Why We Need Hopeful Stories…

Aral Sea (photo by BBC News)

I write dystopias mostly.

You know, those ‘doom and gloom’ things. For some, a dystopia is like watching a train derail. There’s bodies and wreckage everywhere and there’s nothing one can do but freeze and stare in horrified fascination.

In an October 13, 2021, interview with Margaret Atwood and Omar El Akkad on CBC Radio show Ideas “Beyond Dystopia”, interviewer Nahlah Ayed boldly challenged: “Given the escalating climate crisis, the continuing rise of political authoritarianism, the growing wealth gap, the intensifying social divides and geopolitical tensions, have we reached the point where dystopian literature is just realism by another name?” And the implication is that if all we’re doing is looking at a train wreck, what’s the point? Ayed goes on to suggest that the prevalence of climate change bad news and the inundation of ‘end of the world’ stories has reduced the power of dystopian literature, “like a song we’ve heard too often” in a world that is itself growing dystopian.

But I’m with Margaret on this: dystopias can be hopeful; their storytelling form can fulfill a critical niche for readers who still find themselves frozen with eyes glued to the train wreck. Dystopian fiction—unlike non-fiction—takes the reader by the hand through a narrative that finds its way through and possibly out of that wreck…

Dystopias often do reflect—in their depiction of terrible circumstance—an element of triumph, of overcoming adversity, and ultimately of hope. In fact, dystopias generally draw on a writer’s optimism; else, why would we write these cautionary tales? A strong belief in humanity underlies much of eco-fiction. ‘Hopeful dystopias’ are much more than an apparent oxymoron; they are in some fundamental way, the spearhead of the future—and ironically often a celebration of human spirit by shining a light through the darkness of disaster. Dystopias can serve as a road map for individual endurance, resilience, and triumph through disaster.

I discussed this in a recent interview on Solarpunk Futures Podcast.

I talked with Solarpunk Futures about how the purposeful blur of fiction with non-fiction in my latest eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water can produce a heightened relevance to the dystopic journey for the reader, one that engages them and incites them to move forward with that glimmer of light:

Solarpunk: Your latest book is an eco-novel, or rather something of a fiction-nonfiction hybrid perhaps, called A Diary in the Age of Water. Tell us a bit about that novel and the role that water plays in the story.

Nina: A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of Earth and humanity through four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. While A Diary in the Age of Water is a work of fiction, its premise and much of its story are firmly based on real events, people and phenomena. The dramatization of these through four main characters carry the reader into consequence and accountability. Water’s relationship with each character provides four different perspectives on the value of water to humanity—from the personal and practical to the spiritual and existential. For readers with an evidence-based approach to learning about water’s importance, the diarist provides interesting facts on water in each of her entries in the form of epigraphs (mostly from Robert Wetzel’s Limnology). Things like: watershed, hypolimnion, aquifer, thalweg, clapotis gaufre, and petrichor, to name a few…

I chose a diary format to purposely blur the fiction with non-fiction. I was writing about both the far and the near future and much of it was based—like Margaret Atwood and her books—on real events and real people. I wanted personal relevance to what was going on, particularly with climate change. I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of “the mundane” and a diary felt right. Lynna—the diarist—is a reclusive inexpressive character, so I thought a personal diary would help bring out her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing like eves-dropping to make the mundane exciting. The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as “mundane science fiction” by presenting an “ordinary” setting for characters to play out. The tension arises from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary. The real events are the fuel that incite a slow-burn fictional drama that blurs the reader’s perception of reality and heightens its relevance.

Solarpunk: Can you give us an example of an event in your book where the lines between fiction and nonfiction get blurred?

Nina: In the diary entry entitled “Watershed,”, for July 14, 2049, Lynna writes:

Today, CanadaCorp announced that the collection of rainwater was illegal. As of today, I could be arrested for using my rain catcher and cistern. I’ve decided to continue using the cistern, and I’ve warned Hildegard not to breathe a word to anyone at school about what we’re doing with the water. Thankfully, I have time to train her in the art of subterfuge before she starts Grade Two in the fall.

What follows in the story is a series of greater water restrictions that mimic some of the currenet ongoing scenarios in other parts of the world (e.g. illegal rainwater collection in parts of the USA; shutting down of home water taps in Detroit; required and restricted water collection at public water taps in parts of the world).

Lynna’s August 13, 2051 diary entry in my 2020 novel seemed to predict the atmospheric river disaster that befell British Columbia in November 2021:

In the mid- to late-twenties the west coast succumbed to massive atmospheric river storms. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Seattle. Even earthquakes seemed to follow climate change’s lead. The earthquake / tsunami that hit Vancouver Island in 2029 shifted the Earth’s axis by three inches, Daniel informed me. The American military stormed over the border with swift aid. “Did you know that they never left?” Daniel asked me. I hadn’t known that. But I wasn’t surprised either.

Of course, these “predictions” were really just good research into the current scientific knowledge and what current circumstances may naturally generate in the future. I was just doing a good job at reading water.

Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

You can listen to the entire podcast interview on Solarpunk Futures: Imagining a New World.

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” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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