect for others and the environment; I told environmental stories. That year DuPont had already begun its great deception; having confirmed the toxicity of C8, they simply watched (and recorded) as this cancer-causing endocrine disruptor injured, maimed and killed their own workers. The company did nothing to prevent it and they told no one.

In 1969, I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts and years later the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic assaulting Icaria 5, an enclosed city within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America. The city is run by deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

In the early 1970s, I entered college and contemplated becoming an environmental lawyer; I wrote short stories, mostly eco-fiction, and joined marches protesting environmental destruction by large corporations.  DuPont confirmed that C8 not only persisted in the environment; it bioaccumulated in animals. A 1979 internal memo in which humans exposed to C8 were referred to as “receptors,” DuPont scientists found “significantly higher incidence of allergic, endocrine and metabolic disorders” as well as “excess risk of developing liver disease.”  DuPont withheld this information from EPA.  

In 1981, when I got my first job as a limnologist and environmental consultant in Vancouver, DuPont confirmed that C8 caused birth defects in its own workers—and did not warn its workers; in fact they created false data for EPA and continued exposing women of childbearing age to C8. In 1984, a year after I formed my own consulting company Limnology Services in Vancouver, DuPont staffers secretly tested their community’s drinking water and found it to contain alarming levels of C8. Deciding that any cleanup was likely to cost too much and tarnish their reputation, DuPont chose to do nothing. In fact, they scaled up their use of C8 in Teflon products and bought land to dump their toxic sludge in unlined landfills. Deaths in DuPont workers from leukemia and kidney cancer climbed.

Throughout the 90s, I started teaching college ecology courses in Vancouver; Shared Vision Magazine published my first article “Environmental Citizenship” in 1995. Meantime, DuPont’s Washington Works plant pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA sludge, powder and vapor through stacks and outfall pipes into the Ohio River and surrounding air. By 1996, C8 was in the drinking water of Parkersburg and other communities. Despite what they knew of C8’s toxicity, DuPont kept it a secret (no one else was testing for PFOA because it was unregulated).

In 2007, Darwin’s Paradox, my eco-fiction novel about an environmental pandemic, was published by Dragon Moon Press in Calgary, Alberta.Four years earlier, the law had finally caught up to DuPont, but not before they had dispersed 2.5 million pounds of harmful C8 from their Washington Works plant into the air and water of the mid-Ohio River Valley area. It would be another twelve years before DuPont would stop making C8 (in 2015) and another four years after that when C8 would be banned from use globally (2019). PFOA is still unregulated by EPA; the best they can do is issue a non-enforceable health advisory set at 70 parts per trillion.   

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker face off as Palpatine looks on in the film “Star Wars”

It isn’t the Darth Vaders or Miles Quaritchs we must overcome. Yes, they are monsters, but they serve a greater monster. For Vader it is Emperor Palpatine and for Quaritch it is the RDA Corporation. While Vader and Quaritch may be the face of evil, true evil lurks behind them, orchestrating. It is an evil we must fight internally, because each of us carries that evil inside us—in the urge to cheat on our taxes; in looking for the free ride (there are no free rides); in coveting what others have when what we have is enough; in embracing self-deception through unsubstantiated narratives and choosing to remain ignorant to suit a self-serving agenda.

I only heard of the decades-long environmental dispersal of PFOA (C8) by DuPont in 2022. I’d lived in total ignorance through DuPont’s entire five decades of deception with C8. This past year, I chanced upon “Dark Waters,” the 2019 film starring Mark Ruffalo as lawyer Robert Bilott, who took DuPont to court in 2002. I found out seven years after DuPont agreed to stop using PFOA (DuPont currently uses other PFAS compounds that are unregulated and whose toxicity is unknown).

Lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) investigates leachate-infected cows from nearby DuPont landfill (photo from film “Dark Waters”)

Ignorance breeds complacency and hubris. Both will lead to downfall.

If you think you’re getting away with something … if you think you’re getting a free ride … think again. You’re being taken for one. Short cuts are dangerous. Nature is complex for good reason. Complexity builds in a diverse spider web of safeguards that interact to sustain the greater existential collaborative.

That is the real magic. And we’re not even close to understanding it.  

“Angel of Chaos” and “Darwin’s Paradox” explore human-induced environmental catastrophe

DuPont’s Forever Weapon of Death: Teflon and C8 (PFOA)

Teflon was created in 1938, quite by accident, by Dr. Roy J. Plunkett, who was working on alternative refrigerant gases. Plunkett had stored the gas (tetrafluroethylene) in small cylinders where they were frozen and compressed. The gas had solidified into a waxy white material, which came to be called Polyetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a slippery substance that was non-corrosive, chemically stable and with an extremely high melting point. Through polymer research, PTFE was combined with PFOA to make Teflon, a type of fluoropolymer and telomere-based consumer product. For every two carbon atoms, there are four fluorine atoms attached throughout the entire molecular structure. The fluorine atoms surround the carbon atoms, creating a protective armor, preventing the carbon atoms from reacting when anything comes into contact with them—such as food in a non-stick frying pan. The fluorine atoms also decrease friction, making it slippery.

Chemical formula for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) also called C8

DuPont registered the Teflon trademark in 1944, and the coating was used in the Manhattan Project’s A-bomb effort. Like DuPont’s other wartime innovations, such as nylon and pesticides, Teflon found its way into the home. In 1951, DuPont started using PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) known as C8 in its Teflon production at the Parkersburg factory. By the 1960s, DuPont was producing Teflon for cookware and advertising it as “a housewife’s best friend.” C8 was eventually used in hundreds of DuPont products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes.

Farmer Tennant and lawyer Rob Billot encounter a leachate-infected mad cow in the 2019 film “Dark Waters”

PFOA is a member of a family of over 4,500 synthetic chemicals called PFAS (polyfluorinated alkyl substances), also known as the Forever Chemicals. Due to their strong carbon-fluorine bond, PFAS chemicals don’t break down easily and persist in the environment for decades. PFAS also bioaccumulate, which means these chemicals are absorbed and not excreted and therefore buildup in the body. The higher up the food chain, the greater the PFAS concentrations. Before their manufacture started in the 1940s, no PFAS compounds were present in the environment. Now, thanks to their persistence and bioaccumulation, they exist everywhere in the environment, occupying virtually 99% of all life on the globe.

Currently, PFOA is one of only two PFAS chemicals regulated globally (the other being PFOS, which was banned in 2009, that DuPont replaced with another toxic unregulated chemical, GenX). Over 4,000 other PFAS chemicals remain in use that have not been studied and are not regulated. CHEMtrust, points out that when one PFAS chemical is regulated, “it is replaced in products and manufacturing processes by a similar, unregulated PFAS chemical. Unfortunately, the chemicals’ similarities often extend to their hazardous properties, and the replacement chemical is found to have similar harmful impacts on human health and the environment.”

DuPont’s Washington Works facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia


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Kunacheva, Chinagarn, Shigeo Fujii, Shuhei Tanaka, et al. 2012. “Worldwide surveys of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in water environment in recent years.” Water Science & Technology 66(12): 2764-71.

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Rauert, Cassandra, Mahiba Shoieb, Jasmin K. Schuster, Anita Eng, Tom Harner. 2018. “Atmospheric concentrations and trends of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and volatile methyl siloxanes (VMS) over 7 years of sampling in the Global Atmospheric Passive Sampling (GAPS) network.” Environmental Pollution 238: 94-102.

Velez, M.P., T.E. Arbuckle, W.D. Fraser. 2015. “Maternal exposure to perfluorinated chemicals and reduced fecundity: the MIREC study.” Human Reproduction 30(3): 701-9.

Vierke, Lena, Claudia Staude, Annegret Biegel-Engler, Wiebke Drost, and Christoph Schulte. 2012. “Perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA)–main concerns and regulatory developments in Europe from an environmental point of view.” Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 16

Yamashita N, Kannan K, Taniyasu S, Horii Y, Petrick G, Gamo T. 2005. “A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans.” Mar Pollut Bull 51: 658–668. 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2005.04.026

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.

Defining Moments and The Last Summoner

A few years ago I attended a panel at Toronto’s Ad Astra convention called “Stealth Science Fiction in Person of Interest.” The panel was the brainchild of fellow science fiction writer Ira Nayman, an avid watcher of the TV show. Unbeknownst to me, the panel I’d been assigned to participate with Ira and another panelist was about a TV show (which I’d never seen)—not just an expression.

I bumbled in the beginning as realization dawned on me that this was what the panel was about and quietly berated myself for not rereading the short description (which had been sufficiently vague—at least to me). I finally let the panelists and audience know my limitation when Ira astutely noted that I was being extra reticent (not one of my usual traits in panels). We muddled along, despite my infirmity, and the panel went along admirably—mainly because Ira moderated with great astuteness and audience members participated enthusiastically.

One of the plot points of the show led Ira to share a personality-defining hypothetical dilemma that he’d encountered. Here’s how he described it: if you knew you could save five people by instigating the death of another person, would you do it? Or would you, by your inaction, allow the five to die by not instigating that person’s death? The premise, of course, is that you could tell the future of two divergent actions.

LastSummoner-coverI realized soon after that this is exactly the situation that my main character Vivianne Schoen, the Baroness Von Grunwald, faced in her journey to change the history she’d inadvertently authored (in The Last Summoner). As a medieval time traveler, she was presented with several courses of history and needed to choose her actions carefully in accordance with both short-term and long-term consequences. Faced with the possibility of saving utterly millions of people who were fated to perish in World War I by instigating the death of one man—Kaiser Wilhelm II—Vivianne sets out to do the deed.

Besides her ability to time travel, Vivianne is able to manipulate metal through mind-wave energy. Because of this power, she decides to participate in a momentous event in which her power will have a potentially deadly effect. The year is 1889, just a year after Kaiser Wilhelm II was crowned Emperor, and the place is Charlottenburg Race Course in Berlin in this excerpt from The Last Summoner:

VIVIANNE pulled up the collar and hood of her fur coat to ward off the November chill as she walked next to Jurgen von Eisenreich in Berlin’s Charlottenburg Race Course. The coat barely kept the winter wind from cutting through her cream- colored evening gown. Fastened at the back, it had no bustle and signaled the upcoming style. They were here to watch Europe’s latest touring attraction from America: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Steering her by the elbow, von Eisenreich guided her up the rafter stairs toward the Royal Box, where the new Emperor was already seated with his retinue of several statesmen, including his aides-de-camp, and two imperial guards. Vivianne recognized the odious and obsequious Count Alfred von Waldersee, seated beside the Emperor. Twenty-seven years the Kaiser’s senior, the Count was a power-mongering anti-Semite, who would prove to mold the weak-minded Crown Prince into the bigoted warlord Kaiser Wilhelm II was becoming.

Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Vivianne stole a long glance to the Reich’s young ruler. It had been just a year since the Crown Prince had ascended to the imperial thrown and he had already stirred up trouble with his insulting behavior of his mother, the dowager Empress, and his uncompassionate handling of his father’s funeral; then his shabby treatment of England’s Queen and her son, the Prince of Wales.

Vivianne furtively studied the dashing thirty-year old ruler with deep interest. Dressed impeccably in uniform, he was rakishly handsome, she decided, with sharp intelligent eyes, a long aristocratic nose and well-waxed handle-bar mustache. She found herself staring at his withered left arm, which he rested on his lap. Though she could not make it out, it was a good six inches shorter than the other arm and partially lifeless. He’d been a breech birth and both he and his mother were lucky to be alive.

Vivianne reflected on that eventful day when she’d botched her attempt to save the last Emperor of Germany from an unnatural birth. While Oskar had been instantly killed, the doctor had survived the carriage accident with only a severe concussion; he’d still only managed to get to Unter den Linden by early afternoon, having lain unconscious and unattended for most of the morning then having awoken at Humboldt Hospital where he’d ironically been scheduled to speak that day and had then foolishly insisted on tending to Vivianne first, who’d suffered a nasty head wound that she hadn’t even been aware of receiving.

The Emperor—like Vivianne—was here, in the District of Charlottenburg in West Berlin, to see the show’s star attraction, Annie Oakley, who acquired world fame for her skills with a Colt .45. The young sharpshooter had been invited by the Kaiser for a private performance for the Union-Club. Vivianne found her breaths escalate at the thought of what the impetuous Kaiser was about to do; and what she intended to do, as a result. Was it an ironic twist of history that only months ago Adolf Hitler was born this year? Vivianne glanced down at the program in her gloved hand:

Programme of Miss Annie Oakley’s Private Performance Before the Members and Their Friends of the Union-Club, Berlin, on November 13, 1889, at Charlottenburg Race Course.

There followed a list of up to seventeen feats she would perform, beginning with her exhibition of rifle shooting, followed by clay-pigeon sharp-shooting then various feats involving trapping and agility in weapon handling. She was not fated to get very far in her program before calamity of sorts would strike, Vivianne thought cynically.

“He’s alone…without his family?” she asked von Eisenreich. That would make it much easier, she concluded with an inward sigh.

“Dona prefers the comfort and warmth of the royal palace in Potsdam, and the company of her children,” he responded. “She’s not interested in this sort of thing. She has few interests other than church service, I’m afraid.” Then he leaned his head close to hers to confide. “Ten years ago, Wilhelm was smitten by his beautiful cousin, Victoria Elizabeth, the second eldest daughter of the Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse and the Rhine. But Ella wouldn’t have him.” Then von Eisenreich surveyed Vivianne with an appraising look and smiled enigmatically. “In fact, she looked a lot like you.”

Vivianne swallowed down a sudden discomfort, not sure of its source. Von Eisenreich went on, “Poor Wilhelm became very self-conscious about his arm and thought himself unattractive. That might be why he chose a plain and simple, but pious woman.”

More like narrow-minded, anti-Semitic and bigoted thought Vivianne. Unfortunately the Empress fit in too well with the Kaiser’s own bigoted views and apparently her nature only served to exacerbate the Kaiser’s arrogance and insufferable nature.

Von Eisenreich chuckled to himself. “I heard that the Empress Dona was called unimaginative and prejudiced by the Emperor’s own mother. Dona hates the English. But don’t we all!” He laughed.

Vivianne thought of the cutting words of the gossiping socialite, Daisy, Princess of Pless: for a woman in that position I have never met anyone so devoid of any individual thought or agility of brain and understanding. She is just like a good, quiet, soft cow that has calves and eats grass slowly then lies down and ruminates.

“Apart from that homosexual, Count Philipp von Eulenburg, I’m the Emperor’s only real friend,” von Eisenreich confided rather smugly to Vivianne as they approached the Royal Box.

As if he felt her stealthy glance, the Kaiser turned to look directly at her. After an unabashedly long appraisal, he let his eyes drift away and leaned out, looking past his aide to focus on von Eisenreich. “Ah, Jurgen! So that’s why you dallied and missed my retinue!” The Kaiser yelled in a coarse Potsdam accent, eyes flitting back critically to Vivianne like she was merchandize. He stood up and clapped von Eisenreich hard on the back, clearly happy to see him. Vivianne got a clear view of his short left arm with dark brown mole on his shriveled hand. She noted that he was rather short in stature for a man, about her height or less, with a squat and slightly lopsided neck—owing to his left arm being shorter than the other. Eisenreich drew Vivianne forward.

“This is the Comptesse d’Anjou,” von Eisenreich said.

She pulled down her hood and curtsied slightly, eyes downcast. “I’m honored and humbled, your Imperial Majesty,” she said.

“No doubt you are!” he responded, swiftly tucking his left hand in his pocket. When she raised her eyes to meet his, Vivianne caught the brief instant as his eyes grew wide and deep with hidden intensity.
 Jurgen caught it too. “I thought so, also,” he said with amusement to the Emperor. He was, no doubt referring to her likeness to the Princess Ella.

The Kaiser sucked in a breath and straightened with an imperceptible tremble, as if to shake off an old memory. Then he gave Vivianne a cold smile and extended his good hand to her in greeting. She accepted and instantly winced with excruciating pain. He barked out a cruel laugh and said, “The French are, I’m afraid, just like the English when it comes to my German mailed fist!”

Vivianne had heard of his sadistic handshake: he was in the habit of turning his many rings inward prior to clasping one’s hand with a vice-like grip. Somehow, she hadn’t expected him to inflict her with it. Perhaps it was his way of punishing his cousin for not accepting his marriage proposal, she concluded, regretful of her resemblance. The Kaiser hung on to her hand much longer than he needed to, Vivianne decided, squirming and attempting to retract it from his painful grasp. His grip was too strong.

Their eyes locked. And to her frustrated anger, her eyes teared up with the stinging pain through her glove.

In that moment she saw the hurt little boy in that bigoted, arrogant and angry face. She instantly knew that she’d misjudged one of his critical nexuses. Her mission this day might have been prevented. If she’d intersected with his life earlier, and somehow convinced his beloved Ella to accept his proposal, the single-minded but compassionate princess might have softened him, completed him, inspired him to be the great man he could have become instead of the bitter and insecure bully he now was.

Something passed between them and he abruptly let go of her hand with a sudden intake of air. “I beg pardon,” he said, voice softening from that harsh Potsdam accent. “You reminded me of someone I once knew…” In a flush of solicitous emotion, he pulled off her glove to inspect the damage he’d inflicted on her hand. Several red welts had surfaced on the inside of her lower palm where his rings had gouged into her flesh. “Ahh…such dear soft and warm hands…” he cooed in near reverence. “How remarkable…the soft insides of your hands…”

Vivianne slowly pulled her hand away.

They both looked awkward for a moment. Then the Kaiser broke out into a blustery laugh and turned to von Eisenreich.

“So, where’s your good wife, von Eisenreich?”

“Like you, I left her at home with my dear children, where she should be, your Majesty,” von Eisenreich responded cheerfully. “They’re no fun at these sorts of things.”

“Ah, but I wager the Comptesse is,” said the Emperor brashly and took the opportunity to rake her over with appreciative eyes.

Von Eisenreich let loose a conspiratorial laugh, as if to ratify the Kaiser’s innuendo. He then leaned into Vivianne beside him with a chuckle until his shoulder collided into hers. “I brought my lovely companion, the charming Comptesse d’Anjou, to improve my demeanour and make me interesting.”

The Kaiser threw his head back and shouted an open- mouthed laugh of abandon then stomped his foot. “Indeed, she has managed that!” He surveyed Vivianne with critical eyes that flashed with approval. When she’d first been introduced to him, she’d felt the Kaiser’s burning gaze roam over her like the eager hands of a lover. “Good choice,” Wilhelm said.

He’d clearly deduced that she was von Eisenreich’s mistress and Jurgen had as much as confirmed it. The Kaiser had several mistresses of his own and Vivianne had the impression he wouldn’t have minded another.

As Uta had predicted, Vivianne had indeed filled out into what most men commonly considered a woman of striking beauty. And she’d had many years to cultivate it into an irresistible package. She was now over four hundred years old, yet she looked no more than in her early twenties. That arcane quality alone, she knew, was enough to drive men to distraction.

Vivianne had only met von Eisenreich last week at a masked ball and, knowing his weakness for beautiful women, she’d shamelessly flirted with him; within short order she’d seduced his keen interest in her and ensured for herself an invitation to this event.

The Kaiser let his gaze stray to Vivianne as he spoke to von Eisenreich. Then he finally let his eyes rest openly on her with a cool smile. “You speak German very well for a French woman, Comptesse,” he said to her. “I detected no accent when we were first introduced.”

She smiled demurely and didn’t bother to correct him on her German lineage.

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley

Then the show began and their attention was diverted to the ring below. Vivianne’s heart raced when Annie Oakley finally emerged. The diminutive woman stood facing the royal box in a smartly collared buckskin dress, bedecked with glittering metals from contests she’d won, cowboy hat, and holding her Colt .45.

Von Eisenreich leaned his head close to hers. “Chief Sitting Bull gave her the nickname of ‘Little Sure Shot’ because of her dead shot with a pistol, rifle and shotgun. Did you know that she began handling firearms at the tender age of nine to supply her widowed mother with game and eventually paid off the mortgage on her mother’s house?”

Vivianne let her brows rise in impressed surprise. In truth she knew. She knew everything about the American sharp-shooter. At 90 feet Annie could shoot a dime tossed in the air. With the thin edge of a playing card facing her at 90 feet, she could hit the card and puncture it with five or six more shots as it settled to the ground.

Vivianne felt her mouth go dry; she knew what came next.

With a flourishing turn, Annie faced the royal box and announced, “For my final act, I will attempt to shoot the ashes from the cigar of a lady or gentleman in the audience. “Who will volunteer to hold the cigar?” she asked the audience. Vivianne’s heart pounded. She knew that the little sharpshooter from Cincinnati expected no one to volunteer; Annie had simply asked for laughs. Her attentive manager-husband, Frank Butler, always stepped forward and offered himself. Not this time—

Just as laughter bubbled up in the crowd, Kaiser Wilhelm leapt out of the royal box and strutted into the arena to a stunned audience. Laughter turned to gasps as the Kaiser approached the sharpshooter. Annie Oakley visibly stiffened. In horror, Vivianne thought. The two guards scrambled forward from the rafters but the Kaiser gruffly waved them off. Vivianne marveled at Annie’s cool resolve; after handing the cigar to Wilhelm, the performer paced off her usual distance and the Kaiser lit the cigar with flourish.

Several German policemen rushed into the arena in a panicked attempt to preempt the stunt, but the Kaiser brusquely waved them off too. Then he lifted his head and placed the cigar to his mouth in a pose of a statue.

“No,” Annie said. “In your hand, please, Your Majesty,” she instructed. He looked disappointed but did as she’d asked.

Annie raised her Colt and took aim.

Royal_Irish_Rifles first day at Somme_July_1916

Royal Irish Rifles in the Somme, 1916

Vivianne swallowed the gorge in her throat. This was the moment she’d waited for; the moment for which she’d come. If this volatile and ambitious ruler were removed from the scene, one of the key reasons for World War I would also vanish. An entire world war would likely be averted. She only had to redirect the bullet; it was made of metal, after all. Kill a bully and incriminate and ruin the life of an innocent young woman … in exchange for over two million lives and the prevention of an age of non-stop violence—

Annie fired.

First World War wounded

Carrying the wounded and dead out of the battle field

“For those in love with science fiction at its best, The Last Summoner is a complex story of ignored responsibilities and their dire consequences, of love and betrayal that span centures and multiple worlds. Time travel, multiverse travel, immortality, alternate history in which the Nazies have won, not in the twentieth century but way earlier, in the Teutonic age. Angels and mutants, utopias and dystopias, even a Tesla occurrence—everything a science fiction reader could ever desire in a book. A masterfully told story with great characters. Nina Munteanu moves flawlessly from a medieval story to a modern one and everything in between.”—Costi Gurgu, author of RecipeArium

Grapevine-dogwood 2 willow water TC

At the mouth of Thompson Creek, 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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Ecology of Story: The Difference Between Anecdotes and Stories—How to Tell a Good Story

Birds deer lake

Birds fly over Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In her article in Quartz Magazine, Lila MacLellan suggests that “we’ve become masters of telling anecdotes, and terrible at telling our friends real stories.” Sometimes people think they are telling a story, but they are really just telling anecdotes, MacLellan reports after interviewing Maggie Cino, senior story producer for Moth storytelling series. While “anecdotes just relate facts,” Cino explains, stories are “about letting us know that things started one way and ended a different way.” Stories create space for movement.

Merriam-Webster defines an anecdote as a “short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” Anecdotes serve to incite interest and to illustrate a point. They are often amusing, odd, sad or even tragic; if they are biographical, they often serve to reflect someone’s personality, attitude or philosophy. While anecdotes often provide a contextual jumping board to make a point—drawing you in with relevance—they lack the structure of stories. An anecdote is something that happens; a story has a structure that makes it memorable and provides a depth of meaning.

Stories move with direction; they have a beginning, middle and end. Stories evoke emotional truths. They compel with intrigue then fulfil us with awareness and, sometimes, understanding. The best stories are told through metaphor, those universal truths we all live by. And all good stories weave a premise, theme, plot, character and setting into a tapestry with meaning.

I teach new writers at the University of Toronto and George Brown College how to tell stories. I teach how stories can tell us who we are. Where we’ve been. And sometimes, where we are  going. The stories that stir our hearts come from deep inside, where the personal meets the universal, through symbols or archetypes and metaphor.

Depth psychologist Carl Jung described these shared symbols, metaphors and archetypes as pre-existing forms of the psyche. He drew parallels between synchronicity, relativity theory and quantum mechanics to describe life as an expression of a deeper order. He believed that we are both embedded in a framework of a whole and are the focus of that whole. Jung was describing a fractal whole, which reflects quantum scientist David Bohm’s quantum vision of holomovement.

Jung’s concept of embedded whole and a universal collective unconscious was embraced by Hero’s Journey author and scholar Joseph Campbell, who suggested that these mythic images lie at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind and memory of humankind—where we are all the same, in Unity. Carl Jung’s thesis of the “collective unconscious” in fact linked with what Freud called archaic remnants: mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem aboriginal, innate, and the inherited shapes of the human mind. Marie-Louise von Franz, in 1985, identified Jung’s hypothesis of the collective unconscious with the ancient idea of an all- extensive world-soul. Writer Sherry Healy suggested that Jung viewed the human mind as linked to “a body of unconscious energy that lives forever.”

What Makes a Good Story?


Passengers on the Toronto subway (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A good story is about something important; attracted by gravity, it has purpose and seeks a destination. A good story goes somewhere; it flows like a river from one place to another. A good story has meaning; its undercurrents run deep across hidden substrates with intrigue. A good story resonates with place; it finds its way home. We’ve just touched upon the five main components of good story: premise, character on a journey & plot, theme and—what is ultimately at the heart of a story—setting or place.

Story Components

The premise of a story is like the anecdote, a starting point of interest. It is an idea that will be dramatized through plot, character and setting. In idea-driven stories, it can often be identified by asking the question: “What if?” For instance, what if time travel was possible?

A character on a journey propels the story through meaningful change. Characters provide dramatized meaning to premise through personal representation of global themes. A character takes an issue and through their actions and circumstance in story provide a fractal connection to a larger issue. Characters need to move. They need to “go somewhere.” Archetypes—ancient patterns of personality (symbols) shared by humanity and connected by our collective unconscious—are metaphoric characters (which includes place) in the universal language of storytelling that help carry the story forward.

The theme of a story takes the premise and gives it personal and metaphoric meaning by dramatizing through a character journey. It is often identified by asking the question: “What’s at stake?” In taking the time travel premise, a theme of forgiveness may be applied by choosing a character wishing to return to the past to right a wrong, when what they just need to do is forgive others and themselves, not travel to the past at all, and get on with their lives.


Cliff diving on BC coast (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In such a story, the plot would provide means and obstacles for the character in their journey toward enlightenment. Plot works together with theme to challenge and push a character toward their epiphany and meaningful change. Plot provides obstacles. Challenges. Emotional turning points. Opportunities for learning and change.

The role of setting or place is often not as clear to writers. Because of this, place and setting may often be neglected and haphazardly tacked on without addressing its role in story; in such a case the story will not resonate with what is often at the heart of the story: a sense of place. In stories where the setting changes (either itself changing such as in a story about the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius impacting Pompeii’s community; or by the character’s own movements from place to place) it appears easier to include how setting affects characters. However, the effect of place on character when the setting does not change can be equally compelling even if more subtle; the change is still there but lies in the POV character’s altered relationship to that place—a reflection of change within them.


MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” due in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

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 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.




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. A collection of Nina’s short eco-fiction can be found in “Natural Selection” by Pixl Press.  Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.