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.”

Ceres
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 Indiewire.com 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.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Flight Behavior

In a world that’s quickly heating up and drying up, you can’t go home again—even if you never leave—Clive Thompson

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior was, according to The Globe and Mail, the first novel that dealt “specifically, determinedly and overtly with climate change. [And] only Kingsolver could pull it off.”

The premise of climate change and its effect on the monarch butterfly migration is told through the eyes of Dellarobia Turnbow, a rural housewife, who yearns for meaning in her life.

The book starts with her scrambling up the forested mountain—slated to be clear cut—behind her eastern Tennessee farmhouse; she is desperate to take flight from her dull and pointless marriage of myopic routine. The first line of Kingsolver’s book reads: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” Dellarobia thinks she’s about to throw away her ordinary life by running away with the telephone man. But the rapture she’s about to experience is not from the thrill of truancy; it will come from the intervention of Nature:

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense…The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again…Trees turned to fire…The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds….It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone. The impossible…She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees. Fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself, in solitude. She couldn’t remember when she’d had such room for being. This was not just another fake thing in her life’s cheap chain of events, leading up to this day of sneaking around in someone’s thrown-away boots. Here that ended. Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, and ethereal wind. It had to mean something.

Although Dellarobia doesn’t realize it yet, that moment proves life-changing for her: no longer “watching a nearly touchable lover behind her eyelids but now seeing flame in patterns that swirled and rippled. A lake of fire.” That day, she participates in the sheep shearing, greatly distracted from a new awakening to the power and wisdom of Nature:

“Watch and learn, Dellarobia thought, feeling an unaccustomed sympathy for the animals, whose dumb helplessness generally aggrieved her. Today they struck her as cannier than the people. If the forest behind them burned, these sheep would come to terms with their fate in no time flat. Flee or cower, they’d make their best call and fill up their bellies with grass to hedge their bets. In every way more realistic about their circumstances. And the border collies too. They would watch, ears up, forepaws planted, patiently bearing with the mess made by undisciplined humans as the world fell down around them.”

Climate change—and all that is associated with it—is altering our planet irreparably, one sure-footed step at a time.

Entomologist Ovid Byron (in response to a reporter’s suggestion that scientists disagree about whether it’s happening and whether humans have a role) talks about the tipping point we’ve ignorantly raced past: “The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, the canary is dead. We are at the top of Niagara Falls… in a canoe. There is an image for your viewers. We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?” Ovid (Kinsolver) effectively reiterates what most scientists know: that we have already crossed the tipping point of no return. There is no point in looking back to restore what we are losing; there is only the option of looking forward to adapt—and assist—as best we can.

The irony is that, as audible a roar climate change is for scientists like Ovid, to most of us climate change whispers insidious notes too subtle for us to comprehend or care about.

How does one grasp the gravity of a few degrees difference in temperature? The subtle rise in sea level? The almost imperceptible shift in the migratory pattern of a bird? When we are already so disconnected from Nature and lack the sensibilities—and compassion—to recognize and empathize with her trials and tribulations. Kingsolver suggests—quite accurately, I think—that only scientists can truly appreciate the portent of these subtle changes because it speaks in a language only they can understand.

Flight Behavior resonated with Kristen Poppleton, climate change educator, who shared that Kingsolver was spot on in her “description of the grief and sensation of loss most of us in this business of climate change education, communication and science carry around daily.” This type of grief is so prevalent, in fact, that it has a name: solastalgia. Poppleton empathized with scientist Ovid’s grief as Kingsolver writes, “The one thing most beloved to him was dying.  Not a death in the family…but maybe as serious as that.  He’d chased this life for all his years; it had brought him this distance…Now began the steps of grief.  It would pass through this world…while most people paid no attention.” 

Flight Behavior isn’t so much about climate change and its effects and its continued denial as it is about our perceptions and the actions that rise from them: the motives that drive denial and belief. This is no more apparent than in Kingsolver’s use of biblical references of fire and flood. Both water and flame are potent cleansing agents. They evoke powerful change. They represent givers—and takers—of life. Together, fire and water frame Kingsolver's book with a strong metaphoric beginning and end that embraces creative destruction.

Kathleen Byrne of The Globe and Mail writes: “We begin in flames and end in flood, which suits the biblical (and scientific) parameters of a novel whose setting in Tennessee’s Appalachian mountains is the nexus of a God-fearing religious literalism and an untaught but unbudging righteousness that finds expression in the view that “weather is the Lord’s business.”


To Dellarobia’s question to Cub, her farmer husband, “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?” he responds, “Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report.” Kingsolver writes:  “and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic. All knowledge measured, first and last, by one’s allegiance to the teacher.”

Ovid shares a terrible insight about science and our perceptions of scientists with Dellarobia: “There are always more questions. Science as a process is never complete. It is not a foot race, with a finish line.... People will always be waiting at a particular finish line: journalists with their cameras, impatient crowds eager to call the race, astounded to see the scientists approach, pass the mark, and keep running. It's a common misunderstanding, [Ovid] said. They conclude there was no race. As long as we won't commit to knowing everything, the presumption is we know nothing.”

The grief that Poppleton feels, voiced by Kingsolver through her character Ovid, is really a grief for us, for the “home” we grew up in and love. The world we made. Near the end of Kingsolver’s book, Dellarobia makes this observation: “Mistakes wreck your life. But they make what you have. It's kind of all one…it's no good to complain about your flock, because it's the put-together of all your past choices.”

We—humanity—may not be around here for much longer. Nature will endure without us. Planet Earth will continue, in some form and Nature and life will endure, evolve, and flourish—in its own way. It will change, perhaps grow more unruly than it is already, but Gaia will continue after she has kicked us off. Ecologists have long recognized the pattern of colonization, exploitation, decadence and succession. How hubristic of humanity not to include itself in that cycle. The cycle of continuing change. We grasp—we clamor—for the world we knew—even as we senselessly impose irreparable change. Shaving forests to the ground so water has no where else to go but down and in a torrent. Creating hot deserts by diverting great rivers somewhere else. Mining vast oil and mineral reserves by scraping the earth until it “bleeds” from unhealable wounds.

Evolution and Nature march on, greater than us, encompassing us—whether we recognize it or not—in ways we can’t imagine (and science is only beginning to discover).  Our vast Universe is so much more than we are capable of even imagining.

Flight Behavior is a multi-layered metaphoric study of “flight” in all its iterations: as movement, flow, change, transition, and transcendence.

Kingsolver ends her book with Dellarobia caught in a mountain flood that may take her life; yet, she remains suspended—transfixed in the moment of the miracle unfolding before her. The monarchs survived the winter and are taking flight:

“The vivid blur of their reflections glowed on the rumpled surface of the water, not clearly defined as individual butterflies but as masses of pooled, streaky color, like the sheen of floating oil, only brighter, like a lava flow. That many.
 She was wary of taking her eyes very far from her footing, but now she did that, lifted her sights straight up to watch them passing overhead. Not just a few, but throngs, an airborne zootic force flying out in formation, as if to war…Her eyes held steady on the fire bursts of wings reflected across the water, a merging of flame and flood. Above the lake of the world, flanked by white mountains, they flew out to a new earth.”

Barbara Kingsolver
And a new earth is what we can be sure of. Whether we’ll be there is debatable—unless we too change.