There are many varieties of fictional apocalypse, and many more imaginary futures in which some great catastrophe has destroyed life as we know it, leaving a handful of survivors to remember or reconstruct the glories of past civilizations. Of course, no matter how hard they try, they get it wrong, just as we in the twenty-first century must be very often wrong about those civilizations that we study centuries after they have passed away, leaving only scanty records and ambiguous artefacts for us to interpret. From Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), and many more besides, the idea of a future archaeology delving into the objects we present-day people, and our successors, will leave behind, has been explored with care and insight by some of science fiction's finest writers. But the subject has seldom been handled with the grace and style Emmi Itäranta has brought to her debut, Memory of Water.
Memory of Water concerns Noria Kaitio, a young woman reaching adulthood in a future in which climate change has made fresh water scarce and precious. Since Noria narrates her tale as if writing to her contemporaries, she does not explain the aspects of her world that they would take for granted. Thus the reader must interpret the evidence of Noria's life in the same way that Noria interprets the artefacts she discovers from the past—our present. Indeed, the fidelity with which Itäranta maintains Noria's point of view is one of the novel's great strengths. There are no infodumps, and if this means certain aspects of the world are left a little vague, it's a kind of vagueness that makes sense given the focuses of Noria's life. For example, it's obvious that the lines on the maps have been redrawn, and it is implied through the frequent references to "New Qian" and "Xinjing" that China—or rather, some state descended from present-day China—has come to be politically and culturally dominant, even as far afield as the "Scandinavian Union" where Noria lives. But we never learn exactly where the new borders are, because Noria assumes her readers already know, just as she never specifies the nature of the war that is continually raging somewhere far away. She is too far from the battles to be directly affected by them, and so the war only appears in Noria's story as a cause of shortages and an excuse for the military government to tighten controls on the civilian population.
In some cases, the vagueness is bred by ignorance, created by the passage of time and the ravages of the climate catastrophe. In the everyday language of Noria's life, the lush, abundant, technologically-advanced, and above all water-rich world that once existed is known as the "past world," with a dark period called "the Twilight Century" in between that time and the time Noria recognizes as her own era. The Twilight Century represents a gulf between our time and Noria's, a gulf generally believed to be unbridgeable.
Much like our own, the world of the parched future has some advanced technologies that are not uniformly distributed. People read books and send hand-written messages across long distances using "messagepods," something like what we would call tablet computers; electricity is still in use, mostly generated from solar panels. But the foods that dominate Noria's diet are those that need little water to be grown, and the lack of mineral oil has made travel difficult and has reshaped people's ways of using and creating goods. In a telling detail that brilliantly combines the pre-industrial with the post-apocalyptic, Noria's childhood friend Sanja is a "plasticsmith," meaning that she makes her living by patching and repairing plastic items, which her society no longer has the resources or the knowledge to create from scratch. To find the materials of her trade, she needs to make trips to the "plastic grave," a vast landfill teeming with junk from prior centuries, incomprehensible out of its context but still capable of being turned to use, if only by being melted down.
Amid all this harshness, Noria has lived most of her life in a bubble of peace. Her father is a hereditary master of the tea ceremony. Noria has been apprenticed to him for years, carrying on the ceremonies handed down by their ancestors—as well as they can be reconstructed from the records and traditions that remain. (The fact that there are many tea masters in her part of Scandinavia, and that Noria and everyone in her village take it for granted that the tea ceremony is part of the mainstream of their culture, is a further indication of how long has passed between our time and hers, and how much the world has changed. Noria describes the ceremonies minutely several times, but never mentions the ceremony's East Asian origins or its connections to Zen; whether this is because she assumes the reader will know it or because she does not know it herself is an open question.) Much though she respects the tradition her father has trained her in, Noria is keenly aware of how much it separates her from others, and how it requires her to push against the forces of change inherent in life. When her mother leaves to take a teaching job in a distant city, she reflects that it is impossible to preserve even a single room as it was before she left:
it cannot remain that way. Not if you want it, and not if I want it. Dust will gather around the legs of the shelves and spiders will weave their webs in the corners, and mute book pages will grow yellow between the covers. The glass of the windows slips downwards like slow rain, even if we don't see it, and the landscape outside is different every day: the light falls from another angle, the wind tugs at the trees slower or faster, the greenness of the leaves draws away and one ant more or less walks on the trunk. (p. 85)
Her father's position as a tea master is enough to earn their family certain privileges. Nobody seems to question how they manage to maintain a garden of green plants (necessary to the tea ceremony), or how they always have enough water for the ceremonies as well as for their day-to-day needs, when most people struggle to keep going on their legally-sanctioned rations. On her seventeenth birthday, Noria's father takes her into a cave on their family's land and shows her a hidden spring. It is the source of their water, and hence of their relative wealth and privilege; it is also highly illegal, for all sources of fresh water must be disclosed to the government and rationed out by them, and hoarding water, or accessing it by unofficial means, is "water crime," punishable by death. Noria must lie, because to reveal the truth would open up her family to punishment; but more than that, she chooses to keep the secret, following her father's example, as a form of quiet rebellion against the government.
There is a moral ambiguity to this situation that Itäranta takes full advantage of. True, the military government is harsh and merciless in its pursuit of "water crime"—but since fresh water is both rare and essential to life, it's hardly unreasonable for the use of water to be regulated, and it's hardly fair for Noria's family to have a source of water that they don't share with the villagers, who value water so highly that they use it as currency. Noria is her father's daughter, reflective and philosophical, concerned with maintaining tradition. Yet although she has been accustomed (without knowing it) to having access to the spring's water, and although she is sometimes rather naive and inclined to turn away from the reality of the world beyond the teahouse, she is troubled by the secrecy of the spring. The secret divides her from the people around her, even Sanja, who must buy water to sustain her family. As water rations grow sparser and sparser, and the military becomes harsher and harsher in its punishments of water crimes, it becomes harder and harder for Noria to simply hide the spring.
At the same time, she becomes obsessed by her and Sanja's chance discovery of a sound recording dating from the Twilight Century, and scours the record-books of her predecessors in the teahouse to find information about that cloudy period of history. Noria becomes increasingly convinced that a secret bigger than a hidden spring has been concealed by the official histories, and increasingly determined to root that secret out. In her quest for the truth about the disasters that created the world she lives in, we can see the influence of her mother, who is a scientist, and has given Noria the tools of inquiry and discovery, but we can also see Noria's own curiosity, her determination and her quiet integrity.
That integrity is what makes Noria compelling, even admirable, as a protagonist, even though she is slow to take action, bordering on the passive at times. Throughout the novel, she is deeply aware that she shares a destiny with the people around her, even as the secrets she knows set her apart from them. Knowledge is valuable to her, but also dangerous; a source of pain as well as power. The knowledge of the oppression being enacted in the wider world seems to close in on her gradually, as she observes in one particularly striking passage:
"Don't look," Sanja said, but I looked anyway, and then wished I hadn't. That was what we did nowadays: tried to avert our gaze from the things that were happening, and failed, and then tried to live on as if we had not seen them. All the while those things stayed with us, made their home under our skin, in the thrumming, dark-red space of the chest, their unbending slivers scratching the soft, wet heart. (p. 209)
What makes Noria compelling as a narrator are the qualities that one might well assume every tea master would need to have: her careful observation of the world around her, her thoughtfulness, her ability to feel intensely while still keeping a steady eye and a clear head. Young as she is, she has a kind of wisdom that makes her story linger in the memory. Melancholy and yet hopeful; beautiful and yet honest about the reality of ugliness; Memory of Water is a carefully crafted, finely observed, and ultimately deeply moving novel.
Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.