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

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

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

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

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

“Climate changed?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene from the film Minority Report with Tom Cruise

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

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

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

Ray Bradbury

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

Infertility in the Age of Water

Diary Water cover finalIn a scene of my near-future eco-thriller A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications, 2020) the diarist’s young colleague Daniel rather too enthusiastically proclaims the impending extinction of males.

“Scientists all agree that environmental factors are the main triggers for male and female infertility through epigenetics…Epigenetics rules climate change-related adaptations. And everything appears stacked heavily for females and intersex humans. Males might go extinct with climate change!”

–A Diary in the Age of Water

Lynna Dresden, the diarist in A Diary in the Age of Water, thinks Daniel rather buffoonish and a traitor to his male kind. Then again, here is how another Daniel starts his article in a 2018 issue of GQ Magazine entitled “Sperm Count Zero“:

Men are doomed. Everybody knows this. We’re obviously all doomed, the women too, everybody in general, just a waiting game until one or another of the stupid things our stupid species is up to finally gets us. But as it turns out, no surprise: men first. Second instance of no surprise: We’re going to take the women down with us.

There has always been evidence that men, throughout life, are at higher risk of early death—from the beginning, a higher male incidence of Death by Mastodon Stomping, a higher incidence of Spiked Club to the Brainpan, a statistically significant disparity between how many men and how many women die of Accidentally Shooting Themselves in the Face or Getting Really Fat and Having a Heart Attack. The male of the species dies younger than the female—about five years on average. Divide a population into groups by birth year, and by the time each cohort reaches 85, there are two women left for every man alive. In fact, the male wins every age class: Baby boys die more often than baby girls; little boys die more often than little girls; teenage boys; young men; middle-aged men. Death champions across the board.

Now it seems that early death isn’t enough for us—we’re on track instead to void the species entirely.

–Daniel Noah Halpern, GQ Magazine

sperm_decline_chartBoth Daniels are talking about the alarming rate at which sperm counts worldwide are falling. They’ve dropped by half in the last fifty years in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand—according to a 2017 paper by researchers at Hebrew University and Mount Sinai medical school and more recent studies in 2018.

While an unhealthy lifestyle (being overweight or obese, smoking, stress and alcohol or recreational drug use) is most often implicated, more insidious causes exist.

PHTHALATESResearch shows that consumption and/or exposure to many common constituents of urban living can decrease fertility, increase miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, and lower auto-immune systems. Examples include car exhaust, pesticides, common detergents, hair dyes, cleaning solvents, oil based paints, adhesives, gasoline; and consumption of MSG, coffee, alcohol.

A 2019 study by scientists at Nottingham University identified two chemicals common in home environments that damage sperm in men and dogs. GQ Daniel goes on to explain: “Phthalates and BPA [used to make plastic soft and flexible or harder and stronger] for example, mimic estrogen in the bloodstream. If you’re a man with a lot of phthalates in his system, you’ll produce less testosterone and fewer sperm. If exposed to phthalates in utero, a male fetus’s reproductive system itself will be altered: He will develop to be less male.”

sperm count and platics

This leads Age of Water Daniel to bring up the rise in intersex mammals (individuals born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals that do not fit the “strict definitions for ‘male’ or ‘female’ bodies”). A 2016 article in Environmental Health Insights by Rich et al. attribute an increasing number of human children born with intersex variation to an increase in hormone disrupting chemicals in our environment.

Phthalates bookLeaning on his microscope, Daniel went on, “Wherever there’s a sewage treatment plant, pulp and paper mill, or herbicides and pesticides in a stream, you get endocrine disruption, which causes more female or intersex fish populations…[Degradation products of surfactants used in commercial and household detergents] inhibit breeding in male fish. And herbicides like atrazine—”

“—Create feminized males with female eggs, along with reduced immunity to disease,” I finished for him.

I knew all this. Hormonal disruption is global. Environmental toxicologists have been finding it in many aquatic animals like fish, turtles, alligators and frogs. And some terrestrial animals…Even humans…Was it also causing the steep rise in ambiguous sex in humans? Is Daniel an intersex human? Apparently 1 in 30 now have bodies that differ notably from standard male or female. Klinefelter, androgen insensitivity syndrome, presence of ovotestes, mixed gonadal dysgenesis, and mosaic genetics are all on the rise. Which was he?

As if he knew what I was thinking, Daniel said dramatically, “The environment is changing us faster than most think and it’s doing it through epigenetics and HGT.”

–A Diary in the Age of Water

Phthalates and BPA can be found everywhere. GQ Daniel lists them: “BPA can be found in water bottles and food containers and sales receipts. Phthalates are even more common: They are in the coatings of pills and nutritional supplements; they’re used in gelling agents, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, and suspending agents. Not to mention medical devices, detergents and packaging, paint and modeling clay, pharmaceuticals and textiles and sex toys and nail polish and liquid soap and hair spray. They are used in tubing that processes food, so you’ll find them in milk, yogurt, sauces, soups, and even, in small amounts, in eggs, fruits, vegetables, pasta, noodles, rice, and water. The CDC determined that just about everyone in the United States has measurable levels of phthalates in his or her body—they’re unavoidable.”

These chemicals affect sperm’s ability to swim, navigate and fertilize an egg. DNA fragmentation in the sperm head also occurs, which is basically equivalent to a sperm having a brain hemorrhage. Recent studies suggest that 20-30% of young men today have sperm counts in a range that is associated with reduced fertility. Sarbjit Kaur at the Punjab Agricultural University found that men who live in industrial cities had six times more abnormal sperm than men living in a relatively clean rural town.

TheHandmaid'sTale-bookDr. Marilyn F. Vine at the University of North Carolina demonstrated that smoking men had lower sperm counts by 13-17%. Smokers also had more abnormal sperm. Likewise, women who smoked experienced more spontaneous abortions, early menopause and abnormal oocytes. Follicular fluid also contained high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal present in cigarettes, and cotininie, a metabolite of nicotine.

A growing concern for infertility has entered our general mindset, reflected in the theme of infertility in literature and motion pictures.

Notable examples include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Raising Arizona (1987), Aeon Flux (2005), The Children of Men (2006), Private Life (2018) and my own A Diary in the Age of Water (2020).

Although we are not close to experiencing the global infertility pandemic portrayed in the barren 2027 world of The Children of Men, this cautionary tale of a world gone mad with grief should linger like the whispered truth of a fairy tale.

children of men scene

scene from “Children of Men” motion picture

 

Suggested Reading:

Carr, Teresa. 2019. “Sperm counts are on the decline—could plastics be to blame?” The Guardian.

Belluz, Julia. 2019. “Sperm counts are falling. This isn’t the reproductive apocalypse—yet” Vox.

Halpern, Daniel Noah. 2018. “Sperm Count Zero.” GQ Magazine.

Fetters, Ashley. 2018. “Sperm Counts Continue to Fall.” The Atlantic.

Stein, Rob. 2017. “Sperm Counts Plummet in Western Men, Study Finds.” NPR.

 

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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.