Eco-Fiction: What Readers Get From It and How to Prevent Polemic

Mary Woodbury on Dragonfly.eco recently shared a survey of over a hundred readers to determine the impact that eco-fiction had on them. What did environmental fiction mean to readers? What about it appealed to them? What were their favourite works? And did it incite them to action? The answers were both expected and surprising. Given the sample size and some study limitations on audience and diversity, the results are preliminary still. However, they remain interesting and enlightening.

theoverstorySome of the most impactful novels according to the readers surveyed include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series.

Readers gave Woodbury several reasons why they enjoyed and found eco-novels impactful:

  • Realism or compelling account of or reflection of society, scary or not
  • Goes beyond readers’ culture–expands minds
  • Humorous
  • Story focused on characters versus an issue
  • Learned something new
  • Opened readers’ minds
  • Captured imagination
  • Positive endings
  • Good storytelling
  • Interesting characters
  • Suspense and/or psychological burn

One reader mentioned that what appealed to them about Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water was the style of writing. It provoked “feelings of utter beauty but also unease.”

One reader enjoyed Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road “for its spare post-apocalyptic world where even language seems to run out.”

Of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves a reader wrote that “The dystopic beginning felt so real, and then the positive ending was so good. I loved it and it made me think about how climate change can possibly have impacts beyond just our physical and mental health, but also our dreams!”

A reader of Frank Herbert’s Dune wrote that “it was the first time I’d seen a literary rendering of an ecosystem that felt real. The ideas of ecology are woven into this story in a way I didn’t think was possible for fiction. Interconnection is hard to think about, hard to grasp, and Dune showed me that fiction, done well, can really help with this.” The same reader acknowledged that in Annihilation Jeff VenderMeer “mastered the technique.”

FavTopics Eco-Fiction

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

When asked the question “Do you think that environmental themes in fiction can impact society, and if so, how?” 81% agreed and qualified their answers:

  • Fiction can encourage empathy and imagination. Stories can affect us more than dry facts. Fiction reaches us more deeply than academic understanding, moving us to action.
  • Fiction can trigger a sense of wonder about the natural world, and even a sense of loss and mourning. Stories can immerse readers into imagined worlds with environmental issues similar to ours.
  • Fiction raises awareness, encourages conversations and idea-sharing. Fiction is one way that helps to create a vision of our future. Cautionary tales can nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. Novels can shift viewpoints without direct confrontation, avoid cognitive dissonance, and invite reframed human-nature relationships through enjoyment and voluntary participation.
  • Environmental themes can reorient our perspective from egocentrism to the greater-than-human world.
Awareness in Fields

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

In summary, Woodbury writes:

“The sample size (103) seems to be a good one for people who are mostly familiar with the idea of eco-fiction (and similar environmental/nature fiction genres and subgenres), though I was still hoping to get a larger, more diverse group of participants. The majority of respondents were highly educated middle-aged women. The majority of the group read from 1-29 novels a year. Favorite novels represented mostly North American or European authors (male and female about equally, with J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood consistently a favorite), with the majority of readers enjoying literary fiction the most, followed by dystopia/utopia and then science fiction.”

Woodbury notes that the genres of science fiction and fantasy were well represented in the survey, “both as favorite and most impactful novels, despite literary fiction being the favorite genre among the participants.” Of novels that respondents enjoyed, “readers were most impacted by good storytelling.” Polemic was not well regarded.

 

Achieving Impactful Eco-Fiction & Avoiding Polemic Through Use of Metaphor

The key to impact and enjoyment for a reader lies in good storytelling. The very best storytelling uses metaphor and oblique description to achieve a deeper meaning. The greatest art must be left to interpretation; not directly dispensed. Great art is felt and experienced viscerally; not just taken in intellectually. Great art shows; not tells.

EcologyOfStoryIn my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss the various ways that the use of metaphor achieves depth and meaning in story, particularly in eco-fiction. One impactful way is in the choice of setting. In the chapter on Place as Metaphor, I write:

Everything in story is metaphor, Ray Bradbury once told me. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact.

Metaphor is the subtext that provides the subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

What would the book Dune be without Arrakis, the planet Dune? What would the Harry Potter books be without Hogwarts?

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge. This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Metaphor is woven into story through the use of devices and constructs such as depiction of the senses, personification, emotional connections, memories, symbols, archetypes, analogies and comparisons. Sense, and theme interweave in story to achieve layers of movement with characters on a journey. All through metaphor.

Symbols and Archetypes

In 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. Water, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans 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 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.

In my short story The Way of Water (La natura dell’acqua), 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.

Using the Senses 

Readers don’t just “watch” a character in a book; they enter the character’s body and “feel”.

How do writers satisfy the readers’ need to experience the senses fully? Description, yes. But how cold is cold? What does snow really smell like? What color is that sunset? How do you describe the taste of wine to a teetotaler?

Literal description is insufficient. To have the sense sink in and linger with the reader, it should be linked to the emotions and memories of the character experiencing it. By doing this, you are achieving several things at the same time: describing the sense as the character is experiencing it—emotionally; revealing additional information on the character through his/her reaction; and creating a more compelling link for the reader’s own experience of the sense.

Senses can be explored by writers through metaphor, linking the sense to memories, using synesthesia (cross-sensory metaphor), linking the sense psychologically to an emotion or attitude, and relating that sense in a different way (e.g., describing a visual scene from the point of view of a painter or photographer—painting with light). How a sense is interpreted by your protagonist relies on her emotional state, memories associated with that sense and her attitude.

Using Personification

TheWindupGirl Paolo BacigalupiEnvironmental forces—such as weather, climate, forests, mountains, water systems—convey the mood and tone of both story and character. These environmental forces are not just part of the scenery. To a writer, they are devices used in plot, theme and premise. They may also be a compelling character, particularly in eco-fiction, climate-fiction, and speculative fiction. Dystopian fiction often explores a violent world of contrast between the affluent and vulnerable poor that often portrays the aftermath of economic and environmental collapse (e.g., Maddaddam Trilogy, The Windup Girl, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max). In any fiction genre it is important to get the science right. Readers of fiction with strong environmental components, however, expect to learn as much from the potential reality as from the real science upon which the premise depends.

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Memory of Water Emmi ItarantaWater is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us. 

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: “The beauty of seeing a locale through a particular perspective is that the point-of-view character cannot be separated from the place. The place comes alive, as does the observer of that place, in ways that would not be possible if described using objective point of view.” The POV character’s relationship to place helps identify the transformative elements of their journey. Such transformation is the theme of the story and ultimately portrays the story’s heart and soul.

Connecting Character with Environment

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment [e.g. often indigenous people]). In these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; the sacred white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Barkskins; The dear animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

The immense sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune are strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans:

It came from their right with an uncaring majesty that could not be ignored. A twisting burrow-mound of sand cut through the dunes within their field of vision. The mound lifted in front, dusting away like a bow wave in water. 

Misunderstood, except by the indigenous Fremen, the giant sandworms are targeted as a dangerous nuisance by the colonists—when, in fact, they are closely tied to the ecological cycles of the desert planet through water and spice.

Barkskins Annie ProulxAnnie Proulx opens her novel Barkskins with a scene in which René Sel and fellow barkskins (woodcutters) arrive from France in the late seventeenth century to the still pristine wilderness of Canada to settle, trade and accumulate wealth:

In twilight they passed bloody Tadoossac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement … Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.

These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.” He further explains the concept of property ownership that is based on strips of surveyable land parcels—an application of the enclosure system. For them, the vast Canadian boreal forest was never-ending and for the taking: “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake. swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning,” Trépagny claims.

Leaves dead litter-long sh TNS

Leaf litter in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (René Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America; a saga that starts with the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest and ends with a largely decimated forest under the veil of global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France to clear the land, build and settle. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and builds a timber empire.

The Mi’kmaq are interwoven with the land and the forest. Missionary Pere Crème, who studies language makes this observation of the natives and the forest:

He saw they were so tightly knitted into the natural world that their language could only reflect the union and that neither could be separated from the other. They seemed to believe they had grown from this place as trees grow from the soil, as new stones emerge aboveground in spring. He thought the central word for this tenet, weji-sqalia’timk, deserved an entire dictionary to itself. 

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence. In a pivotal scene, Noë, a Mi’kmaw descendent of René Sel, grows enraged when she sees a telltale change in her brothers:

The offshore wind had shifted slightly but carried the fading clatter of boots on rock. They were wearing boots instead of moccasins. Noë knew what that meant but denied it … The men should be setting out to hunt moose, but because of the boots she knew they were going to work for the French logger.

 

Other Articles on Environmental Fiction, Eco-Fiction and Climate Fiction 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

Science Fiction on Water Justice & Climate Change

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

 

Thanks to Mary Woodbury for the permission to share her survey results here. Much of the second part of this article is excerpted from the “Story” section of  The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

grape leaves in fall-halifax copy

Grape leaves on fence in Toronto, ON (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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Defining Moments and The Last Summoner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vivianne slowly pulled her hand away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie raised her Colt and took aim.

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Royal Irish Rifles in the Somme, 1916

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

Annie fired.

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Carrying the wounded and dead out of the battle field

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

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

An Interview with a Bull Thistle

Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

Darwins Paradox-2nd edI write mostly eco-fiction. Even before it was known as eco-fiction, I was writing it. My first book—Darwin’s Paradox—published in 2007 by Dragon Moon Press as science fiction, was also eco-fiction. It takes place in 2075 after climate change has turned southern Ontario into a heathland and Toronto into a self-enclosed city. My latest eco-fiction—A Diary in the Age of Water published in 2020 by Inanna Publications—is set mostly in Toronto from the near-future to 2065 and beyond.

As a writer of eco-fiction and climate fiction, I’m keenly aware of the role environment plays in story. Setting and place are often subtle yet integral aspects of story. In eco-fiction, they can even be a “character,” serve as archetypes and present metaphoric connections to characters on a journey (see my guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character published by Pixl Press for more discussion on all aspects of nature’s symbols in writing).

EcologyOfStoryThings 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?

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.

Archetypes are ancient patterns of personality shared universally by humanity (e.g. the “mother” archetype is recognized by all cultures). When place or aspects of place act as an archetype or symbol in story—particularly when linked to theme—this provides a depth of meaning that resonates through many levels for the reader.

In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars symbolizes a new Eden. 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.

“Nature’s symbols are powerful archetypes that reveal compelling story,” writes Donald Maass in Write the Breakout Novel Workbook.

Diary Water cover finalWater has been used as a powerful archetype in many novels. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, water plays an important role through its unique metaphoric connection with each of the four main characters; how they relate to it and understand it, and act on its behalf. Water in A Diary in the Age of Water is often personified; water reflects various symbolic and allegorical interpretations and embraces several archetypes including herald-catalyst, trickster, shapeshifter, and shadow.

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment).

FictionWriter-cover-2nd edIn these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchel’s Gone With the Wind; the white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; The animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

All characters—whether the main POV character, or a minor character or personified element of the environment—have a dramatic function in your story. In my writing courses at George Brown College and The University of Toronto and in my guidebook The Fiction Writer, I provide a list of questions you can ask your character to determine if they are functioning well in the story and if they should even stay in the story. I call it interviewing your character. You can interview any character in your story; it can provide incredible insight. And speaking of character…

I have of late been walking daily to a lovely meadow beside a stream and thicket where brilliant Bull thistles have burst into flower. I felt the need to research this beautiful yet dangerously prickly plant and why it peaked my interest…

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Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 Interview With the Bull Thistle

Nina: Pardon my saying, but you seem to scream paradox. You’re dangerously beautiful. Alluring yet aloof. Standoffish, even threatening. For instance, how is it that you have such a beautiful single purple-pink flower at the top of such a nasty prickly stem and leaves?

Bull Thistle: First of all, it isn’t just a flower at the top; it’s a flower head of over two hundred flowers called florets. Each flower head is a tight community of tube disk bisexual florets arranged in Fibonacci spirals and protected by a collection of spiked bracts called an involucre. And inside the protective outer shell, embedded in a fleshy domed receptacle, are the tiny ovaries, waiting patiently to be fertilized and grown into a seed or achene.

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Honey bee getting nectar from the thistle flower head (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: Ah, I beg your pardon. But you still have all those sharp spikes everywhere. I’m guessing they are to protect your developing young, the ovaries. But doesn’t that isolate you? Keep you from integrating in your ecosystem?

Bull Thistle: The bristles are specifically aimed at predators who wish to harm us, eat us, bore into us, pull us out of the earth. We have many friends—the pollinators, the bees, wasps, and butterflies that help us cross-pollinate from plant to plant. And the birds—particularly the goldfinches—also help.

Nina: Wait. Don’t goldfinches eat your babies—eh, seeds?

Bull Thistle: They do. But they also help disperse our children. They land on our dried involucres—now opened to reveal the seeds and their pappus. The birds pull the seeds out by the thistle down that rides the wind. The birds eat the seeds and also use the thistle down to make their nests. But—like the squirrels who love oak acorns—the birds miss as many as they eat. By carrying the down to their nests, they also help the seeds travel great distances farther than the wind would have carried them. By dislodging the seeds in bunches, they help the seeds break away from the receptacle and meet the wind. The pappus, which is branched and light like a billowing sail, carries the seed on the wind to germinate elsewhere to help us colonize.

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Opened involucre with achenes and pappus ready to disperse, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: So, your enemy is also your friend… The shadow character, who helps the hero on her journey by presenting a perilous aspect of enlightenment.

Bull Thistle: If you say so. What we understand is that Nature’s resilience derives from the balance of give and take over time. Prey and predator. Death, decay, transcendence. Destruction and creation. Ecological succession and change are a gestalt expression of Gaia wisdom as each individual fulfills its particular existential niche. Even if that is to die…for others to live.

Nina: Yes, the hero’s journeyBut you’re not originally from here, are you? You were brought to North America from Eurasia. Some consider you an interloper, a disturbance. You could serve the shadow or trickster archetype yourself—outcompeting the native thistle, creating havoc with pasture crops. You can tolerate adverse environmental conditions and adapt to different habitats, letting you spread to new areas. Your high seed production, variation in dormancy, and vigorous growth makes you a serious invader. You cause wool fault and physical injury to animals. Storytellers might identify you metaphorically with the European settler in the colonialism of North America; bullying your way in and destroying the natives’ way of life.

Bull Thistle: We’re unaware of these negative things. We don’t judge. We don’t bully; we simply proliferate. We ensure the survival of our species through adaptation. Perhaps we do it better than others. You’ve lately discovered something we’ve felt and acted on for a long time. Climate is changing. We must keep up with the times… But to address your original challenge, if you did more research, you would find that we serve as superior nectar sources for honey bees (Apis spp.), bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and sweat bees (Anastogapus spp.) who thoroughly enjoy our nectar.

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Sweat bee draws the sweet nectar of the Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’re considered a top producer of nectar sugar in Britain. Cirsium vulgare—our official name—has ranked in the top 10 for nectar production in a recent UK survey.  The goldfinch relies on our seed and down. And we’ve provided food, tinder, paper, and medicine to humans for millennia. As some of your indigenous people point out, it’s a matter of attitude. Change is opportunity.

Thistle group Pb copyNina: I guess that every weed was once a native somewhere. I also agree that times are changing—faster than many of us are ready for, humans included. If you were to identify with an archetype, which would you choose?

Bull Thistle: That would depend on the perceiver, we suppose. Some of us think of us as the hero, journeying through the change and struggling to survive; others see us as the herald, inciting movement and awareness by our very existence; some of us identify with the trickster, others with the shapeshifter—given how misunderstood we are. In the end, perhaps, we are the mentor, who provides direction through a shifting identity and pointing the way forward through the chaos of change toward enlightenment.

Nina: Yes, I suppose if someone stumbled into your nest of prickles, incredible awareness would result. Speaking of that very awareness, this brings me back to my original question: why are you so beautiful yet deadly?

Bull Thistle: We are the purest beauty—only attained through earnest and often painful awareness. We are the future and the beauty of things to come.

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Flower head of Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You can read more on this topic in Nina’s writing guidebook series, particularly The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! and The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Relevant Articles:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

Ecology of Story: World as Character” Workshop at When Words Collide

Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

Ecology of Story: Place as Symbol

Ecology of Story: Place as Metaphor

Ecology of Story: Place as Character & Archetype

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

Age Of Water Podcast: Nina Reads from “The Overstory”

AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

In this episode of Age of Water, Nina reads from the eco-fiction book “Overstory” by Richard Powers, an exploration of the relationship of trees and humanity…

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At the heart of Richard Powers’s The Overstory are the pivotal lives of two women, botanist Patricia Westerford and college student Olivia Vandergriff. Both will inspire a movement against the destruction of forests.

theoverstoryPatricia Westerford—whose work resembles that of Diana Beresford-Kroeger (author of The Global Forest) and UBC’s Suzanne Simard—is a shy introvert who discovers that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services, and have intelligence. When she shares her discovery, she is ridiculed by her peers and loses her position.  But, just as with Lynn Margulis and her theory of endosymbiosis, Westerford is finally validated. She is the archetypal ‘mother tree’, the metaphoric Tachigali versicolor, who ultimately brings the tangle of narratives together through meaning. Westerford writes in her book The Secret Forest:

“There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas fir may suffer…Fungi mine stone to supply their trees with minerals. They hunt springtails, which they feed to their hosts. Trees, for their part, store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded. A forest takes care of itself, even as it builds the local climate it needs to survive…A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

Olivia Vandergriff miraculously survives an electrocution to become an ecowarrior after she begins to hear the voices of the trees. She rallies others to embrace the urgency of activism in fighting the destruction of California’s redwoods and even camps in the canopy of one of the trees to deter the logging. When the ancient tree she has unsuccessfully protected is felled, the sound is “like an artillery shell hitting a cathedral.” Vandergriff weeps for this magnificent thousand-year old tree. So do I. Perhaps the real heroes of this novel are the ancient trees.

EcologyOfStoryIn his review of Overstory in The Guardian, Banjamin Markovits wrote, “ There is something exhilarating…in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. Like Moby-DickThe Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference… And I found, while reading, that some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down.”

I further explore the use of metaphor and other storytelling devices used by Richard Powers in his strongly symbolic novel in my writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

 

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Age of Water Podcast: Interview with Emmi Itäranta

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Emmi Itäranta

We are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

In this episode of Age of Water, we join award-winning Finnish author Emmi Itäranta in the UK, where she talks about her eco-fiction including The Memory of Water and how her childhood in Finland helped shape her own activism.

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Emmi ItarantamemoryofwaterEmmi Itäranta is an award-winning Finnish author. She holds a MA in Drama from the University of Tampere and worked as a columnist, theatre critic, script writer and press officer. She wrote her debut novel Memory of Water simultaneously in Finnish and English during a creative writing course. The English version was published by HarperCollins in 2014 in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia and was nominated for the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award, and the Golden Tentacle Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The book was translated into over a dozen languages throughout the world. Her novel The City of Woven Streets (The Weaver) won the City of Tampere Literary Award. Emmi Itäranta lives in Canterbury, United Kingdom.

 

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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 June 2020.

Vision 2020 and Water Is…

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In February 2020, I was invited to speak and do workshops with over a hundred Grade 11 and 12 students about the future in the “2020 Vision into the Future” conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.

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Keynote speaker Greg Lindsay talks to students at Sanderson Centre

AerotropolisJournalist, urbanist and futurist Greg Lindsay gave a rousing keynote speech to start the conference. Greg spoke about the future of cities, technology, and mobility. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion. He also co-authored the international bestseller Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

I joined a suite of technologists, visionaries and other scientists in presenting various scenarios of the future through workshops and seminars.

Workshop subjects included quantum cryptography, autonomous vehicles, flying cars, robotic surgery, zero waste, computer glasses, and my workshop “writing science fiction.”

Instructive seminars included topics such as feeding 9 billion people, mental health, AI & computers, the science and meaning of water, urban development, the future of transportation and space exploration.

How to Write Science Fiction

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Top choice image prompt for storytelling

I gave two workshops on how to write science fiction. The workshop began with a brief discussion on what a story is (and is not) and a summary of the key tools of writing good story (e.g. premise, plot, theme, character, and setting) with a focus on world-building and the role of science.

Each group then set out to create the framework for a story based on a premise from an image prompt and shared what they’d put together. In one session we all worked together with me scribing on one whiteboard, creating together as a class; in another session, small groups formed and created their own story among four to five members as I went from team to team.

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Next popular storytelling image (cover illustration for “Ecology of Story” by Anne Moody)

Amazing stories emerged in both cases from the image prompts chosen. Students demonstrated imaginative, mature and original premises and carried through with thoughtful and imaginative plot, theme and character journeys. I was very impressed.

The Science and Meaning of Water

In this seminar I gave a summary of water’s life-giving anomalous properties on Earth and discussed the history and field of limnology (study of freshwater). I explored our history with water (including our impacts) and the implications of climate change on our future with water on the planet. Points of interest included water’s many weird properties, water’s ubiquity and its origins, the hydrological cycle, and the often strange adaptations of life with (or without) water.

Water Is-COVER-webWe then discussed future implications of water scarcity (and geopolitical conflict) and some of the things individuals and communities can do. Much of the talk drew from my recent book Water Is… The Meaning of Water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

Age of Water Podcast: Interview with Candas Jane Dorsey

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Candas Jane Dorsey with a friend

AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

Join the discussion!

In this episode of Age of Water, we join award-winning Canadian author Candas Jane Dorsey in Calgary, Alberta, where she talks about “Ice and other stories”, teaching at university, what eco-fiction means, and how writers can be “sneaky.”

 

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Candas Jane Dorsey

CanCandas Jane Dorsey is an award-winning Canadian author of novels, short stories, and poetry. She also served as editor / publisher of several literary presses.

Ice by CandasJaneDorseyShe is best known for her science fiction writing including the novels Black Wine and A Paradigm of Earth, and has also published poetry and short stories, including her well-known short-story collection Machine Sex: And Other Stories. Her latest collection of short stories Ice and other Short Stories spans thirty years of writing. Candas teaches writing and communications at MacEwan University. She was founding president of SF Canada and was president of the Writers Guild of Alberta. Candas was awarded the Province of Alberta Centennial Gold Medal award for artistic achievement and community work and the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts.

 

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Nina Munteanu kayaks in Desolation Sound, British Columbia (photo by H. Klassen)

 

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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.

 

 

The Careful Writer: When To Use Passive or Active Verbs

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Maple spalting with carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to students of writing in coaching sessions and my classes at UofT (technical and non-fiction writing) and George Brown College (fiction writing) is that active verbs most often work better than passive verbs.

 

Active Verbs Clarify by Identifying Agent

The use of active verbs avoid confusion because they clearly identify the subject (the doer). For instance, consider these two versions:

ACTIVE: Alice walked the dog.

PASSIVE: The dog was walked.

The active sentence clearly identifies Alice as the one walking the dog; the passive sentence does not provide agency (Alice). We don’t know who walked the dog. When we use active verbs we always know the agent (of change); not so with passive. However, if we modify the passive sentence with “by”, then agency is provided:

PASSIVE (with agency): The dog was walked by Alice.

But the sentence no longer flows easily. This is because the typical subject-verb-object (SVO) flow that we are used to in the English language has changed to object-verb-subject (OVS). If you speak Native Brazilian Hixkaryana, you might be OK with that, given they organize their sentences this way. But that is not how we think and read. Here’s another example:

PASSIVE: The report was written by Ahmed, and it was found to be excellent

ACTIVE: Ahmed wrote the report and it was excellent.

ACTIVE BETTER: Ahmed wrote an excellent report.

 

Active Verbs Clarify and Empower by Reducing Need for Modifiers

Another reason to use active verbs is that a writer depends less on modifiers to prop up a weak verb, which passive verbs tend to be. For instance, which version is more compelling and easy to take in?

  1. Jill was walking quickly into the room.

  2. Jill rushed into the room.

The example below that I explore in my book The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! shows how the use of active and powerful verbs adds vividness and clarity to a scene.

PASSIVE

ACTIVE

„ Joe walked slowly into the room.

 

„ Joe sidled into the room.

 

„ The naked couple were in the bed almost buried under the rumpled covers. They were now struggling to get up.

 

„ The naked couple struggled out from the rumple of clothes and blankets.

 

„ Joe saw the big man sit up and stare at him angrily.

 

„ The man reared up and glared at Joe.

 

TOTAL WORDS: 38 TOTAL WORDS: 25

TheFictionWriter-NMNotice how the use of active verbs also unclutters sentences and makes them more succinct and accurate. This was achieved not only by choosing active verbs but power-verbs that more accurately portray the mood and feel of the action. Most of the verbs used in the Passive column are weak and can be interpreted in many ways; words such as “walk” “were” “sit” and “stare”; each of these verbs begs the question ‘how’, hence the inevitable adverb. So we end up with “walk slowly” “were now struggling” “sit up” and “stare angrily.” When activated with power-verbs, we end up with “sidle” “struggled” “rear up” and “glared”—all more succinctly and accurately conveying a mood and feeling behind the action.

 

When Passive Verbs Clarify…

In Chapter 17 of their book The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press) Wayne C. Booth and colleagues stress that mindlessly adhering to the tacit rule to choose active verbs over passive verbs can in fact cloud a sentence. They suggest asking a simpler question: do your sentences begin with familiar information, preferably a main character? “If you put familiar characters in your subjects, you will use the active and passive properly,” they say.

It’s all about context.

Booth et al. provide two passages and ask you to choose which “flows” more easily:

  1. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products for construction worldwide now threatens these rain forests with destruction.

  2. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests are now threatened with destruction by the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products used in construction worldwide.

Most readers will find that 2. flows more easily. This is because the beginning of the second sentence picks up on the “character” (the rain forest) introduced at the end of the first sentence (…the rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests…). In the active verb version of 1. the second sentence starts with new information unconnected to the first sentence. The sentences don’t flow into each other as well.

The passive version (2.) permitted the reader to continue with the familiar “character” right away. This, argue Booth et al., is the main function of the passive: to build sentences that begin with older information. The other reason version 2. works better is that the second sentence opens with something short, simple and easy to read: These rain forests are now threatened. In the active version 1. the second sentence opens with something long and complex. The key to clarity is to start simple (and strong, with a “character”) and end with complexity; this way, you set up the reader to better understand by starting with familiar/simple and moving to new/complex.

In engineering and the sciences where I teach at UofT, teachers still demand the use of passive verbs, believing that this makes the writing more objective. This advice is often equally misleading. Booth again provide two passages to show this:

  1. Eye movements were measured at tenth-of-second intervals.

  2. We measured eye movements at tenth-of-second intervals.

In fact, both sentences are equally objective; however, their stories differ. Version 1. ignores the person doing the measuring and focuses on the measurement. Avoiding “we” or “I” doesn’t make it more objective; it does, however shift the focus of the narrative. There is another explanation for using the passive version of 1. vs. the active 2. When a scientist uses the passive to describe a process, she implies that the process can be repeated by anyone—much like providing a recipe that anyone can follow.

Consider the following two passages:

  1. It can be concluded that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

  2. We conclude that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

The active verb in 2. conclude and we as subject refers to actions that only the writer / researcher can perform. In other words, they are taking responsibility for that conclusion. Anyone can measure; only the author / researcher can claim what their research means.

The lesson here is that there is no one magic stick for sentence structure and active vs. passive verb use. Reader-ease and clarity depends on context and a natural flow of ideas.

 

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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.

Perr-fecting the Cat Purr Meditation…

Willow-artsy

Willow

Her name is Willow, and she helps me centre my being…

Willow is a diminutive 18-year old Russian blue cat, who I looked after for some friends in Mississauga. When I first met Willow, she responded with reticence–like all smart discerning cats. She appeared so delicate, I was scared to pick her up. I soon realized that this was a fallacy. That not only could I pick her up but that she loved to be held. I just needed to learn how.

As soon as I did, we became best friends. And it all came together with the Purring Cat Meditation.

It starts out with her finding me “doing nothing terribly important” like typing on the computer, or something. A soft but decisive tap of the paw on my leg and I have to smile at her intense look up at me with those guileless emerald eyes. I abandon my work–how can I ignore such a plea?– and pick her up. After all, I know what she wants…And so starts our journey toward “nirvana”… the meditative state that will centre our beings and ultimately save the world.

I wander the house with her. We check out each room and make our silent observations. We end up in the bedroom upstairs, where she normally sleeps (except when she’s decided to join me on my bed to sit on me and purr in my face in the middle of the night).

Willow basking

Willow teasing me

In her sanctuary, we drift to the window that faces the back yard, now in the bright colours of fall. The window is slightly open and a crisp breeze braces us with the deep scent of autumn. I breathe in the fragrance of fallen leaves, mist and bark…

Willow settles into a feather-light pose in the crook of my arms and I hardly feel her. More like she and I have joined to become one. We are both purring …

We remain in Cat-Purr-Meditation for …

Willow looking up

“Time to pick me up, Nina!” says Willow

I have no idea … It feels like moments … infinity … it encompasses and defines an entire world. We’ve just created something. Just by being.

Cats–well, most animal companions–are incredibly centring and can teach us a lot about the art of simply being.

And meditating…

 

I write about this more in my article entitled “Wake Up Your Muse: How my Cat Taught Me the Art of Being“.

Whenever I run across a bout of writer’s block or need to stoke my muse, instead of trying harder, I stop and reach out for my cat-friend.

And practice Cat-Purring-Meditation…

snow-scene-road-to-Wolfville_edited-1

Winter on the road to Wolfville, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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

Nina Munteanu Talks About Writing and Audiobooks

AudiobookPromotions

In a recent interview with Jess at Audiobookworm Promotions, I talked about the process of turning The Splintered Universe Trilogy into three audiobooks and the process of writing in general:

 

Nina-tree

Nina Munteanu

Tell us about the process of turning your book into an audiobook.

The process was magical for me. It was professional and proceeded at a pace that felt productive. All of this was mainly because of the professional relationship I had with the narrator. From audition to each step of quality assurance in ensuring character voice, pronunciations, mood, tempo, etc. the narrator and I were in good communication. The final product shows. I can’t recall how long it took for each audiobook to be created, but it didn’t feel long.

 

How did you select your narrator?

Dawn Harvey2

Dawn Harvey

Dawn Harvey auditioned for my first book along with two other narrators through the audiobook publisher, Iambik. I picked Dawn because her voice resonated with my idea of my main character, Rhea Hawke, a cynical badass detective on a mission to save the world–a world she doesn’t understand. Dawn’s voice carried attitude and sarcasm as well as compassion and kindness. It was exactly what I was looking for in my paradoxical character. Given that the book is told in the first person, the main character voice was critical. Dawn just nailed it. When the second and third books came out, I just HAD to have Dawn do them too—not just for consistency, but because in my mind, Dawn WAS Rhea.

 

How closely did you work with your narrator before and during the recording process? Did you give them any pronunciation tips or special insight into the characters?

We worked closely and well. Dawn took the driver’s seat in it. She was very professional. She sent me sections of audio to check for tone, voice, etc. She created a list of voices (I had at least twenty different alien species she needed to create unique voices for—one with multiple mouths! And another was a kind of “amoeba”—her voices were splendid!) and a list of terms with her pronunciations for me to vet. She had also asked for more information on the characters, which I was able to provide, given I keep a character dossier on all characters I create.

You can listen to samples of her narration of the three audiobooks below:

audible listen

 

Are you an audiobook listener? What about the audiobook format appeals to you?

OuterDiverse-web-1 copyI like to listen to audiobooks in the car, especially when I’m on a long trip. I find it a wonderful way to enjoy a book. It’s very relaxing. When my best friend and I used to do road trips down to California from Vancouver, we took turns reading a novel or nonfiction book out loud as the other drove. It was lots of fun. With audiobooks I can do the same even when I’m the only one in the car!

 

What gets you out of a writing slump? What about a reading slump?

EcologyOfStoryIf I’m in a slump, it’s usually because I can’t figure something out—usually some plot point or character quirk or backstory. What helps me is to put the book I’m working on away and do something else. I know that what I need will come; I just have to let it come on its own terms. The break could even be writing something else, so long as it isn’t my book. Or I could do something else on the book such as edit a certain section or research some element. Other ways I coax my muse back are walks in Nature, reading a good book, visiting the library or a bookstore and cycling. These work really well to take me out of the book and into the muse. When I take my mind out of the direct involvement with the book, I’m letting things outside of me impact me with insight. Invariably that is what happens. I’ll see something or experience something that provides me with a clue or even an epiphany.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

InnerDiverse-web copyLearn your “voice” and how it’s unique from anyone else. Write from the heart, write something that means something to you, and keep writing. Success in writing results from a passion to share. If you infuse your writing with passion, everything else comes with it: the patience and determination to learn craft, marketing, and the persistence in your pursuit.

 

Do you have any tips for authors going through the process of turning their books into audiobooks?

Know what you’re looking for to represent the “voice” of your book. Know the narrative voice you want for your book and don’t compromise on it. Work respectfully with your narrator: if they are good, they will turn your cherished book into something more than it was. Let it surprise you and delight you. Together, you and your narrator will become more than the sum of the parts. Enjoy the process and don’t rush it.

 

What’s next for you?

MetaverseAUDIO-FINAL2-webI recently finished my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, which was picked up by Inanna Publications in Toronto and will be out in 2020. I recently launched the third book in my “Alien Guidebook” series of writing guides. This one is called The Ecology of Story: World as Character and I’ve had lots of fun with it!

I’m currently at the idea-premise phase of a feature short story commissioned by a magazine in Vancouver. The story, which may involve a branch of ecology called soundscape ecology, explores a world we hope to live in and how we might get there.

 

 

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.