Friday, March 27, 2009

Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm

Defining Diana will grab you on the first page and won’t let you go,” says Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids.

Defining Diana (Bundoran Press) is a fast paced science fiction police mystery by Canadian writer, Hayden Trenholm. But the page turning arises more from Trenholm’s gift for building compelling character tension interwoven with rich setting than from unique plot and premise.

While interesting, Trenholm’s overall storyline is not dramatically new or original: biotechnology straying into the hands of corporate moguls and fundamentalist cults. What makes it original and interesting is how and where Trenholm tells the story.

Frank Steele and his eclectic SDU unit follow a dark journey through a very different Calgary Alberta—a Canadian city transformed in 2043 by nuclear war, pervasive corporate intrigue, biotechnology and rising fundamentalism. By this time, biomedical research has taken DNA manipulation to both thrilling and terrifying levels. Steele’s SDU, an elite police unit given all the bizarre and baffling cases no one else can or wants to solve, find Diana “Doe”, a young woman without a past found naked and alone in a locked apartment, in perfect health—except she’s dead. Steele soon connects the girl’s bizarre and inexplicable death to a spate of murders, stolen money, missing persons and gruesome body shops.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dreams and Perceptions…The Stuff of Science Fiction

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

Perhaps it was the rain and the winding road that nudged my psyche to wander into that other realm. Or was it the motion picture The Fountain that I’d seen the evening before—a surrealistic journey of the mind and the soul through crisis and toward enlightenment, true love and “ever-lasting life”? Or had it more to do with the fact that I’d been, for various reasons, without sleep for over forty hours, that I glimpsed the ordinary in an extra-ordinary light?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Venus Project: Bombastic Dream or Realizable Future?

Truth is born into this world only with pangs and tribulations, and every fresh truth is received unwillingly. To expect the world to receive a new truth, or even an old truth, without challenging it, is to look for one of those miracles which do not occur—Alfred Russel Wallace
In my last post about circles and circular design, I suggested that environment can play a major role in determining a culture. I recently ran across a site on a new social design by Jacque Fresco and the Venus Project, which originates in Venus, Florida. Yes, his city is in the shape of a circle. And yes, his suggested social design involves a change in “culture” and zeitgeist.

Upon entering the site, you are instantly greeted by spectacular images, portraying streamlined houses, futuristic skyscrapers, flying vehicles and cybernetic cities. The home page begins with this proclamation: “The Venus Project is an organization that proposes a feasible plan of action for social change, one that works towards a peaceful and sustainable global civilization. It outlines an alternative to strive toward where human rights are no longer paper proclamations but a way of life.”

I found their idealistic mandate somewhat naïve: “The sole purpose of this sophisticated technology is to free people from boring monotonous tasks, make available a much higher standard of living, and provide more leisure time.” And yet… dare we to achieve such a thing? Certainly we can dream. This is the stuff we science fiction writers play with all the time.

The Venus Project’s “thinking city” is either an inspirational concept in new city design or a spectacular visual dream with little practical basis. It is, in fact, difficult to interpret which Jacque Fresco’s elaborate designs fall under because of the vague, overly simple, often obscure and rather pedantic language used to describe these fascinating concepts. Under the umbrella concept of “Cities that Think Fresco includes a Cybernated Government, University of Global Resource Management, Subterranean Cities and Intelligent Housing. Reality aside, the project’s designs in general city planning, transportation, fuel, housing and recreation are imaginative, very attractive and suggestive of a clean, energy efficient and streamlined future. How the artist’s concepts are achieved is another matter.

Here are some examples of their new “world” society:

Cybernated government: “The human mind is far too simple to handle and put to practical use the voluminous information needed to operate a highly technical and advanced world society…Eventually the central cybernated systems will coordinate all of the machinery and equipment that serve the entire city, the nation and ultimately the world. One can think of it as an electronic automatic nervous system extending into all areas of the social complex.”

Obsolete Monetary System: “Our current monetary system is not capable of providing a high standard of living for everyone, nor can it ensure the protection of the environment because the major motive is profit…In a monetary system purchasing power is not related to our capacity to produce goods and services. Today money is used to regulate the economy not for the benefit of the general populace, but for those who control the financial wealth of nations.”

Resource-Based Economy: “Simply stated, a resource-based economy utilizes existing resources rather than money and provides an equitable method of distributing these resources in the most efficient manner for the entire population. It is a system in which all goods and services are available without the use of money, credits, barter, or any other form or debt or servitude…Earth is abundant with plentiful resources; today our practice of rationing resources through monetary methods is irrelevant and counter productive to our survival.”

Like I said, I found that some of the descriptions, particularly of the cybernated government, to be a combination of simplified polemic with condescension and some unrealistic observations. There is a kind of tension in the arguments that in some cases detract from some truly interesting and intriguing ideas. I know what it is… this all reminds me of a hodgepodge Italian Wedding soup of old and new pulp science fiction with some Granola thrown in for spice. The words reflect an edgy new-age pseudo-science that doesn’t inspire confidence in the scientist side of me. Yet, the artist dreamer in me soars with the fantastic imagery and wonderful concepts. I want to embrace the magic. The lofty ideals. It’s too bad the rhetoric gets in the way…

And the words. They speak to wonderful concepts and a society that is peacefully and serenely integrated with this planet. But a critical word here and there gets in the way or is left out. Take this sentence, for instance: “All of this could only be accomplished in a resource-based world economy where all of the world’s resources are held as the common heritage of all of the earth’s peoples.” Held by whom? And what about life other than humanity? The environment? The very use of the word “resource” implies exploitation. And there is so much unsaid that boggles the imagination.

Heck, maybe all they need is a better copywriter…

Check out the site and let me know what you think. It’s definitely worth a discussion.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What Does the University of Victoria and the Mandala have in Common?

My son is considering going to the University of Victoria next fall. He’d looked at some of the universities and colleges in the Lower Mainland (e.g., the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and Burnaby) but he then decided on UVic on Vancouver Island. It had a reputation among students of being “friendly”. It had me pondering old days there, when I used to teach biology courses in the Cunningham and Elliot Buildings. And it made me feel all warm with wonderful memories of an attractive campus. I had great memories of my other university days in Montreal and Sherbrook, Quebec, but there was something about UVic that I couldn’t put my finger on that made that campus particularly enjoyable for me.

When I chatted over red wine and chocolate with friend, Margaret, a UVic grad herself, we both agreed that this university had charisma. Its attractive atmosphere lay partly in its special quality for being accepting, friendly, and not overly stuck up. Margaret related to me how accommodating they were, citing their less restrictive approach to education. Margaret explained how UVic let her play a more active role in determining her particular path. They gave her the freedom to develop a flexible degree program that was more personal and incorporated her areas of interest. UVic accomplished this by providing a less restrictive degree program compared with the other universities in BC. This is partly because UVic is described as a comprehensive university. In fact students have ranked UVic Number One in Canada for two years in a row (Macleans Magazine). Comprehensive universities offer a wide range of programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including professional degrees.

Then Margaret said something that floored me: she wondered if this confident liberal attitude had to do with—or reflected—the campus’s physical configuration. It’s laid out in a circle.

It got me thinking.

…And remembering my many walks through UVic’s beautiful campus. UVic’s Ring Road encircles the major part of the campus and its core buildings. Since my days there, the campus has sprawled like a giant amoeba beyond the Ring Road in all directions. But the circular pattern remains a dominant feature of the campus. Everything about UVic reflects a natural, organic and fluid setting, from the attractive architecture of its buildings to its open green spaces, winding pathways, groves of trees, fountains and other natural features. Most other universities, like the University of British Columbia for instance, are built on a grid and display more angular, colder features. I firmly believe that a campus setting reflects not only the original mindset of its designers but the mindset of those who maintain it and populate it. So, while other universities may reflect a restrictive boxed attitude, UVic flows like the yin-yang spiral in a circle or the flowing sand art of a mandala.

The Yin-Yang symbol of two parts spiraling in a circle is a traditional icon of Confucianism and Taoism. According to Reza Sarhangi of South Western College, Kansas, and Bruce Martin of Central Arizona College “It provides a paradigm of polarity with which to view the dynamics of everyday life. As a symbol, it can be as personal and internal as a heart, which gives and receives blood through each complete cycle. It can also be as general and external as the cycles of day and night.”

Different cultures throughout history have associated the square with the tangible world, and the circle with the perfect, ideal or the divine universe. The circle crowned the head of the ancient Egyptians’ sun god, Ra. The Celtic Druids carved circular and spiral patterns in stone monuments.

Sarhangi and Martin add that, “The circle is an object of nature, an idealization of pure mathematics, and a symbol or framework we use to understand and describe our world. The circle exists independently of human thought, as ripples in a pond, or the appearance of the sun and moon, or the shape of the iris of an eye.”

According to the University of Dartmouth, "the circle is considered a symbol of unity, because all the regular polygons are embraced by the circle. It is also the symbol of infinity, without beginning or end, perfect, the ultimate geometric symbol. It is a symbol of democracy and the preferred shape for an assembly of equals; the council circle, the campfire circle, and King Arthur's round table. The circle is also the easiest geometric figure to draw accurately, with stick and string or forked stick." I discuss the spiral (a form comprised of interlaced "circles") in a previous post as symbolizing God and the Self and, according to Jung, our soul and essence.

The Buddhist circular mandala designs have been used continuously for millennia and are a symbolic diagram of the universe, arranged in circles, used in tantric Buddhism. I wrote about this in a previous post on sacred balance. The word “mandala” loosely means “circle” and comes from the classical Indian language of Sanskrit. It represents wholeness and can be interpreted as a model for the organizational structure of life itself—a cosmic diagram that reminds us of how we are all related to the infinite and an existence that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds. As a biologist I could see the universality of this shape in everything from our planet Earth to the atom. Wherever a centre is found radiating outward and inward, there is wholeness—a mandala; from the celestial circles we call earth, sun and moon to our conceptual circles of friends, family and community. In fact, the psychologist, Carl Jung, saw the mandala as a “representation of the unconscious self” and called it “a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.” Not a bad mindset for a learning institution.

The circle structure appears in many designs from ancient to current times. This is particularly evident in Gothic architecture and art (e.g., the rose window, the halo, rainbow and ring in art, the ouroboros, the wheel and the vesica) from ancient to current times. Paris, indeed all of France is arranged on the basis of a circle, with all its streets radiating out from a point of origin. Paris is divided into arrondissements, or neighborhoods, which run in a circular spiral starting at the center of the city and winding outwards. Moscow is also arranged in a series of concentric circles.

According to Yi-fu Tuan, author of Topophilia, the mandala pattern appears in the layout of some Chinese and Indian temples as well as in the design of traditional and idealized cities, which tended to have regular geometric outlines oriented to the cardinal directions or to the position of the sun. A Jungian, says Tuan, might suggest that every building, sacred or secular, that has a mandala (or isometric) ground plan "is the projection of an archetypal image from within the human subconscious onto the outer world. The building may become a symbol of psychic wholeness, a microcosmos capable of exercising a beneficial influence on the human being entering it."

Speaking of mindset, while finishing her glass of red Merlot, Margaret leaned back in her chair and ended her reflection with an interesting observation. After graduating from UVic her first employment opportunity was a government job with the environment. She beat out many other university grads with superior specialities. Margaret credited her successful placement on her enriched and diverse education from UVic.

Ah, the mandala…
Recommended Reading:
Tuan, Yi-fu. (1974) re-issued 1990. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes and Values. Columbia University Press. 260pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Story and Metaphor in Art Form: How Writing and Painting Whisper or Shout Their Truths

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world—C.S. Lewis
A few days ago I painted on a canvas for the first time in over twenty years…okay, thirty years. It was a thrilling experience but also refreshing and freeing to use a different medium to express myself and tap into that place—that force—that resides inside us and speaks to us: God in Art and Art in God.

Part of the thrill was that I was being coached by one of the coolest painters I know: Teresa Young, master painter (see my previous post on her “emotional landscapes”). What’s interesting is that while she instructed me on some of the painting methods, it struck us both how many similarities existed in composition, technique and structure between visual art and storytelling.

Take direction, for instance.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Travelling Rays of Golden Light

Resembling a bed of autumn leaves stirred by the wind, a massive school of Cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus) gathers off the coast of Mexico. Often measuring over 2 meters from wingtip to wingtip, thousands of these blunt-faced gliders migrate in groups called “fevers” of up to 10,000 rays in a clockwise direction from the Yucatan Peninsula through the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal bays, “chasing warm water, daylight and prey,” says Jennifer S. Holland in the February 2009 issue of National Geographic Magazine. They migrate twice yearly, north in late spring and south in late autumn according to Marcus Dunk of the UK Daily Mail.

Despite their poisonous stingers, Cownose rays are shy and non-threatening, particularly when in large schools, like those captured here by amateur photographer, Sandra Critelli, who spotted this incredible community while looking for whale sharks.

The Cownose ray is a species of eagle ray that is typically brown-backed with a whitish or yellowish belly. Its distinctive high-domed head gives it an almost comical bovine appearance, like this wonderful fella here. The Cownose ray has a stinger called a spine on its tail, close to the ray’s body. The spine is lined with teeth along its lateral edges and is coated with weak venom that causes symptoms like a bee sting. This dude feeds on clams, oysters, hard clams and other invertebrates. Its two modified fins on its front side produces suction, allowing it to draw food into its mouth, where it crushes its food with its dental plates.

According to marine ecologist Julie Neer, “these guys have only one pup per litter and one litter per year.” Which makes a school of thousands a remarkable thing indeed, adds Holland.
Around 70 species of stingrays live in our oceans. Related to skates and sharks, they’ve never been widely fished for food, mainly because of their rubbery flesh. Generally, the most prized parts of the stingray are the wings, the “cheek” (the area surrounding the eyes) and the liver. In Singapore and Malaysia, they commonly barbecue stingray over charcoal then serve it with spicy sambal sauce. Pickled stingray (“kaest skata”) is typically eaten on December 23 as a traditional favorite in Iceland. Yum!

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.