Nina Munteanu Talks Books, Water and Climate Change on Warren Lawrence’s Morning Show WKNY am Radio Kingston

I recently appeared on Warren Lawrence’s Morning Show on WKNY am Radio Kingston, New York, where we talked about water as a life-giving substance and a force of climate change. We talked, of course, about my recent eco-fiction novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”, which Warren had totally enjoyed and recommended to his listening audience (to my delight!) 

Warren asked me to share my process of writing this particular book as a diary and a work of “mundane science fiction:”

I was writing about both the far and the near future and much of it was based—like Margaret Atwood and her books—on real events and real people. I wanted personal relevance to what was going on, particularly with climate change. I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of “the mundane” and a diary felt right. Lynna—the diarist—is a reclusive inexpressive character, so I thought a personal diary would help bring out her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing like eves-dropping to make the mundane exciting. The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as “mundane science fiction” by presenting an “ordinary” setting for characters to play out. The tension arises from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary. The real events are the fuel that incite a slow-burn fictional drama that blurs the reader’s perception of reality and heightens its relevance.

We talked at length about the blur between real events and the fiction of this book and how the diary conspired in that felt blur for the reader. To Warren’s question of what I expected my audience to get from the book, particularly on the importance of water, I responded: 

While A Diary in the Age of Water is a work of fiction, its premise and much of its story are firmly based on real events, people and phenomena. The dramatization of these through four main characters carry the reader into consequence and accountability. Water’s relationship with each character provides four different perspectives on the value of water to humanity—from the personal and practical to the spiritual and existential. For readers with an evidence-based approach to learning about water’s importance, the diarist provides interesting facts on water in each of her entries in the form of epigraphs (mostly from Robert Wetzel’s Limnology). Things like: watershed, hypolimnion, aquifer, thalweg, clapotis gaufre, and petrichor, to name a few. 

Regarding whether Canadians see water, deforestation, pollution, or climate change differently than Americans, I responded:

My first response to that is no, we’re all North Americans. If there is a noticeable divergence, it is between North Americans and the rest of the world, based on our shared capitalist worldview and mixed settler and indigenous heritage. But Canadians do share some subtle differences from our southern neighbours. We are a northern people; much of our land lies in the unsettled northern boreal forest. Our population is far more sparse at five people/km2vs. close to 40 people/km2in America. With a majority of our population occupying the most southerly ten percent, Canada has large regions of pristine natural environments. I once entertained a ‘romantic’ metaphoric notion of Canadians resembling the settlers of Winterfell in the Westeros of Game of Thrones; a people more attuned to their land. Canadians profess to place environment high on our list of values and concerns. And yet we share a legacy of appalling forest management, rampant clearcutting of old-growth forest in British Columbia, insufficient federal and provincial water legislation, and environmentally-catastrophic mining practices in the oil tar sands of Alberta, the northern boreal forest of Canada and abroad.

Warren and I also talked about New York state and NYC, particularly to do with climate change, and how NYC fared in the novel (not well, I’m afraid). As example, I read a portion of the book from the diarist’s entry called “Climate Change”:

When I was growing up, we were already feeling the effects of a changing climate. The most obvious change was in the hundred-year floods calculated by engineers; they started to occur every other year. When I was five years old, Houston suffered a devastating flood and the city and surrounding area basically crashed under the wind and rain deluge of Hurricane Harvey. They lost power. Then their sewers backed up. But it didn’t get ugly until they lost their drinking water.

Five years later the Category 3 Hurricane Norma stormed though New York City with a twelve-metre-high wall of water. Manhattan drowned. Subways and car tunnels drowned. Kennedy Airport drowned. Homes drowned. People drowned.

The same storm put Providence, Rhode Island, under twenty feet of water.

A few days ago, Daniel told me that New York City water is still unfit to drink. “New York will be the new Pudong District,” he quipped with churlish humour. All of Florida south of Orlando is already there. “Like they weren’t warned,” he scoffed.

–A Diary in the Age of Water
Pond lilies in Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and rendition 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.

Nina Munteanu Talks about Writing—Passion, Process, and Publication—with Mandy Eve-Barnett

Fantasy / SF writer and interviewer Mandy Eve-Barnett recently interviewed me about my recent eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” and on my writing process and evolution. When did it all begin and what choices did I make along the way? she wanted to know. Here are some of her questions and my answers (embellished here) for your reading pleasure. For the full interview go here:

Mandy: When did you first start writing?

Nina: Not until I was a teenager when I wrote my first complete novel (“Caged-In World”—which later served as a very rough draft for my first and second published novels, Angel of Chaos and “Darwin’s Paradox”). My first published work was a non-fiction article “Environmental Citizenship”, which appeared in Shared Vision Magazinein 1995. I was already a young mother then with a family in Ladner, BC, and working for an environmental consulting firm in Richmond. My first fiction work was a short story entitled Arc of Time, published in a small circulation magazine Armchair Aesthete. That story was later reprinted several times throughout the world, including my short story collection Natural Selection.” Before writing stories, though, I told stories—I shared wild stories of galactic adventure with my older sister; we used to share them late into the night when we were supposed to be sleeping and our parents were snoring in their beds. I also told stories in the form of cartoons. Since I was a small child, I wanted to be a cartoonist and write graphic novels when I grew up. I created and drew several strips with crazy characters on wild adventures, blending my love for drawing with my love for storytelling. I haven’t stopped that form of storytelling and still have a yearning for that form. This is one reason why I’m so delighted with my latest book “A Diary in the Age of Water,” which features some of my limnological sketches, which stand in for the diarist’s sketches:

Pages from “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu

Mandy: What made you decide on science fiction as a genre?

Nina: That goes back to my love for comics. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. While my older brother and sister devoured The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, I secreted myself in the back corner of Williams General store and read Supergirl, Superman and Superboy, Batman, Magnus Robot Fighter and Green Lantern, among others. I was obviously enamored with the fantastic. When I earnestly started to read more than comics, I came across the SF classics: Huxley, Orwell, Heinlein, Clarke, Silverberg and Asimov to name a few. Bradbury sent me over the moon and his “Martian Chronicles” made me cry. I wanted to write like him and move readers like he’d done with me with something that mattered. 

The reason I continue to write in this genre is because of its ability to encompass the creative imagination and application of metaphor to story. Given science fiction’s wide range of possibilities in creating a believable reality of the fantastic, science fiction provides a compelling platform for metaphoric storytelling on a grand scale—the story large. Possibilities for powerful archetypes abound. Where else can you make water an actual character?

My environmental themes and eco-fiction lie in the sub-genre of ‘mundane science fiction.’ This is just another form of speculative fiction. Mundane science fiction focuses on existing technology (no ray guns, warp drives, or time travel). Its premise lies in existing circumstances and events to create a near-future realism. My recent dystopian eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Inanna Publicationsfits this description perfectly. Examples by other writers include Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam” series, Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future.”  

Mandy: Was the ecological aspect of your stories a gradual realization or your primary objective?

Nina: My primary objective was always to tell a compelling and meaningful story and hopefully to move readers in some way—like Ray Bradbury and other writers had with me. The ecological aspects slid in unannounced like a shadow character. It made sense: the environment and how we treat it (and ourselves by extension) has always been something important to me since I was a child. Both my parents were connected to Nature. My father took us on camping trips and picnics in the country; my mother was an amateur ecologist and botanist. From quite young I’ve been an environmental activist; chasing after people who littered, promoting recycling, participating in environmental protests. So, while I was writing science fiction, it was also eco-fiction. When the brand became more known, I realized that this was the kind of fiction I was writing most of the time. So, in some ways, I’ve come full circle with my quest as a youth: to tell impactful stories about the environment—whether this is here on Earth or on some planet in the outer systems—which make people think and feel and question. 

Mandy: Can you tell us a little about your newest book “A Diary in the Age of Water”, how you came up with the concept, and your writing process for it?

Nina: The book follows the climate-induced journey of humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship with water during a time of calamitous change. The book starts and ends in the far future in the dying boreal forest with a blue water being, Kyo, who finds the diary of a limnologist, Lynna, from our near-future Toronto. The diary spans a forty-year period and contains a series of entries; each entry begins with an epigraph—quote from the textbook “Limnology” by Robert Wetzel. During the diarist’s lifetime, all things to do with water are overseen and controlled by the international giant water utility CanadaCorp—with powers to arrest and detain anyone. This is a world in which China owns America and America, in turn, owns Canada. The limnologist witnesses and suffers through severe water taxes and imposed restrictions, dark intrigue through neighbourhood betrayals, corporate spying and espionage, and repression of her scientific freedoms. Some people die. Others disappear.

Inspiration for the novel started with a short story I was invited to write by my publisher in Rome in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water” (“La natura dell’acqua), about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst. “The Way of Watercaptures a vision that explores the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with global resource warfare. In this near-future, Canada is mined of all its water by thirsty Chinese and US multinationals—leaving nothing for the Canadians. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation that prevent rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border. If you’re wondering if this is possible, it’s already happening in China and surrounding countries.

I chose to use a diary in the near-future part of the story to achieve a sense of gritty realism of ‘the mundane.’ The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as ‘mundane science fiction’ by presenting an ‘ordinary’ setting for characters to play out. The tension arises more from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary.

Many of the events and circumstances that the diarist reports on are real events and based on real people. That they serve as premise for the fiction effectively blurs the fiction with non-fiction. Readers have told me that they often couldn’t distinguish the two in the book and this achieved a real urgency for the reader, who both hated and loved the book for it and couldn’t stop turning the pages as a result. 

Hardwood forest backlit by sparkling Otonabee River in spring, ON (photo and rendition 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.

“Solaris” by Stanislaw Lem and Steven Soderbergh–Book and Film Review

Steven Soderbergh’s stylish psychological thriller, released November 2002 in the United States by 20th Century Fox, eloquently captures the theme of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 book. Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is an intelligent, introspective drama of great depth and imagination that meditates on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. Soderbergh’s Solaris is a poem to Lem’s prose. Both explore the universe around us and the universe within. Not particularly palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers, Solaris will appeal more to those with a more esoteric appreciation for art.

When I recently saw the 2002 20th Century Fox remake of Solaris, I was blissfully unaware of its legendary history. I say blissfully because I harbored no pre-conceived notions or expectations and therefore I was struck like a child viewing the Northern Lights for the first time. The stylish, evocative and dream-like imagery flowed to a surrealistic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez like the colors of a Salvador Dali painting. It was only later that I discovered that Russian experimental director, Andrei Tarkovsky, had previously filmed Solaris in 1972 based on Lem’s masterful 1961 book of the same name. Reprinted by Harcourt, Inc. with a new cover featuring a sensual image from the 2002 film, the original book was translated in 1970 from the French version by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox for Faber and Faber Ltd.

Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is a dark psychological drama. Soderbergh faithfully captures the intellectual yet sensual essence of Lem’s book by tempering the language and movements. Featuring a fluid and haunting soundtrack, his film flows like a choreographed ballet. There is a dream-like quality to it that is enhanced by creative use of camera angles, unusual lighting, tones and contrast, and sparse language. Solarisis not an action film (no one gets shot, at least not on stage), yet the tension surges and builds to its irrevocable conclusion from frame to frame like a slow motion Tai Chi form.

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (played with quiet depth by George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (played sensitively by Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Lem packs each page of his slim 204 page book with a wealth of intellectual introspection. Through first person narrative, he intimately unveils the complicated influence of this arcane force on Kelvin. Lem explains it this way: “I wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.” (Author’s Website.) Such an incomprehensible entity would serve as a giant mirror for our own motives, yearnings and versions of reality. For me the contrast presented by such an arcane alien force emphatically—but also ironically—defines what it is to be human. It is only when faced with what we are not that we discover what we are. Later in the book, Kelvin cynically observes: “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.” In the film Gibarian sadly proclaims of the Solaris mission: “We don’t want other worlds—we want mirrors.” In the book, Lem has Snow deliver a similar message, but neither Gibarian or Snow realize that these two desires may be one and the same.

Lem’s existentialist leaning is provided throughout the book and even alluded to in the name he chose for the space station: Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind for which Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver (which grew back daily). It is interesting that Soderbergh chose to send Prometheus to a fiery crash and named Kelvin’s dead wife, Rheya, after the Greek goddess, mother of Zeus and all Olympian gods. In a late passage of Lem’s book, a devastated and sorrowful Kelvin formulates a personal theory of an imperfect god, “a god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure … a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfills no purpose—a god who simply is.”

Soderbergh addresses Lem’s existential vision with several brief but pivotal scenes. One occurs when Kelvin’s dead friend, Gibarian, returns to him in a dream on Prometheus and responds to Kelvin’s question, “What does Solaris want?” with: “Why do you think it has to want something?” Another scene occurs as a flashback to a dinner on Earth, when the real Rheya, prior to her suicide, argues with both Gibarian and her own husband about the existence of an all-knowing purposeful God, which both men argue is a myth made up by humankind: to Kelvin’s suggestion that “the whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Rheya insists that she’s “talking about a higher form of intelligence,” to which Gibarian cuts in with: “No, you’re talking about a man in a white beard again. You are ascribing human characteristics to something that isn’t.” Kelvin fuels it with: “We’re a mathematical probability,” which prompts Rheya’s challenge: “How do you explain that out of the billions of creatures on this planet we’re the only ones conscious of our immortality?” Neither man has an answer. Gibarian later commits suicide on Solaris rather than deal with the manifestation of his conscience. And I can’t help but wonder if the underlying reason for his inability to reconcile with his “demon” is because he was unequipped to, given his nihilistic beliefs.

Gibarian also tells Kelvin (and we must remember that all this is Kelvin really saying this to himself through his memory of the character): “There are no answers, only choices.” It is interesting then that the first pivotal choice in the story is made by the Doppelganger Rheya (also a manifestation of Solaris but a mirror of Kelvin’s own mind) and it is a choice made out of love: to be annihilated, rather then serve as an instrument of this unknown alien power to study the man she loves.

Some critics have called Soderbergh’s Solaris pretentious, boring and devoid of action and intimacy. I strongly disagree. It is simply that, as with Lem’s original story, Soderbergh’s Solaris does not surrender its messages easily. The viewer, as with the reader, must intuitively feel his or her way through the fluid poetry, free to interpret and ponder the questions. This is what I think good art should do. And I feel both the original book and Soderbergh’s movie do this with enthralling brilliance.

Where Soderbergh and Lem depart lies more in each artist’s personal vision and belief. Soderbergh seems to view the forces that drive our universe as the manifestation of an arcane motive more readily known through spirituality, perceived by the heart, and existing as a matter of belief. Lem, however, suggests that these forces are random and without purpose, defined by science, and perceived by the mind. Still, Lem is not proclaiming a nihilism of his own: he believes we are defined by the questions we ask and Lem asks a great deal of questions—leaving the reader to do the answering.

Reviewer Rick Kisonak asserted that Lem’s “novel is an icy meditation on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. It poses countless metaphysical questions and makes a point of answering none of them. In Soderbergh’s hands, however, Solarisbecomes a celebration of romantic love, which culminates in the revelation of a caring, forgiving creator. At the end of his book, Lem writes [Kelvin ponders]: ‘the age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris [life ends but not love] is a lie, useless and not even funny.’ The director ignores the author in favor of just such a poet” (Film Threat, [Online]). Kisonak is referring here to Rheya’s interest in Dylan Thomas and its reference throughout the movie. Another reviewer, Dennis Morton, goes so far as to suggest that the screenplay of Solaris is the first stanza of the poem, which ends with: “…though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion” (Santa Cruise Sentinel, [Archived online])

While I agree with some of Kisonak’s reasoning, I think he has missed the point of Lem’s book. If one continues to read from the passage Kisonak quoted above—as Kris Kelvin transcends from what he “thinks” in his intellect to what he feels and “knows” in his heart, to accept his (and humanity’s) destiny with humble fatalism—we learn that Lem ends his book in much the same way as Soderbergh’s movie: life ends but not love. The endings are physically different, in keeping with some radical alterations from the book in the movie’s setting (e.g., the original Solaris station is located on the planet and Lem assiduously describes Kelvin’s observations and interactions with the alien ocean; whereas Soderbergh’s crew virtually never leave orbit and the planet remains aloof in the background, reflecting Soderbergh’s focus). Yet, Kris makes the same choice in faith and love in both book and movie (although the choices play out differently). In matters of faith and love, here is what Kris has to say in the book: “Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? … In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation … I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the end of both movie and book, Kris Kelvin lets go of his fears and lets his spirit rise in wonder at what astonishing things Solaris (and the universe) will offer next.

In the final analysis, both book and movie are incredibly valuable but for different reasons. Soderbergh paints an impressionistic poem, using Kafkaesque brushstrokes on a simpler canvas, to Lem’s complex tapestry of multi-level prose. Lem challenges us far more by refusing to impose his personal views, where Soderbergh lets us glimpse his hopeful vision. I think that both, though, come to the same conclusion about the ethereal, mysterious and eternal nature of love. On the one hand, love may connect us within a fractal autopoietic network to the infinity of the inner and outer universe, uniting us with God and His purpose in a collaboration of faith. On the other hand, love may empower us to accept our place in a vast unknowable and amoral universe to form an island of hope in a purposeless sea of indifference. Whether love mends our souls to the fabric of our destiny; enslaves us on an impossible journey of desperate yearning; or seizes us in a strangling embrace of unspeakable terror at what lurks within—surely, then, love is God, in all its possible manifestations. This is unquestionably the message that unifies book and movie. And it is one worth proclaiming.

Indian River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition 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.

To Boldly Go Where No Human Has Gone Before…

A while ago I was approached by Robert Gooding-Townsend, Science in Society editor for Science Borealis for my opinion on a persistent idea that post-Star Trek sci-fi is more pessimistic and less technologically imaginative. 

Whether this perception is true I can’t definitively say but there is a reason behind it, which I believe reflects a subtle shift in our cultural paradigm and worldview in the past decades since Star Trek. A shift involving a growing awareness of ecology and the emergence of the “feminine archetype” in storytelling.

I think two things are happening in concert: science fiction is maturing as a genre: 1) in its actual breadth; but also 2) in our perception of it.

I think this is partly: 1) a reflection of a more diverse, sophisticated and mature audience (what The Economistterms “mass intelligent”); and 2) the result of a wider acceptance of SF as literature by “non-genre” writers embracing what literary critic Ted Gioia calls “conceptual fiction” (e.g., Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins; Thomas Pinchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada; John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Emmi Itaranta’s The Memory of Water; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, etc.).

Our shifting worldview, along with science fiction’s gradual blending with strong literary elements is reflected in a perception of higher pessimism with less focus on technological “wonders”. When asked to describe SF today, colleague Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel series, argued that, “SF is mainstream now … It has grown up, emotionally, from being about wish-fulfilling technologies … to embracing the social implications of change.”

Today, SF is recognized more as “real” literature rather than being dismissed as “escapism.” Williams shares that SF’s roots are as old as myth. “Like myths and bible stories, SF is an instructive literature, pointing out how things can go wrong (or right) and why. The growing up SF has done since the 1950s lies in an increasing recognition that [humanity is its] own worst enemy and a better understanding of human nature is crucial to the problems we face, not just the hard sciences.”

For the past few years I’ve been following a trend in the science fiction writing courses I teach at university: more and more students (male and female) are bringing in WIPs on ecological and global environmental issues. Many of the stories involve a premise of environmental calamity, but not in the same vain as previous environmental disasters that depict “man” against Nature. These works give the Earth, Nature or Water an actual voice (as a character). And a protagonist who learns to interact with it cooperatively. For me this represents a palpable and gestalt cultural awakening in the realm of the “feminine archetype”. One that is focused more on the sociological and ecological consequences of humanity’s evolution.

I believe that ecology—the science of relationships and consequence—best parallels the literature of science fiction, which studies the world and the consequences of our actions (advances in and impacts of science and technology) through metaphor. The literature of science fiction explores large issues faced by humankind and is foremost a literature of allegory and metaphor; one deeply embedded in culture.

Stories of doom and gloom have populated the science fiction genre since its inception. What appears to be changing is the increased sophistication of this assessment and humanity’s place—and technology’s place—in it. Editor and Publisher of On Spec MagazineDiane Walton shares that she is seeing a lot of Post-Apocalyptic submissions, “mainly because it’s interesting to put your characters in a setting where the rules don’t apply any more. They have to try to rebuild the life and security and order they used to have, or else revert to savagery, or else adapt to a whole new set of circumstances.”

Environmental fiction has been written for years. But I believe that now—partly with new awareness of climate change and with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor, for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness, much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated—in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

The stories I’m seeing more and more—whether by established writers or by my own students—reflect an emerging worldview of participation, responsibility and accountability. It is the worldview of Jung and synchronicity; of David Bohm and “implicate order”; of Rudolf Steiner and “cosmic intelligence”, of biochemist Mae-Wan Ho and “quantum entanglement”, of Frans de Waal and “empathy”, and of Matt Ridley and “altruism”.

Whether told through cautionary tale / political dystopia (e.g., Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy; Bong Jung-Ho’s Snowpiercer), mundane science fiction (e.g. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl), my own A Diary in the Age of Water, or a retooled version of “alien invasion” (e.g., Cixin Liu’s 2015 Hugo Award-winningThe Three Body Problem), these stories all reflect a shift in focus from a technological-centred & human-centred story to a more eco- or world-centred story that explores wider and deeper existential questions. 

So, yes, science fiction today may appear less technologically imaginative; but it is certainly more sociologically astute, courageous, sophisticated, and relevant. As for the question of pessimism, I’d suggest that rather than being more pessimistic, current SF literature is more realistic and meaningful.

Swamp forest in Kawartha region, ON (photo and rendition 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.

“Contact”: a Journey to the Heart of the Universe–Film Review

Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the array in “Contact”

The opening sequence tells the entire story… It is both spectacular and humbling at the same time as we begin with a view of Earth gleaming in a sunrise. An almost frantic jumble of broadcasts— news, TV shows, music—assail our ears. As we pull back from Earth and pass the outer planets, we hear older broadcasts… disco…Kennedy… the Beatles… Hitler…then ultimately the unintelligible static of all the radio stations on Earth. Then, as we leave the solar system, passing breathtaking nebulae, the sounds give way to silence. A dead silence, as we continue to pull back out of the galaxy and out of the local group of galaxies into the quiet depth of our vast universe. “It’s enough to make you feel tiny and insignificant and alone,” says Maryann Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com. “Which is precisely the feeling it’s meant to evoke.”  From that arcane vastness, we are brought back to our own “intimate” existence within it as the universe transforms into a dark reflection in a young girl’s eye.

With a powerful entrance like that, it is hard to imagine that this 1997 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, received very mixed reviews by critics.

Cindy Fuchs of the Philadelphia City Paper called it “far more mundane than its aspirations to cosmic insights might have produced.”  Kevin N. Laforest with the Montreal Film Journal said, “Contact is not a bad film, but I can’t say it’s all that good either.” Even TVGuide.com rated it a two out of four: “It’s really about [Jodie] Foster, and with her lips pressed tightly together and her hair carelessly shoved behind her ears, she’s utterly convincing as a researcher who’s subverted everything to a life of the mind. Unfortunately that adds up to a rather remote protagonist and Ellie is surrounded by a supporting cast of one-dimensional types…far too cold-blooded for summer audiences.” This is ironic, considering that the advertizing pitch calls Contact “a journey to the heart of the universe.” Finally, Christopher Null (Filmcritic.com) recommended it for its looks but not highly. Said Null: “Carl Sagan’s ode to the superior intelligence of aliens (and how us darned humans mess everything up) is consistently beautiful and interesting, but it never makes a point (except for that bit about the darned humans).

I think these critics have missed the point. Contact—and its somewhat tortured protagonist—demonstrates much in the way of “heart” and in doing so, makes a compelling story. Hearts beat deeply inside us, and this movie is no different; its “heart” runs deep, deep beneath the surface rhetoric that seems to have distracted several critics who likely prefer to take a shallow sip of their coffee steaming hot than wait and savor the rich flavor of a dark blend in a deep swallow.

Contact examines the moral, social and religious implications of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence through the personal journey of astronomer, Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (played impeccably and sensitively by Jodie Foster). Never knowing her mother (who died at child birth) and having lost her father when she was ten, Ellie grows into a strong-willed scientist who dedicates her life to finding alien life in the universe by foregoing a career at Harvard to join a SETI Observatory in the Puerto Rico jungle. In an earlier scene with her father, she asks the question we have all pondered at least once: “Do you think there are people on other planets?” to which her father blithely answers, “if it’s just us, seems like an awful lot of wasted space,” a simple argument that appeals to the young logically-minded Ellie and one that will dominate the perseverance of her adult life in her resolute search for life in the universe.

And persevere Ellie must, because nothing comes easy for her. Shortly after she settles at the SETI Observatory her teacher (and nemesis) David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) pays her a visit with implied threats of shutting the place down. Ellie also meets Palmer Joss (Mathew McConaughey), a man of faith, who is writing a book about the effects of science and technology on the third world. Although she is attracted to him, alarm bells go off in Ellie, who feels threatened by his faith (something she does not outwardly understand yet clings to in another form). Wanting to see him again, she introduces him to the man he wants to interview: Drumlin. And one of the most poignant conversations follows:

When Ellie challenges Drumlin’s apparent wish to do away with all pure research, he responds with, “What’s wrong with science being practical, even profitable? Nothing—”

Palmer cuts in, “—As long as your motive is the search for truth, which is exactly what the pursuit of science is.”

Drumlin counters peevishly, “Well, that’s an interesting position coming from a man who crusades against the evils of technology.”

To which Palmer responds, “I’m not against technology; I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”

Palmer and Ellie collide from two different worlds and despite their differences, they are profoundly attracted to one another. But as quickly as she falls for Palmer, she recoils from him.

Nothing comes easy for Ellie: “small moves, Ellie,” her father is accustomed to telling her, “small moves…” Shortly after she and her colleagues have been shut down by Drumlin and have set up anew (thanks to eccentric billionaire entrepreneur, S.R. Hadden, played by John Hurt), Drumlin and others shut them down yet again. But, as though a greater force intervenes, this is when Ellie makes her momentous discovery and intercepts an alien message from Vega, a young star still surrounded by a proto-planetary cloud of debris about 27 light years away from us. The scene is scientifically plausible and elegantly powerful—as we witness the drama of this phenomenal discovery unfold in a frisson of action.

Zemeckis wisely shows us exactly how such an event would really play out. And Sagan didn’t pick Vega out of whimsy: a sphere sixty light years thick of radio communication radiates from Earth from our radio and TV broadcasts. These signals may be captured by alien technology and sent back as a “message”. In theory, such a signal could be received on Earth anytime after 1990, the round trip time for a light or radio signal to travel to Vega and back from the first global signal, which in itself is momentous and telling. In another spine-tingling scene, the scientists who have descended upon Ellie decipher the arcane harmonics of the “message” as the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (the first truly global TV broadcast made) over which Hitler presided. In fact, in another stroke of irony, the now infamous swastika is the first icon they decipher. Later still, they discover embedded instructions to build a machine that appears made to take a human on an extra-galactic trip.

Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the giant array in “Contact”

At the same time that Ellie intercepts this message, Palmer Joss experiences a meteoric rise to stardom with his bestselling book, Losing Faith: the Search for Meaning in the Age of Reason (which could well have been the alternate title for the film; it certainly describes the subtext of the story and the major thematic element: Faith & Meaning). In an interview with a prominent news show host, Palmer asks the question that most of us have avoided:  “The question that I’m asking is this: are we happier? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?…We shop at home, we search the web—at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than any other time in human history…We have meaningless jobs, we take frantic vacations [and] trips to the mall to buy more things to fill these holes in our lives.” Ironically, Palmer touches a similar nerve in Ellie when he brings up her dead parents: “It must have been hard… being alone…” insinuating that her fanatical search for intelligent alien life may simply be filling a hole in her heart. She flees Palmer shortly after, fearing his revealing intimacy. When they next meet, years later, they fall naturally into their familiar banter and she turns the table to challenge his faith in the same way: “What if science simply revealed that [God] never existed in the first place?” She then evokes Occam’s Razor, which says that “…all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one…what’s more likely? An all powerful mysterious God [who] created the universe then decided not to give us proof of his existence or that he simply doesn’t exist at all and we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Both of them are saved from an answer by the intrusive rings of their cell phones.

Space-time vehicle in the film Contact

Ironically again, it is Ellie’s lack of belief in God that causes her to be overlooked for the momentous journey in the alien craft, in favor of the crafty Drumlin with the oily smile. Unfortunately, a religious zealot sabotages the mission and Drumlin, along with the whole alien craft and construct, are blown up in a spectacular explosion at NASA’s Cape Canaveral. Ellie gets her chance after all when they build a second one. Her journey in the alien space craft, which we are later told takes up eighteen hours of her time but passes instantaneously on Earth (to the point where they all think nothing actually happened), is truly epic and elegantly portrayed. Her encounter with the aliens is also in keeping with the plot and imagery of the story. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is the one where Ellie is introduced to the incredible and indescribable beauty of the vast Universe. It is at this point that she experiences her epiphany: science is not the sole purveyor of truth in the Universe. As she gazes at the splendor revealed before her, she acknowledges that the language of science is unable to express the sheer magnitude of the breathtaking scene. Grasping at something to say, she blubbers with a scientific term then finally gasps, “No words…to describe it…they should have sent a poet…”

Upon her return, Ellie is challenged by skeptics who think she suffered a giant delusion (remember that on Earth, no time had passed during her supposed eighteen-hour voyage). Ellie offers up a strained scientific explanation (e.g., wormhole travel through space-time also called Einstein-Rosen bridges) which is challenged by National Security Advisor, Michael Kitz (James Woods) as only theory, and must finally resort to her faith; one she selflessly offers to the world: “I… had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality Practice said it best: “Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery.”

The SETI Institute, who currently conduct the search for alien life, have a website dedicated to the movie.

Indian River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition 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.

Look Who’s Been Reading Darwin…

From Anne in Monument Valley, Arizona, to George in Brighton Pier, UK … from Heather coasting on the Ohio River to Noah gliding in a BC Ferry and Jo-Anne basking in the Gulf Islands of BC Canada … from Honoka in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District and Mika in Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest to Rick in his cozy Alberta home and Viviann in a cozy café  … from Anne with her favourite dog in Ladner Marsh and Margaret with a favourite ale in an outdoor pub to Carina beside her favourite Buddha and Cathy by her favourite pool …and Noah wearing his hat … people are reading Darwin’s Paradox.

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.

The Paradox of Pandemics & Darwin’s Paradox

On Writing My First Speculative Fiction Novel: The Darwin-Angel Duology

The first novel I wrote at the tender age of fifteen was Caged in World, a hundred-page speculative story about a world that had moved “inside” to escape the ravages of a harsh post climate-change environment. 

It was 1969, the year that humans first stepped on the moon and the first Concorde test flight was conducted in France. But I was concerned by the environment and what was happening on our planet. It was seven years since Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, which warned of our declining bird and bee populations and impacts to human health from unregulated pesticide/herbicide use (such as carcinogens and hormone disruptors). It was just a year after Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb warned that attempts to stretch the Earth’s resources to support the ever-growing population would result in mass starvation, epidemics, and, ultimately, the breakdown of social order. 

In the 1960s it was already apparent that environmental imbalance and destruction were global concerns and we were on the brink of an environmental crisis.  Unchecked deforestation was destroying forests around the world, including the boreal and old-growth forests of my own country Canada. Brazil had already begun cutting down trees and burning forest at an alarming rate. Unregulated use of pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones created toxic contamination of our natural world and our food and water supply—despite Carson’s dire warning with Silent Spring. Our waterways were being contaminated by mining wastes and industrial effluents. Killer smog. Noxious algal blooms. Oil spills. Dead zones. The list was growing.

Bamboo Forest, Kyoto, Japan (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I joined S.T.O.P. (Society To Overcome Pollution) and marched in protests to call for responsible behaviour by governments and large corporations. I tried to raise awareness at my school about our deteriorating environment and likely consequences to human survival; my own teachers tried to silence me. 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. My dad, who was impressed with my dedication and what I’d done, became my first agent; he brokered a meeting with a Doubleday editor he’d met and impressed (my dad was a character and very charming); I did my first book pitch at age sixteen. The editor read my book and, while he didn’t pick the book for Doubleday, he told me that the story was original and imaginative and that I should keep writing.  

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. Icaria 5 is one of many enclosed cities within the slowly recoving toxic wasteland of North America, and where the protagonist Julie Crane works and lives. The city is run by technocrats, 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. 

Since she was a young child, Julie has been hearing voices in her head. She’s not a schizophrenic, but a gifted veemeld (someone who can tap into machine intelligence wavebands). Feeling an inexplicable “karmic” guilt and intent on making a contribution to her society, Julie searches for a cure to Darwin Disease; instead, she makes a horrifying discovery that incriminates her in a heinous conspiracy to recast humankind.

“This is a story with great scope … As Julie finds out the truth about her father, she discovers a truth that will tear her world apart.

Bill Johnson, author of “a story is a promise”

By virtue of their gifted powers in communicating with the machine world, veemelds are considered a commodity, to be used, traded, hoarded and discarded by ruling technocrats all over North America.

I spent several years shopping the book to agents and publishing houses. Although I received many bites, all finally let go. In the meantime, I did several things: 1) I started writing short stories, some of which were cannibalized from the book, and several were published; 2) I wrote Angel’s prequel, The Great Revolution (never published, it sits in a drawer hibernating) and Angel’s sequel Darwin’s Paradox, (which was published). In fact, in 2007, Dragon Moon Press in Calgary made an offer to publish Darwin’s Paradox; the sequel became my debut novel. Dragon Moon Press later picked up Angel of Chaos and published it in 2010 as a prequel.

“Angel of Chaos is a gripping blend of big scientific ideas, cutthroat politics and complex yet sympathetic characters that will engage readers from its thrilling opening to its surprising and satisfying conclusion.”

Hayden Trenholm, Aurora-winning author of The Steele Chronicles

Darwin’s Paradox follows humanity in its cloistered indoor world as it deteriorates with the disease. Darwin’s Disease—related to indoor living—sweeps across humanity with debilitating genetic deterioration, violent death and the promise of extinction.  This is something the self-professed deep ecology Gaians are content to see in—if it means preserving the natural world. Of course, the Gaians—being self-serving humans after all—have an exit plan.

In 2012, Derek Newman-Stille of Speculating Canada wrote an essay on Darwin’s Paradox entitled Patient Zero and the Post Human; the article provides an insightful description of the eco-novel and interesting historical context and irony to our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic:

“In Darwin’s Paradox Nina Munteanu displays her awareness of scientific discourse: focussing on areas like chaos theory, biological theories of co-evolution, symbiosis and virology, and ecological theories. Her protagonist, Julie, is patient zero in a spreading epidemic that has infected most of modern civilisation. Munteanu creates a civilisation where human society is centred around a few urban locales, leaving large parts of the world unoccupied by human beings, and allowing for ecological development uninterrupted by human interference. Technology in this future world has fused with the viral epidemic, questioning the barriers of the human and the nature of human existence. The nature of humanity has changed with this introduction of other elements into the human biosystem, creating a post-human world in which the possibilities of the future of human existence are called into question, and in which several powers are vying for control of the next stage of humanity and the future of the human race.

Munteanu’s  Darwin’s Paradox illustrates a collision of past and future as Julie is haunted by her past and ideas of home, while simultaneously representing a next stage in human evolution. The city Icaria 5 itself is a representation of past and present intersecting: buried under the city of Toronto and rising from the structures of the past. Munteanu’s plot is full of family secrets, the hidden past, and the resurfacing of guilt (particularly Julie’s guilt about being patient zero in the spreading viral apocalypse). She explores the draw of the past and home and the continual pull the past has upon one’s existence. Munteanu explores Julie’s simultaneous desire to return home and her realisation that home has forever changed – becoming a foreign place.

Munteanu explores society’s fear of epidemic and the role of medical technology as a mechanism for solving all of the world’s problems. She illustrates that medical technology has its limits and complicates the nature of technological methods of solving problems by allowing virus and technology to meld.  Simultaneously Munteanu explores the continuation of society’s obsession with beauty and perfection by creating a society where one can restore one’s beauty through instant medical treatments: Nuyu and Nuergery, using nanites to restore one’s youth and change undesirable aspects of one’s form. Political groups fearing the over-use of technology and the complications to the idea of the human that these surgeries may cause begin using scarring to assert their difference and reluctance to submit to social controls.

Media plays an important role in Munteanu’s vision of the future, illustrating the continuance of the media hegemony for defining the nature of “truth” as media messages replace facts and political leaders manipulate the media system to enforce their own controls over society and further embed their interests into the developing social system. She illustrates the danger of the current system of using the politics of fear as a mechanism for controlling voters (particularly focussing on the use of fear by political groups to shift cultural ideas, sympathies, and ultimately gain control of the developing social system).  In Munteanu’s vision of the future, it is impossible to trust anyone completely and layers within layers of plot are illustrated, leaving the reader distrusting of every message he or she receives.

Munteanu raises questions and challenges the development of society’s current systems, asking her readers to think critically about messages they are given and to question everything. She illustrates that the truth is socially constructed and that ideas of the truth serve social purposes and can be used to support hidden agendas.”—Derek Newman-Stille, Patient Zero and the Post-Human

In some ways, the Darwin duology shares a special place in my heart—not just because the duology became my first and second traditionally published novels, but because through them I found my writing voice. Since first writing Caged In World, I spent close to four decades honing my craft; I published short stories and two novellas (Collision with Paradise in 2005 andThe Cypol in 2006), and attended writing workshops and conventions, before publishing my first novel with a traditional publisher. It was a fulfilling heuristic path that taught me writing craft in all its facets.

Since publishing my first novel in 2007, I have published on average a book every year (alternating each year between fiction and non-fiction).  I now have fourteen books published with various publishing houses. Most are in keeping with an environmental theme. My latest non-fiction book Water Is… was picked by Margaret Atwood in New York Time’s ‘Year in Reading’ in 2016. My latest eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water was published by Inanna Publications in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

My journey as writer has been rich and varied. I’ve moved and lived from one end of Canada to the other. I raised a family and travelled the world. I worked as a field researcher and environmental consultant, investigating many water bodies in Canada and helping communities in watersheds. I taught limnology and phycology at the University of Victoria and currently teach writing at the University of Toronto. I continue my personal research in the natural world to satisfy my unending curiosity. I’ve changed. My writing has changed. But one thing will never change: my passion for the written word and the worlds of the imagination. That journey will never end (until the end, that is).

Readers have asked for a sequel to Darwin’s Paradox. I’ve also been approached by several writers to collaborate on a sequel. While many of their ideas were wonderfully original, I’ve not taken any of them on their offer. Others have said that both novels would make a great series or movie. I’m inclined to agree. If that were to come to pass, I might be persuaded to create a Darwin’s Paradox series and continue the story of Julie, Daniel, and Angel.

Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, Japan (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.

Johannes Kepler Wrote the World’s First Work of Science Fiction

Johannes Kepler

“A spindly middle-aged mathematician with a soaring mind, a sunken heart, and bad skin is being thrown about the back of a carriage in the bone-hollowing cold of a German January…He is now racing through the icy alabaster expanse of the countryside in the precarious hope of averting another: Four days after Christmas and two days after his forty-fourth birthday, a letter from his sister has informed him that their widowed mother is on trial for witchcraft — a fact for which he holds himself responsible.”

This is how Maria Popova of brainpickings starts her article entitled: “How Kepler Invented Science Fiction and Defended His Mother in a Witchcraft Trial While Revolutionizing Our Understanding of the Universe.”

It all started with Somnium (The Dream), Kepler’s work of science fiction.

Despite having sufficient mathematical evidence to confirm Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe, Kepler understood that the proof was overly complex and abstract to persuade his peers, much less the scientifically illiterate public. He realized that where data and evidence could not dismantle their “celestial parochialism,” storytelling could. Somnium resulted.

Somnium (The Dream), was a fictional account of a young astronomer who travels to the Moon. Rich in scientific ingenuity and symbolism, the allegory advanced the controversial Copernican model of the universe—that our planet revolves around the Sun, not the other way around. The young astronomer finds that lunar beings believe Earth revolves around them. Using the moon beings’ delusion as metaphor for our delusion about Earth’s central position in an immutable universe, Kepler hoped to awaken people to the truth of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe. But we weren’t ready for the truth; instead Somniumresulted in Kepler’s elderly mother’s being accused of witchcraft. 

Popova adds: “As Kepler is galloping through the German countryside to prevent his mother’s execution, the Inquisition in Rome is about to declare the claim of Earth’s motion heretical — a heresy punishable by death.” This was a dangerous time for anyone with a scientific mind.

This was a world, Popova reminds us, where the will of God supersedes the laws of nature. A world where the Devil is more real and powerful than gravity. A time when most people believed that the sun revolved around the Earth every day in a circular orbit. Kepler would disprove this belief by demonstrating that physical forces move the heavenly bodies in calculable ellipses. But he paid a price for his unconventionality. Kepler was a game-changer, a scientific seditionist who would spill the apple cart of conventional thought with ungodly science. He invented the word orbit and developed a scientific method to predict eclipses. He was the first astrophysicist. And yet…

“All of this he would accomplish while drawing horoscopes, espousing the spontaneous creation of new animal species rising from bogs and oozing from tree bark, and believing the Earth itself to be an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism,” writes Popova. “Three centuries later, the marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson would reimagine a version of this view woven of science and stripped of mysticism as she makes ecology a household word.”  

The superstitious villagers of Kepler’s hometown overlooked the metaphor and science of Somnium and focused instead on what they recognized as autobiographical: the young narrator (a young astronomer who apprenticed with Tycho Brahe like Kepler did) and a witch-like mother, who was a herb doctor (like Kepler’s own mother). Having recognized a likeness, they saw Kepler’s allegory as non-fiction. This meant that the narrator’s mother, who conjures up spirits to assist her son in his lunar voyage, and Kepler’s mother were one in the same. Katharina Kepler—a blunt, independent and outspoken woman—was soon called out as a witch. Villagers who had a bone to pick with her took advantage and rumors spread: a mother claimed that her daughter’s arm grew numb after Katharina brushed against it in the street; the butcher’s wife swore that pain pierced her husband’s thigh when Katharina walked by; the limping schoolmaster dated the onset of his disability to a night ten years earlier when he had taken a sip from a tin cup at Katharina’s house while reading her one of Kepler’s letters. She was accused of appearing magically through closed doors, of having caused the deaths of infants and animals.

The burning at the stake of Anne Drake (anonymous engraving)

“After years of exerting reason against superstition, Kepler ultimately succeeded in getting his mother acquitted,” writes Popova. “But the seventy-five-year-old woman never recovered from the trauma of the trial and the bitter German winter spent in the unheated prison.” She died shortly after she was released.

Thousands of people were tried for witchcraft during that time. Most of the accused were women, whose defense fell on their sons, brothers, and husbands. Most trials ended in execution. In Germany, some twenty-five thousand were killed. In Kepler’s small hometown, six women had been burned as witches just a few weeks before his mother was indicted.

Popova tells us that Katharina Kepler “first enchanted her son with astronomy when she took him to the top of a nearby hill and let the six-year-old boy gape in wonderment as the Great Comet of 1577 blazed across the sky.”

But Katharina’s fate was written by the world she lived in.  Kepler understood that as a man, his privileges in education—and standing—provided him with additional social standing beyond his mother’s. “I was born a man, not a woman,” he wrote, “a difference in sex which the astrologers seek in vain in the heavens.” 

Maple-Oak swamp forest in spring, Trent Nature Sanctuary, 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.

Embracing Your Future: Flying Algal Ships

Hydrogenase design by Vincent Callebaut

You walk toward English Bay to the nearest Hydrogenase Hub, where you are meeting with your team to discuss the presentation.

The hub is a floating algal farm. The farm and the elongated seed-shaped airship docked at its centre both produce biofuel—essentially hydrogen—from the microorganism Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Your mom, a former environmental consultant and algal scientist—now she writes science fiction—explained to you that this unicellular organism has both plant and animal properties; it carries out photosynthesis but is also heterotrophic (able to use organic carbon to grow) and will in the absence of oxygen produce gaseous hydrogen and metabolites such as formate and ethanol through hydrogenase enzymes. Chlamydomonas reinhardtii was first discovered as a clean source of hydrogen back in 1939 by German scientist Hans Gaffron at the University of Chicago (ironically the same year Germany invaded Poland). Gaffron called it “photosynthetic hydrogen production by algae”; and today it is a process that produces electricity and biofuel with zero emissions. 

The algae farm recycles CO2for the bio-hydrogen airship you will be boarding after your meeting in the hub. You enter the airy station, whose honeycomb circular design resembles a stylized lily pad and glance up through the high nano-glass ceiling toward the elongated seed-shaped transport rising ten stories above you. The sun glances off the diaphanous double helix frame that resembles a freshwater spirogyra. The hub you’re standing in is a floating algae farm with solar cells on top and hydro-turbines below to capture tidal energy. The algae farm recycles CO2 for the bio-hydrogen airship you will be boarding after your meeting in the hub. You enter the airy station, whose honeycomb circular design resembles a stylized lily pad and glance up through the high nano-glass ceiling toward the elongated seed-shaped transport rising ten stories above you.

The sun glances off the diaphanous double helix frame that resembles a freshwater spirogyra. The hub you’re standing in is a floating algae farm with solar cells on top and hydro-turbines below to capture tidal energy.

The concept is the “subversive architecture” of Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut and inspired by the principles of biomimicry, coined by Janine Benyus in 2002 in her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”.  Callebaut conceived Hydrogenase in 2010 as a 100% self-sufficient and zero-emission transport system using algae. He claimed that a hectare of seaweeds could produce 120 times more biofuel than a hectare of colza, soya or sunflower without consuming land needed for crops or forests. He called Hydrogenase a true miniature biochemical power station. Able to absorb CO2 as the main nutrient through photosynthesis the algae, under anaerobic conditions, produce hydrogen in vitro or in bioreactors. 

You swipe your PAL over the ticket booth sensor and the optional ticket-brochure pops out. You take it and read the specs between glances at the tall vessel loading in the dock of the hub. It’s really like a vertical dirigible, you think, studying the seed-shaped airship with self-cleaning “intelligent” nanostructured glass—inspired by the lotus leaf that doesn’t get wet. The semi-rigid unpressurised airship stretches vertically around an arborescent spine that twists like chloroplast ribbons 400 meters high and 180 meters in diameter.

You read that each Hydrogenase airship is covered with flexible inflatable photovoltaic cells and twenty wind turbines to maneuver and collect energy. The interior spaces provide room for housing, offices, scientific laboratories, and entertainment, and a series of vegetable gardens that provide a source of food while recycling waste.

You read that this self-sufficient organic transport flies about 2000 meters high at about 175 km/hr (twice the speed of a conventional ship). Given its ease in negotiating airspace and its ability to land and take off from virtually any location, the Hydrogenase is used by many groups in various capacities. Your friend Michael who teaches at the University of Victoria uses one as a mobile research station in his studies along the coast of northern British Columbia.  

The vessel is made of “intelligent layers” and “self-separable ceramics”. Its bionic coating draws inspiration from sharkskin that is self-cleaning and flow-efficient. 

Hydrogenase concept with algal farm pods and air ships

You head down the spiral staircase to the third subsea level toward the meeting room you booked earlier on your PAL. The view is spectacular from here through the nano-glass panes. Rays of shimmering light stream through a gently swaying forest of kelp. You glimpse the sun-glinted flickering of hundreds of anchovies as they school through the kelp. This floating farm is an organic purifying station of four carbon wells where the algae recycle the carbonated waste brought by the airships and, in turn, feed the airship with biohydrogen. It’s the new “gas station”, you reflect with a smile.

After your meeting with staff, you and three others of your team board the airship and settle in one of the skyview chambers. The journey is relaxing, like the BC Ferry used to be, but without the pungent smell and pollution of conventional motorized sea vessels. It’s a quiet and relaxing trip with a spectacular view of the Gulf Islands. Your team strategizes your presentation over a light lunch and Matcha lattes. 

Vincent Callebaut’s Hydrogenase

The PA system sounds and a woman’s voice informs you that the ship will be making an emergency landing on Saturna Island to rescue two hikers injured at East Point. This will only add twenty minutes to the trip, the woman assures you. You don’t mind and recall the disclaimer at the bottom of the ticket. Given the ability of this airship to take off and accurately land virtually anywhere, all Hydrogenases are by law mandated to be on standby for rescue missions in rough terrain.

You pull out the ticket and read again: The Hydrogenase is affiliated with the International Red Cross and BC Coastguard. The Hydrogenase must by law respond to any distress call at sea or rough terrain associated with coastal waters. Because of this service, we cannot guarantee a timely schedule.  

You recall how Hydrogenases were deployed in the last hurricane disaster off the coast of Florida last year, saving countless people trapped in the flooding that accompanied the storm. The International Red Cross uses them as flying hospitals.

Bernard frets over the time delay. He is concerned about the lack of preparation and set up time once you get into Victoria. You assuage him gently. The best preparation is sincerity, you tell him. The landscape architect Thomas Woltz, whose work you highly respect, saw himself as someone who embraces the complexity of modern life while seeking meaning and narrative in both natural and human-made environments.

“We’re storytellers,” you tell Andre. Invoking metaphor through design. “They know we’re coming and they know we’re helping someone; they’ll wait for our story. And it’s all about harmony.”

The lines of Henry David Thoreau come to you: Man’s life must be of equal simplicity and sincerity with nature, and his actions harmonize with her grandeur and beauty.

Then you point your PAL at the ServiceBot and order three more lattes. You lean back in your bamboo fabric chair and cross your legs over the leg rest. 

It’s a brave new world. 

Pine forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and dry brush rendition 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.

Nina Munteanu Talks about more than Water on the Douglas Coleman Show

Nina Munteanu was recently on The Douglas Coleman Show where she and Douglas talked about writing, being scared of water, the sub-genre of eco-fiction and what Canada might have been like if the white settlers hadn’t come.

Here’s the show:

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.