Dreams and Perceptions…And ‘The Other’

Credit Riv path in snow

path along Credit River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It was a while ago, as I was driving home from a friend’s place in the sultry dark of night that I noticed the change…

Perhaps it was the rain and the winding road that nudged my psyche to wander into that other realm. Or was it the surrealistic motion picture The Fountain that I’d seen the evening before? Or had it more to do with the fact that I’d been, for various reasons, without sleep for over forty hours that I glimpsed the ordinary in an extra-ordinary light?

Light had everything to do with it…Amber traffic lights at a construction site pulsed like living things. Smoky back-lit clouds billowed over an inky sky. A garish screen of trees, caught in the beams of my car lights as I turned a corner, flashed. Nature recast. A half-built apartment building loomed up like some dark tower in Lord of the Rings. I was reminded of a scene early on in The Fountain where the viewer is disoriented initially by a busy street at night because it was shot upside down. Ironically, the picture was filmed in my hometown of Montreal and I didn’t even recognize it.

Have you ever done that? Looked backward while driving through a familiar scene to gain a different perspective? And felt different for just a moment? Like you’d briefly entered a different dimension and glimpsed “the other”?

What is it like to meet “the other”?

What is it like to approach the unfamiliar? A new landscape. A stranger in town. A different culture. An “alien” encounter. How do we react? Is it with wonder? Curiosity? Fear? Hatred? A mixture of these?

The genre of science fiction vividly explores our humanity through our reactions to “the other.” It does this by looking at both perspectives. By describing “the other,” science fiction writers describe “us.” In his book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient Edward W. Said contended that for there to be an ‘us’, there has to be a ‘not-us.’ According to Patricia Kerslake of Central Queensland University, this arises from a postcolonial notion of ‘the Other’, through a mutual process of exclusion. This exclusion inspires the very idea of ‘alien’ by imposing expectation on perception. Kerslake argues that: “When one culture imposes its perceptions on another, in that it begins to see the Other not as they are but as, in Said’s words, ‘they ought to be’, then the process of representation becomes inevitable: a choice is made to see a ‘preferred’ real.”

Ursula K LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin

In her 1975 article “American SF and the Other,” Ursula K. LeGuin unequivocally scolded the Western SF genre for representing and promoting colonialism and androcratic motives.

One of the great early socialists said that the status of women in a society is a pretty reliable index of the degree of civilization of that society. If this is true, then the very low status of women in SF should make us ponder about whether SF is civilized at all.

The women’s movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that SF has either totally ignored women, or presented them as squeaking dolls subject to instant rape by monsters—or old-maid scientists de-sexed by hypertrophy of the intellectual organs—or, at best, loyal little wives or mistresses of accomplished heroes. Male elitism has run rampant in SF. But is it only male elitism? Isn’t the “subjection of women” in SF merely a symptom of a whole which is authoritarian, power-worshiping, and intensely parochial?

The question involved here is the question of The Other—the being who is different from yourself. This being can be different from you in its sex; or in its annual income; or in its way of speaking and dressing and doing things; or in the color of its skin, or the number of its legs and heads. In other words, there is the sexual Alien, and the social Alien, and the cultural Alien, and finally the racial Alien.

Well, how about the social Alien in SF? How about, in Marxist terms, “the proletariat”? Where are they in SF? Where are the poor, the people who work hard and go to bed hungry? Are they ever persons, in SF? No. They appear as vast anonymous masses fleeing from giant slime-globules from the Chicago sewers, or dying off by the billion from pollution or radiation, or as faceless armies being led to battle by generals and statesmen. In sword and sorcery they behave like the walk-on parts in a high school performance of The Chocolate Prince. Now and then there’s a busty lass amongst them who is honored by the attentions of the Captain of the Supreme Terran Command, or in a space-ship crew there’s a quaint old cook, with a Scots or Swedish accent, representing the Wisdom of the Common Folk.

The people, in SF, are not people. They are masses, existing for one purpose: to be led by their superiors…

…What about the cultural and the racial Other? This is the Alien everybody recognizes as alien, supposed to be the special concern of SF. Well, in the old pulp SF, it’s very simple. The only good alien is a dead alien—whether he is an Aldebaranian Mantis-Man, or a German dentist. And this tradition still flourishes: witness Larry Niven’s story “Inconstant Moon” (in All the Myriad Ways, 1941) which has a happy ending—consisting of the fact that America, including Los Angeles, was not hurt by a solar flare. Of course a few million Europeans and Asians were fried, but that doesn’t matter, it just makes the world a little safer for democracy, in fact. (It is interesting that the female character in the same story is quite brainless; her only function is to say Oh? and Ooooh! to the clever and resourceful hero.)

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.

You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

Diary Water cover finalWritten 45 years ago, Le Guin’s scathing article may have accurately represented the North American science fiction community of writers of that time. Today, despite the remnants of a strong old guard that still promotes a patriarchal colonialist hegemony, the science fiction genre has matured and grown beyond this self-limiting view. This is partly because current authors—many who are women and many who are representatives of minority or marginalized groups—have given SF a new face and voice that promises to include equality, inclusion, and a fresh look at exploration and ‘the other.’

The genre of science fiction has matured by diversifying to embrace “mundane science fiction,” literary fiction, speculative fiction, climate fiction, cli-fi, eco-fiction, indigenous futurisms and more.

memoryofwaterScience fiction that leans toward “mundane”(everyday life) and literary fiction include the works of Paulo Bacigalupi (Windup Girl), Margaret Atwood (Year of the Flood), and Kim Stanley Robinson (New York 2140). Literary fiction overlaps with science fiction through eco-fiction and climate fiction which address oppression, jingoism and neoliberalism often through dystopian themes—and often through the voice of women writers—such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series, Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water, Nina Munteanu’s A Diary in the Age of Water, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, and Richard Power’s Overstory.

CliFi Tales of ClimateChangeIn 2017, several publications addressed different aspects of society through speculative fiction.  Laksa Media published Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, which explores issues of mental health. Exile Editions published Cli-Fi: Tales of Climate Change with stories on personal experience with climate change. Reality Skimming Press published Water, for which I was editor, which explored optimism in the face of climate change.

In Ann Leckie’s 2014 Ancillary Justice, the main character is a space ship. The Gethenians in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness are humanoids with fluid gender, adapted to environment. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312,  humans have abandoned the gender binary for an intersex existence based on proven longevity.

Borderline mishell bakerNovels and anthologies of short stories that feature disabled characters are also growing. Examples include Borderline by Mishell Baker, We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ, Murderbot series by Martha Wells, and Uncanny: Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction (edited by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Dominik Parisien et al.) among many others.

Indigenous futurisms, speculative writings on issues of colonialism, identity, AI, and climate change include Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones, Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, Take Us to Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Walking the Clouds Anthology edited by Grace L. Dillon, and Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich.

Trail of LightningIn an introduction to seven Indigenous Futurism books, Barnes and Noble writes:

So many stories, well intentioned and not-so-well-intentioned, have fixated on the dark pasts of Indigenous people, assuming that colonization stole from them any future not involving slow decline and assimilation. Though there’s plenty of tragedy to be recounted, Indigenous history didn’t end there, and a wave of modern authors are exploring Indigenous cultures as living, vibrant, and firmly fixed in both the modern and furute worlds—sovereign nations with as much claim to an endless array of possible futures as any other culture. So much of what we call classic science fiction involves tropes that look very different to colonized peoples: the heroic space explorers who travel the stars visiting (and often conquering) alien worlds look very different to people whose histories are so strongly marked by the scars of colonization.

Of Indigenous Futurisms, the Seattle Public Library writes:

Indigenous Futurisms confront many of the norms of speculative fiction by challenging, subverting, or refusing to engage with colonial, racist, and otherwise oppressive genre tropes. Indigenous Futurism draws on the strength of Indigenous knowledge systems, worldviews, stories, languages, and traditions to reimagine the past, present, and future of this world and others. Yet it is not necessarily utopic or optimistic. Many authors writing within the Indigenous Futurisms genre engage with the realities of ongoing colonialism around the world, and the apocalyptic nature of the present for many Indigenous communities. However, characters struggle despite the circumstances for a better future.

 

Credit River first snow

First snow on the Credit River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

A True Rocky Mountain Gem: The Antique Forest of Robson Valley

In my novel A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications) the diarist writes about the huge reservoir complex that was built in the late 2020s in the Rocky Mountain Trench to create an 800 km long reservoir system to rehydrate the United States. Of course, it’s science fiction, but it was based on real plans (NAWAPA) that went all the way to congress in the 1960s. That reservoir might have drowned the rainforest conservation corridor of Robson Valley—a conservation area that continues to experience existential risk due to development, resource harvest, and other disturbance.

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Friend Anne walks the boardwalk of the ancient forest park

In Robson Valley—tucked between the Rocky and Cariboo Mountains of East-Central British Columbia, the Fraser River nourishes an ancient rainforest matched nowhere on Earth. Massive Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)—some over 1200 years-old, 3.5 meters in diameter, and 45 meters high—thrive in this valley, nurtured by abundant groundwater flow and high humidity for healthy tree growth and reduced fire risk. “Unfortunately, this requirement for growth in wet toe-slope positions has had negative consequences for ancient cedar stands. Historically, roads and railroads were placed at the base of mountain slopes, where easy access on level roadside terrain meant that ancient cedar stands were often among the first sites chosen for logging. Ancient cedar stands now represent less than 5% of forested landscapes within the Upper Fraser River watershed.” (UNBC Plant Ecology)

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Moss-covered giant Redcedar in foreground to boardwalk

This valley contains the most extensive inland rainforest in the northern hemisphere and is the only valley in the Rocky Mountains where grizzly bears still feed on wild ocean-going salmon.

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Western Redcedar with wide buttresses

The Save-The-Cedar League also tells us that the Robson Rainforest is oroboreal: mountain-caused with boreal biome characteristics—unlike typical rainforests which are temperate-coastal or tropical. “Antique Forest” is a term used for ancient cedar-hemlock stands that have endured for more than 1000 years. One stand in Primordial Grove can be seen via a well-constructed boardwalk in a small park off Highway 16.

When I entered the ancient forest of magnificent giants with wide buttressed bases, a deep reverence came over me. No other word comes close to describing what I experienced or felt. I was enthralled and humbled by these magnificent trees, silent giants that rose into the mist like sentinels, piercing the heavens. It had rained that morning and the forest dripped with living moisture. Greens of all shades created a living mosaic of hue and texture. Moss covered everything. Lichen dripped off branches and clothed trees in crenulated patterns. The fragrance was intoxicating, a fresh pungency that woke something inside me. The smell has been variously described as “lingering”, “fresh”, “sweet”, “like pineapple when crushed”, or “almost like fresh water.” Even the breeze took on a different voice inside this living cathedral. A kind of deep hush that whispered of sacred grandness.

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Western Redcedar

I knew I was in a sacred place.

This ancient forest had been here at least a millennium; long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Atlantic shores of North America. Long before us. Referred to as “the cornerstone of northwest coastal Indian culture,” the Western Redcedar is known as the “tree of life” and “life giver.” Groves of ancient cedars were symbols of power, and gathering places for ceremonies, retreat, and contemplation.

I kept to the boardwalk—to help prevent unwanted trampling and soil compression. The boardwalk snaked past giant buttressed trees that towered several stories high and formed a feathered canopy way above me. Whenever the boardwalk came close to a giant cedar, I had to stop and touch it. The reddish bark was smooth. I smiled; many others had done the same. In unavoidable reverence.

Breathing in the tree’s exquisite fragrance, I scanned my surroundings. A rich understory of red-berried Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus), huckleberry, fern, moss, liverworts and dense ground cover painted the forest floor in varying form and colour. I imagined the diversity of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that flourished here. I’m told that scientists are still finding new species in this rainforest. UBC scientists tell us that arboreal lichen communities of the inland rainforest, especially the epiphytic cyanolichen assemblages on conifers, are among the richest in the world.

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Nina Munteanu leans against a well-loved giant Western Redcedar

 

Gentle Giant of North Temporate Rainforest: Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)

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Western Redcedar

The Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) is one of the most magnificent conifers in Pacific Northwest forests (both coastal and inland); it flourishes along the coastal fog belt from Alaska to northern California, and inland from the Pacific Ocean to Montana. The Western Redcedar is actually an arborvitae—not a true cedar; acknowledged by its name “redcedar”. True cedars only grow in the Mediterranean regions of the world. “Thuja,” is the latinism for the ancient Greek word for a now unknown, long-lost aromatic evergreen wood; “plicata,” means “folded into plaits,” which may refer to the tree’s characteristic foliage or its furrowed, stringy bark. The heartwood is pink- to red-brown to deep warm brown and highly resistant to moisture, decay and insect infestation due to the oils and acids (polyoxylphenols) it produces; it’s the phenols, in fact, that give the cedar its distinctive and pleasant aroma.

Given their extensive root system, cedars can remain standing long after they die. Western Redcedar snags (standing dead trees) can remain intact for up to 125 years. The large snags provide habitat for many cavity-nesting birds and mammals. Many species that require snags for habitats also prey on insects that use trees in a fine balance of a functional ecosystem. Examples include the pileated woodpecker, squirrels, weasels, martens, bats, owls and ducks. A fallen cedar can remain on the forest floor for over a century. “This durability is the result of a natural preservative that is toxic to decay-causing fungi. This ability does not decrease with age; in fact, it increases,” writes Jeri Chase, Oregon forester.

DevilsClub Hemlock-CedarGrove

Devil’s Club

Several of these live ancient cedar trees grow out of the trunks of other live ancient cedars, following a 180 million-year-old pattern observed in the closely-related redwoods (Sequoia). Basal shoots of the trunk yield genetically-superior mature trees when compared to seeds, root sprouts, other shoots or other layering phenomena.

Western Redcedar reproduces from root or branch development on fallen trees—the classic “nurse logs” often seen in northwest forests that also nourish other forest species. The magnificent bark of the Redcedar ranges in color from grey to reddish brown, and is deeply furrowed, forming long flat fibrous plates that peel and shed easily. Wildlife use the cedar in many ways. The foliage is an important winter food for elk and is browsed year-long by deer and rodents. Black bears den in the hollowed-out trunks of old trees and the cedar-dominated old growth forests provide valuable habitat for spotted owls and Vaux swifts.

Functional Ecosystem & Symbiosis

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Red-backed vole

The Robson Valley cedar-hemlock rainforest supports a diverse and efficient ecosystem from apex and keystone predator—the grizzly—to black bear, gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine, coyote, and seven ungulate species (including the Mountain caribou); all feeding on a diversity of prey and primary producers. The Mountain caribou feeds on mountain boxwood shrubs which are sheltered by the cedar and hemlock canopy layer.

An example of the symbiotic nature of the old growth cedar-hemlock forest is the red-backed vole, which resembles a large plump mouse. This forest mammal eats truffles—a type of fungus that lives underground. After digesting the truffles, voles spread the fungus around the litter layer of the forest through their droppings. The truffles help tree roots absorb soil minerals and the trees produce sugars necessary for the truffles: a win-win symbiotic relationship. The cedar and the hemlock require this alliance with truffles and voles to grow so large in the nutrient-poor soil.

The Inland Sea of the Rocky Mountain Trench (NAWAPA)

Diary Water cover finalUna stopped the car and we stared out across the longest reservoir in North America. What had once been a breathtaking view of the valley floor of the Rocky Mountain Trench was now a spectacular inland sea. It ran north-south over eight hundred kilometres and stretched several kilometres across to the foothills of the Cariboo Mountain Range. Una pointed to Mount Mica, Mount Pierre Elliot Trudeau and several other snow-covered peaks. They stood above the inland sea like sentinels of another time. Una then pointed down to what used to be Jackman Flats—mostly inundated along with McLellan River and the town of Valemont to the south. Hugging the shore of what was left of Jackman Flats was a tiny village. “That’s the new Tête Jaune Cache,” my mother told me.

If villages had karma this one was fated to drown over and over until it got it right.  Once a bustling trading town on the Grand Trunk Pacific railway, Tête Jaune Cache drowned in the early 1900s when the Fraser naturally flooded. The village relocated to the junction of the original Yellowhead 16 and 5 Highways. Villagers settled close to where the Fraser, Tête Creek, and the McLellan River joined, all fed by the meltwater from the glaciers and icefields of the Premiere Range of the Cariboo Mountains. The village drowned again in 2025. I imagined the pool halls, restaurants, saloons and trading posts crushed by the flood.

“This area used to be a prime Chinook spawning ground,” Una said. “They swam over 1,200 km from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs right there.” She pointed to the cobalt blue water below us.

The reservoir sparkled in the sun like an ocean. Steep shores rose into majestic snow-capped mountains. The village lay in a kind of cruel paradise, I thought. It was surrounded by a multi-hued forest of Lodgepole pine, Western red cedar, Douglas fir, paper birch and trembling Aspen. Directly behind the village was Mount Terry Fox and across the Robson valley mouth, to the northeast, rose Mount Goslin. Behind it, Mount Robson cut a jagged pyramid against a stunning blue sky. Wispy clouds veiled its crown. I couldn’t help thinking it was the most beautiful place I’d seen. And yet, for all its beauty, the villagers had lost their principle livelihood and food. The reservoir had destroyed the wildlife habitats and the fishery. And its people with it.

Una pointed to where the giant reservoir snaked northwest and where towns like Dunster, McBride and Prince George lay submerged beneath a silent wall of water. Her eyes suddenly misted as she told me about Slim Creek Provincial Park, between what used to be Slim and Driscoll Creeks just northwest of what used to be the community of Urling. She told me about the Oroboreal rainforest, called an “Antique Rainforest”—ancient cedar-hemlock stands over a 1000 years old. She described how massive trunks the width of a small house once rose straight up toward a kinder sun. The Primordial Grove was once home to bears, the gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine and ungulates. It was the last valley in North America where the grizzly bear once fished ocean-going salmon. Now even the salmon were no longer there, she said. Then she bent low beside me and pulled me close to her in a hug. She quietly said to me, “This is what killed Trudeau.”

I stared at her and firmly corrected, “but that was an accident.”

“Yes,” she agreed. Then added, “a planned one.”

A Diary in the Age of Water

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Moss-covered Western Redcedar

 

NAWAPA (North America Water Power Alliance)

The original NAWAPA Plan was drawn up by the Pasadena-based firm of Ralph M. Parsons Co. in 1964, and had a favorable review by Congress for completion in the 1990s. The plan—thankfully never completed—was drafted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and entailed the southward diversion of a portion (if not all) of the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers in northern Canada and Alaska, now flowing into the Arctic Ocean as well as the Peace, Liard and other rivers flowing into the Pacific by creating massive dams in the north. This would cause the rivers to flow backwards into the mountains to form vast reservoirs that would flood one-tenth of British Columbia. The water would be channeled south through the 800-km Rocky Mountain Trench Reservoir into the Northern USA, and from there along various routes into the dry regions of the South, to California and reaching as far as Mexico.

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Expanded NAWAPA XXI plan to hydrate the USA with Canadian water

NAWAPA was envisioned as the largest construction effort of all times, comprising some 369 separate projects of dams, canals, and tunnels, for water diversion. The water diversion would be accomplished through a series of connecting tunnels, canals, lakes, dams, and pump-lifts, as the trench itself is located at an elevation of 914 m (3,000 feet). To the east, a 9 m (thirty-foot) deep canal would be cut from the Peace River to Lake Superior. Its largest proposed dam would be 518 m (1,700 feet) tall, more than twice the height of Hoover Dam (at 221 m) and taller than any dam in the world today, including the Jinping-I Dam in China (at 305 m).

Conspiracy theorist and convicted fraudster Lyndon LaRouche was a principle proponent of the environmentally destructive NAWAPA plan. Although the plan was scrapped in the 1970s due to environmental concerns, it resurfaced in 1982 particularly by Parsons engineer Roland Kelley, who wrote a report called NAWAPA Plan Can Work. LaRouche and his movement revived interest more recently. In 2012 the LaRouche Political Action Committee released their NAWAPA XXI special report, which contained a detailed plan for the revival of an updated and expanded version of NAWAPA. The LaRouche movement continues to promote this outlandish plan today with support from various American politicians and industrialists.

In his book Cadillac Desert, environmental writer Marc Reisner described the plan as one of “brutal magnificence” and “unprecedented destructiveness.” Historian Ted Steinberg suggested that NAWAPA summed up “the sheer arrogance and imperial ambitions of the modern hydraulic West.”

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Old growth Redcedar-Douglas fir forest near Vancouver, BC (photo and illustration by Nina Munteanu)

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

Ecology of Story: Place as Symbol

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

“In their simplest form, symbols are anything outward that stands in for anything inward or abstract, such as a mood or an idea,” writes Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. As representations, symbols often serve as markers in a story. They may be a talisman, a totem that inspires a shift or awakening. In story, a symbol—particularly as talisman—may come as a gift to a character in need of inspiration. In the Hero’s Journey trope, this is often provided by a mentor archetype.

An example in story is the light saber that Obi Wan Kenobi presents to Luke Skywalker to aid him on his journey as a Jedi master. Symbols often reoccur as motif to incite an emotional trigger or turning point for a character.

Symbolism in literature provides richness, colour and depth of meaning. Use of symbols helps deepen theme beyond conscious appreciation and into emotional and subconscious levels. Symbolism can be portrayed through figure of speech in which an object or situation has another meaning than its literal meaning. It can also express through the actions and observations of a character, language or event that creates deeper meaning through context.

Maass provides the example of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to depict superb use of symbol in storytelling:

Poisonwood Bible-KingsolverShe is inhumanly alone. And then, all at once, she isn’t. A beautiful animal stands on the other side of the water. They look up from their lives, woman and animal, amazed to find themselves in the same place. He freezes, inspecting her with his black-tipped ears. His back is purplish-brown in the dim light, sloping downward from the gentle hump of his shoulders. The forest’s shadows fall into lines across his white-striped flanks. His stiff forelegs play out to the sides like stilts, for he’s been caught in the act of reaching down for water. Without taking his eyes from her, he twitches a little at the knee, then the shoulder, where a fly devils him. Finally he surrenders his surprise, looks away, and drinks. She can feel the touch of his long, curled tongue on the water’s skin, as if he were lapping from her hand. His head bobs gently, nodding small, velvet horns lit white from behind like new leaves. 

It lasted just a moment, whatever that is. One held breath? An ant’s afternoon? It was brief, I can promise that much, for although it’s been many years now since my children ruled my life, a mother recalls the measure of the silences. I never had more than five minutes peace unbroken. I was that woman on the stream bank, of course. Orleanna  Price, Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead. That one time and no other the okapi came to the stream, and I was the only one to see it.

In this opening to her novel, Kingsolver explores a multi-layered symbol for her main character’s bewilderment at the mystery and beauty of the environment around her, tied into her own essential helplessness, says Maass. “Part of what makes [Kingsolver’s] symbols poetic is that all of them emerge from the natural world around her characters,” he adds. Nature’s symbols are powerful archetypes that reveal compelling story. These symbols abound in Kingsolver’s novel that explores the relationships of five women with their environment and the rigid ignorance of their patriarch, Nathan Price. The garden, Maass tells us, provides many examples of this. Price has planted his seeds in a flat, not accounting for the torrential afternoon downpours, which wash away his garden in a flash. Later, the poisonwood tree in their yard gives Price a horrid rash, suggesting that he is messing with a place he does not understand or respect. How each of the women interacts with her environment over time provides a deeply felt and metaphoric revelation of how she relates to others and to herself—all reflecting her personal journey in the story. As the quote indicates, Orleanna Price experienced a turning point through discovery. In this example the discovery occurred through a sudden encounter with a natural element.

In my near-future speculative novel A Diary in the Age of Water, cynical limnologist Lynna sees everything in her life through limnological metaphors, ironically predicting her own future:

Diary Water cover finalAn oligotrophic lake is basically a young lake. Still immature and undeveloped, an oligotrophic lake often displays a rugged untamed beauty. An oligotrophic lakes hungers for the stuff of life. Sediments from incoming rivers slowly feed it with dissolved nutrients and particulate organic matter. Detritus and associated microbes slowly seed the lake. Phytoplankton eventually flourish, food for zooplankton and fish. The shores then gradually slide and fill, as does the very bottom. Deltas form and macrophytes colonize the shallows. Birds bring in more creatures. And so on. Succession is the engine of destiny and trophic status its shibboleth.

As Nature tames the unruly lake over time, one thing replaces another. As a lake undergoes its natural succession from oligotrophic to highly productive eutrophic lake, its beauty mellows and it surrenders to the complexities of destiny. Minimalism yields to a baroque richness that, in turn, heralds extinction. The lake shrinks to a swamp then buries itself under a meadow.

We hold ourselves apart from our profligate nature. But we aren’t unique. We are more part of Nature than we admit. Using the thread of epigenetics and horizontal gene transfer, Nature stitches in us a moving tapestry of terrible irony. The irony lies in our conviction that we were made in the inimitable divine image of God. That we are special. Yet over a third of the human population is secular—atheists and agnostics—who do not believe in God. Or anything, for that matter. 

Water flows endlessly through us, whether we’re devout Catholics or empty vessels with no purpose. Water makes no distinction. It flows through us even after we bury ourselves.

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Log in water, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In the following excerpt from Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx uses a mix of senses—but mostly smell—in an evocative description of two shirts to symbolize a love loss:

The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack, but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands. 

In my short story The Way of Water, water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:

The Way of Water-COVERThey met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self- conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love.

Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep.

In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break.

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” released 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.

 

 

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

 

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

Ecology of Story: Place as Character & Archetype

Birds deer lake

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

A novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of a place. This is place being “character.” Place functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. Think of any of your favorite books, particularly the epics: The Wizard of Oz, Tale of Two Cities, Doctor Zhivago, Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, etc. In each of these books the central character is the place, which is firmly linked to its main character. How much is Frodo, for instance, an extension of his beloved Shire? They are one in the same. Just as the London of Charles Dickens spawned Scrooge.

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

Things to consider about place as character begin with the POV character and how they interact with their environment and how they reflect their place. For instance is that interaction obvious or subtle? Is that environment constant or changing, stable or unstable, predictable, or variable? Is the place controllable or not, understandable or not? Is the relationship emotional, connected to senses such as memory?

I discuss archetypes in detail, particularly as part of the “Hero’s Journey” in Chapter J of The Fiction Writer. In summary, archetypes are ancient patterns of personality shared universally by humanity (e.g. the “mother” archetype is recognized by all cultures). When place acts as an archetype or symbol in story—particularly when linked to theme—it provides a depth of meaning that resonates through many levels for the reader. From obvious to subtle.

A subtle yet potent example of this is provided by Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News; Proulx uses subtle body language of her protagonist to provide a strong sense of place. The main character, Quoyle, displays a self-conscious gesture of covering his strong native chin with his hand until he leaves New York to his homeland of Newfoundland from where he is descended— a place where he can live a natural and graceful life without apology.

In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars symbolizes a new Eden—though unimagined. Like Bradbury’s aboriginal Martians—who are mostly invisible—the planet is a mirror that reflects humanity’s best and worst. Who we are, what we are, what we bring with us and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything.

Martian ChroniclesThey came because they were afraid or unafraid, happy or unhappy. There was a reason for each man. They were coming to find something or get something, or to dig up something or bury something. They were coming with small dreams or big dreams or none at all.

The 1970 Bantam book jacket aptly calls The Martian Chronicles, “a story of familiar people and familiar passions set against incredible beauties of a new world … A skillful blending of fancy and satire, terror and tenderness, wonder and contempt.”

Written in the 1940s, The Martian Chronicles drip with a nostalgic atmosphere — shady porches with tinkling pitchers of lemonade, grandfather clocks, chintz-covered sofas. But longing for this comfortable past proves dangerous in every way to Bradbury’s characters — the golden-eyed Martians as well as the humans. Starting in the far-flung future of 1999, expedition after expedition leaves Earth to explore Mars. The chameleon-like Martians guard their mysteries well, but soon succumb to the diseases that arrive with the rockets — recapitulating the tragedies that European colonization imposed on our indigenous peoples. Colonists appear on Mars, most of them with ideas no more lofty than starting a hot-dog stand, and with no respect for the culture they are impacting and an entire people they are destroying. Bradbury weaves metaphor into the opening when the heat of a rocket ship turned an Ohio dark winter into summer:

Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work. The skis and sleds suddenly useless. The snow, falling from the cold sky upon the town, turned to a hot rain before it touched the ground.

Rocket summer. People leaned form their dripping porches and watched the reddening sky. The rocket lay on the launching field, blowing out pink clouds of fire and even heat. The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts. The rocket made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment on the land…

What unfolds is a profound and tender analysis of the quiet yet devastating power humanity can wield unawares. Bradbury paints a multi-layered tapestry of hopes and dreams through metaphor. To Bradbury everything a writer writes is metaphor. Metaphor is powerful through perspective. It makes the ordinary strange and the strange ordinary.

MemoryOfWater_Emmi ItarantaIn Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water—about a post-climate change world of sea level rise—water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives:

The story tells that water has a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that’s ever happened in this world, from the time before humans until this moment, which draws itself in its memory even as it passes. Water understands the movements of the world; it knows when it is sought and where it is needed. Sometimes a spring or a well dries for no reason, without explanation. It’s as if the water escapes of its own will, withdrawing into the cover of the earth to look for another channel. Tea masters believe there are times when water doesn’t wish to be found because it knows it will be chained in ways that are against its nature.

ThePenelopiadWater, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans of mystery, beauty and danger—to the relentless flow of an inland stream. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is just one example:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” released 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.

 

 

 

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

 

nina-2014aaa

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

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?

subway

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.

DS-2008-26

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-2014aaa

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