It’s a strange time we are living in. One moment we are scorched by a hot sun with no water below or above us; another moment, the receding lake lashes out like an angry child with five-metre high waves against our dilapidated shoreline, or a dry river swells into a churning torrent that forces its way into our homes … We’re going down in a kind of slow violence. (p. 134)
The majority of Nina Munteanu’s new novel speculates about the continuation of climate change’s slow violence on the Earth, and explores its effects on one family through three generations of women. Structured as a diary written by a Canadian limnologist (freshwater biologist) named Lynna, the novel reveals the gradually developing ecological and societal catastrophes that occur between 2045 and 2066, moving the Anthropocene into a new geological era. Alongside Lynna’s recording of current events, she recalls memories of her childhood, and of her mother Una, when the growing indications of climate change became undeniable, yet somehow were still controversial. As Lynna bears witness to society falling apart amid the water scarcity and conflict that Una once predicted, she struggles to secure a safe future for her own daughter, Hilde.
Dystopic climate fiction is not new, and several additions to the subgenre have appeared recently. Munteanu’s experience in bridging the worlds of biology and writing makes A Diary in the Age of Water unique in being strong and focused from both the scientific and literary perspectives. An ecologist and novelist from Toronto, Munteanu has taught writing, published limnological research, and written about ecological topics in both her nonfiction and fiction.
Munteanu’s 2016 book Water Is …: The Meaning of Water caught the attention of Margaret Atwood, who placed it at the top of her recommended reading list for that year in the New York Times. Atwood’s appreciation is understandable, given the similarities between the authors and their interests. Both Canadian female writers with a background (formal or informal) in biology, their fiction tends to the speculative, although it is marketed as general literature. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, they mix themes of science, nature, politics, feminism, history, spirituality, and even metaphysics.
And, they both evangelize about the importance of water for our world, and for life, and recognize its endurance even against human alterations. In The Penelopiad, Atwood writes: “Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient.” Munteanu gives similar words to her characters in A Diary in the Age of Water, a fictionalized retelling of those concepts she presented in Water Is …:
Water is a shape shifter. It changes yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth … stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted. Water is magic. Most things on the planet shrink and become denser as they get colder. Water does the opposite. This is why ice floats and lakes don’t completely freeze from top to bottom. Water is paradox. Aggressive yet yielding. Life-giving yet dangerous. Floods. Droughts. Mudslides. Tsunamis. Water cuts recursive patterns of creative destruction through the landscape, an Ouroboros remembering. (p. 220)
Despite the similarities with Atwood’s work, Munteanu’s writing never appears derivative, nor any less powerful. Munteanu also brings a heavier emphasis to the scientific details than one would expect from a typical novel, even when compared to something like the “hard” science fiction of another Canadian author, biologist Peter Watts. Not only does A Diary in the Age of Water include an extensive bibliography of research, but it also starts each chapter (diary entry) with a quotation, most often from the classic textbook Limnology: Lake and River Ecosystems by Robert Wetzel. This textbook also features in the plot of the novel, to the point that it begins to feel almost like another character, testifying to well-established observations of nature that are beginning to disappear, such as the climate cycles and associated seasonal behaviors of plants and animals. Beside quoting from it, Lynna uses it as a means of teaching her daughter about the natural world in relation to what is happening in the plot, and in this way Munteanu also teaches readers, even down to accompanying illustrations of concepts, as if doodled into the diary by Lynna.
For example, Lynna’s November 11, 2049, diary entry begins with a definition of the term “Dimictic Lake” from Wetzel’s textbook: “A typical lake of moderate size that undergoes two periods of vertical mixing of water (lake turnover), one in the spring and one in the autumn.” Lynna then compares this quality, drawing on her experience, to the behavior of governmental departments, using an image of lake turnover, that is, the seasonal mixing of the water column:
They don’t communicate at designated times and under particular circumstances==like a conference or inter-departmental meeting. Even then, we remain guarded, sharing only the minimum required to show due diligence. Scientists are the worst for sharing. We’re like misers. Just as the hypolimnion guards its nutrients, scientists hoard and guard their findings. (p. 109)
With all of the biological details to be found in A Diary in the Age of Water, it is remarkable that Munteanu can nonetheless create a captivating plot, touching character development, and vibrant, flowing prose. And do it all so well. Her writing humanizes the science, even with something as foreign to the general public’s experience as the unseen work of microbes. And she links it to the threats of climate change and, with an ironic twist, the plot of the novel:
“Can you smell the ocean?” [Una] asked me.
She cupped some ocean froth off the rocks and pointed out to sea. “There are billions of phytoplankton and bacteria in there,” she said to me. “And they make the smell of the ocean.” She told me that tiny phytoplankton produce a compound that, when broken down by bacteria, creates the distinct smell of the sea. That same compound also stimulates cloud formation by oxidizing sulfur dioxide and sulfate aerosols, she told me, pointing to the fluffy cumulus clouds above us.
I remember thinking right then that the sky was just another vast ocean. I suddenly felt dizzy in the largeness of it.
As our oceans stratify under global warming, like James Lovelock predicted so long ago, fewer nutrients from the deep ocean are available for the phytoplankton populations in the euphotic zone. Less phytoplankton, less everything.
Our oceans don’t smell the same. Nothing does. (p. 51)
As Lynna observes deteriorating ecosystems, she begins to see how the effects on biological life now are also limiting human existence, threatening social and political systems. Though phenomenally rich in arable water as a resource, the nation of Canada has nonetheless lost “control” of much of that resource to other entities such as the United States and China. Munteanu peppers her speculations on this worsening political situation of water control (and the water conflicts it engenders) with historically true details, such as the NAWAPA (North America Water Power Alliance) Plan for water diversion that was proposed in the 1950s, but later abandoned amid opposition to its potential financial and ecological costs.
Lynna turns to collecting water on her own account to cope with shortages and restrictions, but politics soon makes this act illegal for her (a current fact of legality in many locations). Neighbors and family begin turning in “water criminals” to the authority, while governments tighten control over the population. Politics begins to chip away at Lynna’s academic freedom to carry out science, or to speak the truth. Slowly, Wetzel, her beloved textbook, is phased out, replaced by state propaganda aiming to “deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate,” as The X-Files has put it so well.
Yet, even within its dystopic setting of growing authoritarianism and absurdities about the idea of ownership or domination of nature, Munteanu imbues her novel with a transcendent optimism that an ecological core will abide the sins of humankind, including a remnant of humanity being reborn as something new. This concept manifests itself in a pair of chapters that bookend the novel, set in a far future Age of Trees that arose from our present Age of Water. These chapters feature Kyo, a young girl who lives in a decaying former boreal forest, who, with her blue skin and multiple arms, seems more alien than human. As an acolyte in a society calling itself “Exodus,” a group that seeks humanity’s new future, Kyo has dreams of the cataclysmic past that brought about this new Age, and finds answers to her visions and the mythology of that past in a diary that she discovers: Lynna’s.
While intriguing, these opening and closing chapters of the novel feel so different as to be out of place. One almost wishes they had been developed into something larger, or left out altogether. Thematically, they do tie in to the rest of the novel, however, particularly in the progression of Lynna’s daughter Hilde, who grows into an activist more willing to act than her mom has been, and who develops a deeply spiritual, almost metaphysical view of nature and, above all, water. This grows as an extension of the science, almost like a pseudoscience that ascribes an intelligence or consciousness to water, beliefs nurtured in Hilde through interactions with an online friend that slowly become intimate.
Water is an altruist. Ultimately water will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach. Water will do its job to energize you and give you life, then it will quietly take its leave. It will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand. It will pain the world with beauty, then return to its fold and rejoice. I am water. I am joy. (p. 220)
Through conversations with her online friend, Hilde begins to embrace Hindu philosophies, and a cyclical view of history, featuring the coupling of destruction and rebirth (Vishnu/Kali). The symbolism of Kyo’s seemingly alien morphology and skin tone in the first chapter of the novel now becomes clear.
None of the characters in A Diary in the Age of Water is perfect: they all have flaws, sometimes self-realized, other times understandably shaped by past wrongs against them. The characters often act in selfish ways, as microcosms of what humanity as a whole has done to the planet. For instance, Lynna betrays a colleague/friend and rationalizes this as being necessary for the survival of herself and her daughter. As the planet and its ecology responds to this selfishness, they witness the natural system correcting itself to account for this inherent fact of biological evolution, to our loss.
Munteanu reminds us that some human societies—through western science or through other means—have understood the connection between our lives and the rest of the planet, including the life upon it. They have understood that our biological selfishness cannot go unchecked. Echoing the tenets of ecology, and the teachings of the Indigenous peoples of North America discussed elsewhere in the novel, A Diary in the Age of Water observes that “When we lose our natural diversity, we lose our natural resistance.” The novel illustrates how catastrophically that may continue to proceed. At the end some sort of ecosystem will survive, but we may not be a part of it.