Saturday, January 7, 2017

Atwood, Water and The New York Times

“Water Is…” leads Atwood’s Pick for Books of 2016
Microsoft Word - Atwoods Picks-NYTimes.docx
ny-times-theyearinreaingEvery year, near Christmas, The New York Times puts out “The Year in Reading” in which they ask notably avid readers—who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists—to share the books that accompanied them through that year.
For the 2016 Year In Reading, The Times asked a prestigious and diverse readership, including Junot Diaz, Paul Simon, Carl Bernstein, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elizabeth Banks, Samantha Power, Philip Pullman, Ann Pratchett, Orhan Pamuk, Drew Gilpin Fause, Anne Tyler, and many others to share their books of 2016.
There was also Booker Prize-winning and celebrated Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood.
atwood-margaretMargaret Atwood is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature as well as the Booker Prize (several times) and the Governor General’s Award. Animals and the environment feature in many of her books, particularly her speculative fiction, which reflects a strong view on environmental issues.atwood-angel-catbird
Several of her latest works (e.g., Oryx and CrakeYear of the Flood, MaddAddam) are eco-fiction and may be considered climate fiction. Atwood and partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. Atwood’s highly popular graphic novel Angel Catbird reflects an environmental sensitivity to the balance between wildlife and humans and their pets in urban settings.
Atwood’s choice for 2016 books came from her active, astute and compassionate environmentalism. Suggesting that many of her 'The Year in Reading' co-readers would emphasize fiction, history and politics, Atwood chose her books “instead from a still-neglected sector. All hail, elemental spirits! You’re making a comeback!”
Here are the four books Atwood recommends and why:
  1. water-is-cover-webWater Is…: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press) by Nina Munteanu. “We can’t live without it, so maybe we should start respecting it,” says Atwood. “This beautifully designed book by a limnologist looks at water from 12 different angles, from life and motion and vibration to beauty and prayer.” Water is emerging as one of the single most important resources of Planet Earth. Already scarce in some areas, it has become the new “gold” to be bought, traded, coveted, cherished, hoarded, and abused worldwide. It is currently traded on the Stock Exchange…Some see water as a commodity like everything else that can make them rich; they will claim it as their own to sell. Yet it cannot be “owned” or kept. Ultimately, water will do its job to energize you and give you life then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach.
  1. hiddenlifeoftreesThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World” (Greystone Books) by Peter Wohlleben. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group. Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.
  1. weeds-mabeyWeeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” (Ecco) by Richard Mabey. “They’re better for you than you think,” says Atwood. “They hold the waste spaces of the world in place, and you can eat some of them.” Ever since the first human settlements 10,000 years ago, weeds have dogged our footsteps. They are there as the punishment of ‘thorns and thistles’ in Genesis and , two millennia later, as a symbol of Flanders Field. They are civilisations’ familiars, invading farmland and building-sites, war-zones and flower-beds across the globe. Yet living so intimately with us, they have been a blessing too. Weeds were the first crops, the first medicines. Burdock was the inspiration for Velcro. Cow parsley has become the fashionable adornment of Spring weddings. Weaving together the insights of botanists, gardeners, artists and poets with his own life-long fascination, Richard Mabey examines how we have tried to define them, explain their persistence, and draw moral lessons from them. One persons weed is another’s wild beauty.
  1. birds-and-peopleBirds and People” (Jonathan Cape) by Mark Cocker. “Vast, historical, contemporary, many-levelled,” says Atwood. “We’ve been inseparable from birds for millenniums. They’re crucial to our imaginative life and our human heritage, and part of our economic realities.” Vast in both scope and scale, the book draws upon Mark Cocker’s forty years of observing and thinking about birds. Part natural history and part cultural study, it describes and maps the entire spectrum of our engagements with birds, drawing in themes of history, literature, art, cuisine, language, lore, politics and the environment. In the end, this is a book as much about us as it is about birds.
“Time to pay attention to the nonhuman life around us, without which human life would fail,” Atwood concludes.
As we enter a new year of great uncertainty, particularly on how we and our environment leaf-water drop copywill fare in a shifting political wind, these books offer diverse insight, a fresh and needed perspective and critical connection with our natural world–and each other through it.
Buy them, discuss them, share them. And save this planet.
Happy New Year!
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 for the latest on her books.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction

 If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”—George Bernard Shaw

At Calgary’s When Words Collide this past August, I moderated a panel on Eco-Fiction with publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.

Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

I would submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. I shared my own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, in which I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.

I started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.

Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.

Just as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).

The self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that: 

We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.  In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.

When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.

In my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.

For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occur only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.

I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.

Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Expanse: No Game (of Thrones), just a Damned Good Story

Miller in "The Expanse"
The Expanse is a stylish and intelligent science fiction (SF) TV series set 200 years in the future when humanity has colonized the moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt to mine minerals and water. Humanity has split three ways culturally, ethnically and even biologically: Earth is currently run by the United Nations; Mars is an independent state, devoted to terraforming with high technology; and the Belt contains a diverse mix of mining colonies, settlers, workers and entrepreneurs. Belters’ physiology differ from their Earth or Mars cousins, given their existence in low gravity.

protomolecule, "Thoth"
One of the creators Mark Fergus explains the setting and premise of The Expanse: "We always felt that the great struggle of a lot of sci-fi we grew up on takes us into a story world where we’ve already jumped over the interesting part, which is the first fumbling steps of us pushing off this planet, getting out into the solar system, sorting ourselves out as a race. All the struggle and the pain and the glory of that, usually sci-fi kind of hops over it.” Fergus and his colleagues were attracted by what he called “the scaffolding,” how it all got built. “Here is who built it. Here is how humanity started looking at itself differently and getting rid of old forms of racism and creating new forms of racism.” This is the story of The Expanse.
Chrisjen Avasaraia 

The series, based on novels by James S.A Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) follows three main characters: U.N. Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasaraia (Shohreh Aghdashloo) on Earth; police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) a native of Ceres (in the Belt); and ship’s officer Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew as each unravels a piece of a conspiracy that threatens peace in the solar system and the survival of humanity.

Julie Mau
First, Miller’s boss, Shaddid (Lola Glaudini) tosses him a missing person case: find Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), daughter of a Luna-based shipping magnate (Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile); then Holden and four other crewmembers of the ice trawler Canterbury barely survive an attack that could spark a war between Earth and Mars. Miller and Holden eventually learn that the missing girl and the ice trawler's fate are connected to a larger threat.

The only person who may stand a chance of figuring out the big picture is Chrisjen Avasarala, a brilliant 23rd-century Machiavelli. She will stop at nothing in her search for the truth, including gravity torturing a Belter or playing her friends and contacts like chess pieces to find answers. What makes Chrisjen incredibly more interesting than, say a Circe or Claire Underwood, is that her scheming—as reprehensible as it may be at times—comes from a higher calling, not from lust for power or self-serving greed. She’s seeks the truth. And, like Miller, she struggles with a conscience. When her grandson asks if people are fighting again, Chrisjen says, “not yet; that’s why we [her contacts] need to talk and tell the truth; when people don’t tell the truth it always ends badly.” She may have been thinking of herself.
Chrisjen interrogates a Belter

Chrisjen is a complex and paradoxical character. Her passionate search for the truth together with unscrupulous methods, make her one of the most interesting characters in the growing intrigue of The Expanse. The Expanse further dignifies itself with subtle nuances of multi-layered social commentary—sewn into virtually every interaction. 

Chrisjen with Degraaf
After Chrisjen’s friend Franklin Degraaf (Kenneth Welsh), Earth ambassador to Mars, suffers as a casualty in one of her intel games, he quietly shares: “You know what I love about Mars?... They still dream; we gave up. They are an entire culture dedicated to a common goal: working together as one to turn a lifeless rock into a garden. We had a garden and we paved it.” Chrisjen offers consolation to the loss of his position (because of her): “we may have prevented a war.”

The subtle details and rich set-pieces of The Expanse universe rival the best
Ceres Station in the Belt
world building of Ridley Scott. I was reminded of the grit and immediacy of Bladerunner. The Expanse is SF without feeling like it’s SF; it just feels real. Powerful storytelling—from judicious use of slow motion, odd shot angles, haunting music and background sounds, to superlative acting—draws you into a complete and realizable world.

Annalee Newitz of ARS Technica wrote, “the little details of this universe are so finely rendered that they become stories unto themselves, like the way interracial tensions developed on Ceres between humans who grew up gravity-deprived and spindly, versus those whose gravity-rich childhoods allow them to pass as Earthers.” Newitz adds that no clumsy Star Trek-style representation of exo-planetary civilizations occurs in The Expanse. It’s all humans.  “Instead, there are political factions whose members stretch across worlds. And planets (or planetoids) whose populations are fragmented by class, race, and ideology. The politics here are nuanced, and we are always being asked to rethink who is right and who is wrong, because there are no easy answers.”

Subtle but powerful differences between the Belter culture, Earthers and Martians (all human) includes language. Belters use a creole that’s a mix of several Earth languages that were spoken by the original human settlers in the Belt colonies. Resembling a Caribbean twang and cadense words contain a mix of slang English, Chinese, French, Zulu, Arabic, Dutch, Russian, German, Spanish, Polish and others.  For instance, “Inyalowda” means inner or non-belter. “Sa-sa” means to know. “Copin” means friend. An Expanse Wikia provides an in-depth list of Belter Creole used in the TV show.

Liz Shannon Miller of shares: “In the 23rd century, the smart
the UN building on Earth
phones look fancier but their screens still crack. There are people in straight relationships and gay relationships and group marriages. There are still Mormons, who are preparing for a whole new level of mission. The rich live well. The poor struggle. It’s not "Star Trek" — there’s no grand glorious yet vague cause to which our heroes have devoted themselves. Survival is what matters.” 

The Expanse is a sophisticated SF film noir thriller that elevates the space opera sub-genre with a meaningful metaphoric exploration of issues relevant in today’s world—issues of resource allocation, domination & power struggle, values, prejudice, and racism.  I found the music by Clinton Shorter particularly appropriate: subtle, edgy, haunting, and deeply engaging. Like the story, characters and world.

Miller and Havelock
Amidst the unfolding intrigue of war, corruption and secrecy, a rich tapestry of characters take shape. Miller, who was born on Ceres but received some cheap bone density implants—so he looks like an Earther—is a cynical detective (not above being bribed by merchants cutting corners) and trying hard to hide the fact that he has a big heart and is looking for meaning in his empty existence as a Star Helix cop (Miller: “No laws on Ceres; just cops.”) Belters call him a “well wala”, traitor to his own kind.

Ceres-born Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris), leader of the separatist OPA (Outer Planet Alliance) challenges Miller: “I think that under that ridiculous hat there’s a Belter yearning to find his way home.” Except what is “home”? When asked by his new Star Helix partner, Dmitri Havelock (Jay Hernandez) about ‘why the hat?’, Miller quips, “to keep out the rain.” There is no rain on Ceres. Never was. Never will be. 

The militant OPA is an activist organization that sells itself as a liberator for
Miller with Anderson Dawes
Belters but is really a terrorist revolutionary group, looking to shift the balance of power. Led by Dawes, the OPA’s ambitious agenda ranges from staging protests in the gritty Medina district of Ceres to stealing stealth technology and bio-weapons from Mars and Earth. Some of the best scenes occur between the intense Dawes and crusty Miller, as they banter over what it means to be a Belter in a solar system where they are clearly not players but sandwiched in a power struggle between Earth and Mars.

Jim Holden with Naomi Ngata
Dawes confides to Miller: “All we’ve ever known is low G and an atmosphere we can’t breathe. Earthers,” he continues, “get to walk outside into the light, breathe pure air, look up at a blue sky and see something that gives them hope. And what do they do? They look past that light, past that blue sky. They see the stars and they think ‘mine’… Earthers have a home; it’s time Belters had one too.”

Subtle. Not so subtle. The show makes a few opportunities to point out what we are doing to our planet. Cherish what you have. Cherish your home and take care of it. We’re reminded time and again, that we aren’t doing a good job of that.

Onboard the MCRN Donnager, Martian Lopez asks his prisoner Holden if he
Jim Holden
misses Earth and Holden grumbles, “If I did, I’d go back.” Lopez then dreamily relates stories his uncle told him about the “endless blue sky and free air everywhere. Open water all the way to the horizon.” Then he turns a cynical eye back on Holden. “I could never understand your people. Why, when the universe has bestowed so much upon you, you seem to care so little for it.” Holden admits, “Wrecking things is what Earthers do best…” Then he churlishly adds, “Martians too, by the look of your ship.” Lopez retorts, “We are nothing like you. The only thing Earthers care about is government handouts. Free food, free water. Free drugs to forget the aimless lives you lead. You’re shortsighted. Selfish. It will destroy you. Earth is over, Mr. Holden. My only hope is that we can bring Mars to life before you destroy that too.” The underlying message in Expanse becomes clear in the last show of Season One. Near the end, Miller asks Holden what rain tastes like and Holden admits he never thought about it. Miller then asks, “How could you leave a place like Earth?...” Holden responds, “Everything I loved was dying.”

Critic Maureen Ryan of Variety says, “It’s to the show’s credit that it is openly political, and takes on issues of class, representation and exploitation.”

Season Two of The Expanse is scheduled to air in 2017. Variety’s Whitney Friedlander writes that The Expanse is Syfy’s most expensive series to date. It shows. And it shows well. The Expanse is a welcome breath of fresh air for high quality “space opera” science fiction on TV. It fills a gaping hole left by the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica in 2009.