Friday, March 30, 2018

Nina Talks "Water Is..." on CIUT Radio for Water Week

Host Saryn with Nina, CIUT
The morning after World Water Day--before my regular duties at the health sciences writing centre in UofT's Pharmacy Building--I made my way to Hart House on the University of Toronto campus.

I was heading to talk with Saryn Caister, host of The Green Majority CIUT Radio 89.5 FM about water and my book "Water Is...". It was Canada water week, after all!

You can listen to it here:

Campus view from CIUT lounge
CIUT is located on the first floor of the prestigious and gorgeous old building that houses the student activity centre. Established in 1919, the Gothic-rivival complex by architect Henry Sproatt is one of the earliest North American student centres that includes a gymnasium, swimming pool, shooting range, theatre, art gallery, reading and sitting rooms, lounges, auditoriums, library, music rooms, restaurant and--of course--the campus and community radio station, owned and operated by the University of Toronto.

In the interview, we talked about some of water’s anomalous properties and why I decided to write a book that spans and integrates such a wide variety of angles and subjects from traditional science to spirituality. We discussed some of water’s controversial properties and the claims about water having memory and quantum properties and how geopolitics plays a role in this discussion. 

I brought in my own career as a limnologist and how and why I broke away from my traditional role of scientist to create a biography of water that anyone can understand—at the risk of being ostracized by my own scientific community (just as Carl Sagan and David Suzuki were in the past for being too 'accessible' to the public).

Saryn shared how Ray John Jr., an Indigenous teacher, on a previous show reminded us why these things matter. I responded with, the "why" of things and hence the subtitle: the Meaning of Water. "What does it mean to you… That’s what’s missing a lot of the time. We are bombarded with information, knowledge and prescriptions but the subliminal argument underneath—the why—why should it matter to me—is often missing. That becomes the sub-text. And it’s nice when it comes to the surface. The indigenous people… they get it, they get it.”

Hart House, University of Toronto

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Venture To “The Beyond”: a movie by VFX Wiz Hasraf Dulull

The Beyond is a 2018 science fiction thriller, set in the near-future, that explores the evolution of our humanity through “first contact.”

The sudden appearance of a wormhole causes the disappearance of astronaut Jim Marcell during EVA on the space station, followed by associated calamitous phenomena on Earth. Giant dark spherical clouds then appear and settle all over the Earth, disrupting the world’s population, and setting in motion a series of fearful and aggressive reactions by various sectors of humanity; as expected, the military of each nation mobilize, ready to attack. Some do attack, with no consequence.

With the help of the military’s groundbreaking transhumanism technology, the international space agency sends two transhuman (Human 2.0) astronauts into the wormhole (called the Void) on an information-seeking (and peace-seeking) mission. The astronauts have been modified by advanced robotics to withstand the pressures of the “throat” of the wormhole as they embark on humanity’s first interstellar—possibly inter-dimensional—journey in search of extra-terrestrial sentient life and its intent. One of the astronauts is a soldier, armed with additional weapons built into his physiology. The other is the Space Agency’s chief cosmologist, Jessica Johnson (played by Kosha Engler). 

Wormhole viewed from the International Space Station
When the mission returns unexpectedly, and without the soldier, the space agency races to discover what happened on the “other side.” Of particular interest is evidence indicating that the ship had been away much longer than the days it was actually gone. Johnson later reveals that the soldier had suddenly disappeared from the cockpit and reappeared outside. She saw him stare at his arm, which then detonated like a nuclear bomb—no doubt because his arm was indeed something of that nature.

Jessica as Human 2.0
The tag line of the movie says: “to find our place in the universe, we must venture beyond our boundaries.” This imaginative indie film by Hasraf Dulull is all about breaking boundaries and transcending beliefs: such as mission director Gilian’s first lie to her daughter (to contain a bigger lie by the space agency); and chief cosmologist Jessica conquering ethical barriers to embark on a journey that will irrevocably change her.

Gilian and Grant watching the take off
The story unfolds like a docu-drama, making use of interviews with key people and retrieved footage amidst dramatic narrative (similar to Blomkamp’s District 9). The mixed narrative creates an immediacy that grips us emotionally and deeply connects us to the characters in a real-life way. Characters are portrayed as ordinary people who find themselves in extra-ordinary circumstances and performed with genuine candor, particularly the mission commander Gillian Laroux (Jane Perry) who plays a Canadian.

The Beyond appeals to our senses and sensibilities, challenging our assumptions and definitions of what it is to be human through our values, hopes and fears. Told with an unassuming realism, The Beyond is really a simple, yet deeply meaningful story that asks the big questions—and leaves it for us to answer them.

One of the dark orbs over Earth
The climax, discovery and resolution is really more of a question. I was somehow unprepared for the discovery and emotionally struck by its trajectory into the denouement. Some reviewers on the Internet were off-put by the shift following “the discovery” that preceded the denouement at the end. I found closure for the chief cosmologist, who had sacrificed her life to seek answers and find a solution for humanity; however, the question remained: what is that solution for humanity? What does that solution look like and how does it encompass more than us? The movie doesn’t have a tidy end; its solution is veiled with more questions.

The film ends with a cautious hope, implicitly asking that big question: are we (humanity) worth saving? When Jessica asks why humanity was offered a second chance by benevolent beings way beyond our comprehension, the returned Jim Marcell (currently a spokesman for the aliens) shows her the GAD (Golden Archive Drive with video images of Earth and humanity—basically our “hello” message to extra-solar life like the one placed onboard NASA’s Pioneer missions) that had accompanied the ship into the wormhole. The message displayed scenes of mothers and their children, people laughing in joy; it also showed scenes of other aspects of this beautiful planet worth saving: the ocean surf, the forests and wildlife. In our hubris, we have lost our perspective about this planet. Perhaps, it wasn’t so much humanity the alien beings intended to save but the Earth itself; we just come along with it. The Earth is, after all, a beautiful, vital and unique world, rich with life-giving water, trees, animals, creatures of all kinds in a diverse network of flowing and evolving beauty. A planet worth saving and that, frankly, functions better without us.

So, the question remains: is humanity worth saving? For centuries we have hubristically and disrespectfully used, discarded and destroyed just about everything on this beautiful planet. According to the World Wildlife Federation, 10,000 species go extinct every year. That’s mostly on us. They are the casualty of our selfish actions. We’ve become estranged from our environment, lacking connection and compassion. That has translated into a lack of consideration—even for each other. In response to mass shootings of children in schools, the U.S. government does nothing to curb gun-related violence through gun-control measures; instead they suggest arming teachers. We light up our cigarettes in front of people who don’t smoke and blow deleterious second-hand smoke in each other’s faces. We litter our streets and we refuse to pick up after others even if it helps the environment. The garbage we thoughtlessly discard pollutes our oceans with plastic and junk, hurting sea creatures in unimaginable ways. We do not live lightly on this planet. We tread with incredibly heavy feet. We behave like bullies and, as The Beyond points out, our inclination to self-interest makes us far too prone to suspicion and distrust: when met with the unknown, we respond with fear and aggression rather than curiosity and hope. Something we need to work on if we are going to survive.

As I mentioned above, The Beyond is a simple film made well; something not easy to accomplish. The film delved into existential questions with an emotional intelligence that was both sensitive and insightful. As Gillian Laroux says in the end: “I hope we won’t make the same mistakes of the past and prove that we are in fact worth saving.” Ultimately, I found The Beyond a refreshing change from the senseless soul-gutting violence, and sordid aimless or overly-complicated plots that currently populate most of our current science fiction TV and movies.

The Beyond marks the directorial debut of Dulull, a VFX wiz who spent a year shooting and working on this project (previously titled The Void). Changing the title from The Void to The Beyond is itself an interesting shift in what the film represents and suggests.

Let us tread more lightly on this planet, then…And perhaps we too will be worth saving. Perhaps our destiny won’t be a void but a transcendence beyond…

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

With “Missions”— Mars Delivers!

Komarov sees the light...
Since “Expanse”, I’ve been on the lookout for an equally sophisticated treatment of space exploration—something that doesn’t slide into horrific mind-numbing and gut-wrenching insult to the senses, unrealistic character twists and visceral shock devices. Something that delivers…

Season 1 of “Missions” has delivered in so many ways. Created by Henri Debeurme, Julien LaCombe and Ami Cohen, this French series on the exploration of Mars has so far explored human evolution, ancient history, trans-humanism, artificial intelligence, and environmental issues in a thrilling package of intrigue, adventure and discovery. From the vivid realism of the Mars topography to the intricate, realistic and well-played characters, “Missions” builds a multi-layered mystery with depth that thrills with adventure and complex questions and makes you think long after the show is finished. 

The first episode of the series starts with a real tragedy: the first human to die in space flight; the 1967 fatal crash landing of the Russian Soyus 1 piloted by Cosmonaut Vladimir Komorov. In a stirring article on National Public Radio, Robert Krulwich provides incredible insight into this historic tragedy:

Starman by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Kamarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space. The two men were close; they socialized, hunted and drank together. In 1967, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn't back out because he didn't want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement. 
Gagarin and Komarov, hunting
The story begins … when Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, decided to stage a spectacular mid-space rendezvous between two Soviet spaceships. The plan was to launch a capsule, the Soyuz 1, with Komarov inside. The next day, a second vehicle would take off, with two additional cosmonauts; the two vehicles would meet, dock, Komarov would crawl from one vehicle to the other, exchanging places with a colleague, and come home in the second ship. It would be, Brezhnev hoped, a Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Brezhnev made it very clear he wanted this to happen. 
The problem was Gagarin. Already a Soviet hero, the first man ever in space, he and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems — serious problems that would make this machine dangerous to navigate in space. The mission, Gagarin suggested, should be postponed. The question was: Who would tell Brezhnev? Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command. Everyone who saw that memo, including Russayev, was demoted, fired or sent to diplomatic Siberia.
With less than a month to go before the launch, Komarov realized postponement was not an option. He met with Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, and said, "I'm not going to make it back from this flight." Russayev asked, Why not refuse? According to the authors, Komarov answered: "If I don't make this flight, they'll send the backup pilot instead." That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn't do that to his friend. "That's Yura," the book quotes him saying, "and he'll die instead of me. We've got to take care of him." 
Jeanne Renoir
In the opening scene of “Missions”, we never see the actual crash landing; instead, as Komarov hurtles to the ground, he suddenly sees a strange white light and then we cut to the present day. 

Now in an alternate present day, the international crew of the space ship Ulysses is readying for its journey to Mars. Days before the mission take off from Earth, psychologist Jeanne Renoir is asked to replace the previous psychologist who died suddenly in a freak accident.

The eccentric Swedish billionaire, William Meyer is also on board the Ulysses. His goal is to be the first mission to land on Mars. However, shortly before they are scheduled to land, the crew discover that Z1—a ship sent by charismatic Ivan Goldstein of rival corporation Zillion (partnered with NASA)—has overtaken them and has already landed on Mars. But the Z1 crew have not been heard from since sending a cryptic warning: “Don’t come here. Don’t try and save us… It’s too dangerous,” an intense Z1 astronaut warns.

Finding Komarov
After a rough landing through a major dust storm on Mars, the Ulysses crew struggle to fix an inoperable computer system (Irene) and life support system aboard their shuttle, which was presumably damaged by the landing. While not expecting to find any survivors of the Z1 crew, part of the Ulysses crew head to the Z1 landing site in a rover, looking for parts they can scavenge to power their shuttle. They find only remnants of the Z1 ship. Then they discover someone alive in the Martian desert. They presume he is from the American team but he insists that he is Russian and that his name is Vladimir Komarov…

Jeanne picking up a Martian "pyramid"
So begins this surrealistic mystery that transcends history, identity and our concepts of reality with tantalizing notions of Atlantis, the mythical metal orichalcum, DNA as data and much more. The first season of “Missions” focuses on Jeanne Renoir as she unravels the mystery of Mars; a mystery that ties her inextricably to Komarov. Who, what is he? Surely not the dead cosmonaut resurrected from 1967?

After Komarov mysteriously leaves the ship and leads the small search party to a mysterious sentiently-created rock slab, the ship's computer describes the hieroglyphs as ancient Earth-like. It's conclusion is that "either someone was inspired by our civilizations to build it..." "Or our civilizations were inspired by it," finishes Jeanne.

From the beginning, we glimpse a surreal connection between Jeanne and Komarov and ultimately between Earth and Mars: from her childhood admiration for the Russian’s heroism on Earth to the “visions” they currently share that link key elements of her past to Mars and Komarov’s strange energy-giving powers, to Jeanne’s own final act of heroism on Mars.

As the storyline develops, linking Earth and Mars in startling ways, and as various agendas—personal missions—are revealed, we finally clue in on the main question that “Missions”—through Komarov and finally Jeanne—is asking: are we worth saving?

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. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.