Ecology, Story & Stranger Things

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Illustration by Anne Moody, typology & design by Costi Gurgu

One of the lectures I give in my science fiction writing course and conference workshops is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. My upcoming writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character” addresses this subject with examples from a wide range of published fiction. The book will be released sometime in 2019 by Pixl Press.

In my lecture (and book) I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction.

Students perk up when I bring up some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

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Alcon blue butterfly and caterpillar with ant

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring for its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

Extremophiles & Anhydrobiosis

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Tardigrade on moss

When I bring in the subject of extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas.

I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own.

Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

Talking Trees

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Dr. Suzanne Simard

UBC researcher Suzanne Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest.

This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root).

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mycelium connects trees underground

These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Fatal Attractions & Natural Bullies

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Bracken fern fronds

The “ordinary” Bracken fern thrives in a wide range of conditions on virtually every continent (except Antarctica). That’s because it plays the “long game” by having several strategies to outlive and outcompete its surrounding nemeses.

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The symbiosis of Bracken fern and ant

Strategies include a loose lifestyle such as several ways to reproduce and grow to accommodate seasons, drought and burning; a shady arrangement with the local thugs (aggressive ants) who protect it for its tasty nectar; use of cyanide and ecdysones by its young shoots; and tough carcinogenic fronds that contain glass-like silicates.

Despite its many uses by humans (e.g., used for potash fertilizer, heating fuel, roofing, bedding for animals), the Bracken fern is considered a pest. In truth, it is a hardy versatile adapter to changing environments. And that is what our climate changing world is fast becoming.

fernforestI highly recommend the works of Annie Dillard and Loren Eiseley for wonderful and bizarre examples of natural wonders that resonate with metaphor. I also recommend my upcoming book “Ecology of Story” (Pixl Press), which will showcase a diverse set of examples from the literature of metaphoric environment and creatures. “Ecology of Story” is due for release in Spring/Summer of 2019. Look for it on Amazon, Kobo, and a fine bookstore near you. Two other books in my writing guide series include: “The Fiction Writer” and “The Journal Writer“.

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nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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 recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

 

Nina Delivers Words and Worlds at WWC

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Smoky sun overlooking Rockies

I recently travelled from Vancouver with Pixl Press director Anne Voute through the smoky Rockies to the 8th ‘When Words Collide’ writers festival in Calgary. The festival was held August 10-12, 2018 and brought together just under a thousand readers and writers in multi-genres to attend presentations and panels on writing and publishing.

The three-day writers’ festival ran a 10-track program that included informative panels, Blue Pencil Café, Editors Speed Mingle, pitch sessions with agents and publishers, and challenging workshops.

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Selling books at Myth Hawker

My books were on sale in the Merchant’s room at Sentry Box (a local Calgary bookstore) and Myth Hawker Travelling Bookstore. By the third day, Myth Hawker sold all available copies of Water Is…

I participated in panels, Blue Pencil Café, Editors speed mingle and several presentations and workshops:

  • You Oughta Be in Audio: a discussion between me and audiobook narrator and producer Dawn Harvey on the making of the audiobooks for The Splintered Universe—now available in three formats, print, ebook, and audiobook. While paper sales dwindle, audiobooks continue to be the fastest growing segment of the publishing world with sales increasing by 30% year over year for the past decade.

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  • World As Character: a presentation on creating a world with meaning. In most science fiction and fantasy, the world that we create is often very different from our own; in speculative fiction it’s often very similar; in contemporary fiction it is virtually the same. In all cases the world you build should embed in your story with layered metaphoric meaning. Nina Munteanu will discuss how to build a world that interacts with character to inform greater meaning in story.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-web copyJournal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEB copyI also networked my writing community for world examples to use in my Alien Guidebook on world building: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. Anticipated release by Pixl Press of this third guidebook in the Alien Guidebook series is Summer of 2019. In keeping with the branding of the series, artist Anne Moody is providing the cover illustration and Costi Gurgu the cover design for The Ecology of Story. Covers for the previous two books were also done by Anne and Costi.

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‘Everyday Hero’ by Anne Moody

Earlier in the month, I travelled north with the Pixl Press director to Anne’s ranch in Vanderhoof to requisition a cover from her for the guidebook. After days of discussion and “show and tell” and after several pieces of art were tentatively selected, Anne pulled out a piece that stopped our search dead. ‘Everyday Hero’ depicts a lonely firefighter, trudging in the burning forest, tired gaze to the burning crown of a tree. Considering the subject matter and our world today, we thought this was perfect for my book.

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cover design by Costi Gurgu, illustration by Anne Moody

Depicted in shades of blue, charcoal and brilliant red, the cover contrasts and harmonizes well with the brand typology and cover design by Toronto graphic artist Costi Gurgu.

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nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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.

The Art & Science of World Building: The Tools You Need to Make a Believable World

futistic cityMost fantasy and science fiction novels require major world-building, which involves both real and imagined aspects.

World building spices real physical and social facts with the author’s imagination to create a civilization, a political structure, a culture and zeitgeist as backdrop and influence to story. Writers define world-building as the process of constructing an imaginary world, usually associated with a fictional universe.

Popularized at science fiction workshops during the 1970s, the term describes the development of an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, and ecology that is rich, unique and resonates with the story’s premise.

The list below provides things to consider when first building your world:

  • The world (e.g., on Earth or not)
  • Physical and historical features (climate, geography, resources)
  • Magic and magicians (e.g., rules of magic, technology)
  • Peoples and customs (e.g., language, ethics and values, religion)
  • Social organization & structure (e.g., government, politics, conflicts, fashion, entertainment)
  • Commerce & trade (e.g., industry, transportation, communication)

Science vs. Art In World-Buildingthe-city-cgtrader

If a novel is a historical fantasy set on Earth, science is not a critical part of world building; if a novel is set on some probable planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, then science becomes an integral part. But, in both cases the writer needs to do his or her research. In the case of the historical fantasy, world building will be based on accurate historical information, even if an alternate history is being written.

Part of the reason people read historical epics is to learn more about that particular civilization and time period. The reader trusts that the writer will give him or her the facts on the world, while taking liberties on the remaining story elements. Similarly, a science fiction reader opens the first book in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series with the expectation of learning about a made-up world based on accurate principals of science.

A lot of science fiction is written by nonscientists. That said, many science fiction readers— particularly those who enjoy hard science fiction—expect your science to be not only plausible but somewhat proven and your premise to be based upon sound scientific principle. They expect your research to be impeccable because they are expecting to learn something—in science.

World-Builder’s Disease? 

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“City of Woven Streets” by Emmi Itaranta

“Fantasy writers have a penchant for working up histories of imaginary empires that can run for hundreds of pages, full of maps and chronologies and genealogical trees a yard long,” says Ansen Dibell, author of The Elements of Writing Fiction: Plot. “Similarly, science fiction writers can fall in love with their hardware and want to show it off,” he adds and describes this as a kind of narrative cancer, a “World-Builder’s disease.”

Most writers who world-build keep extensive files of background information on their worlds. In some cases, these can be published as companions to the main book series (e.g., J.K. Rowling’s books on Quiddich or magical creatures, which most certainly came from her extensive background notes). Dibell’s point is that this information doesn’t belong in the main book, where it can interfere with the process of storytelling. It becomes “info dump”, which is often very static, lacks drama, and proves ultimately boring.

Tying Your World to Theme and Plot

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“Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell

What’s important to remember is that the world you build is part of the story. It isn’t just a lot of “interesting” detail. The world you build, like a character in your story, plays a role in defining and supporting its theme. The major qualities of your world are, therefore, best derived for plot and thematic reasons—which come from “story”. The rest—the details—are things you can find in books, websites or get from experts in your local university, etc.  Don’t let science intimidate you; but ensure that you get it right by using your resources and verifying your information with an expert. Use your local libraries, universities, colleges, and online resources. Interview scientists, technical people and other writers. That’s part of being a writer too.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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.