Nina Munteanu, author of “Robin’s Last Song,” is a prolific creator with multiple books, podcasts, short stories, and nonfiction essays in publication. Her work spans genre, from eco-fiction to historical fantasy to thrillers, and of course, science fiction. Her work as an ecologist informs all of her writing, which circles around an essential exploration; the relationship between humanity and our environment.
At the top of Nina Munteanu’s website, there is a quote: “I live to write, I write to live.” This sentiment is reflected in her fiction, which is not just about characters in compelling situations solving their problems with compassion, but is about all of us, our planet, our environment, and our future.
Nina Munteanu sat down with Apex for a conversation about story, ecology, and the future.
APEX MAGAZINE: “The Way of Water” in Little Blue Marble is such a powerful piece touching on water scarcity and friendship, a dry future and the potential for technology to overtake natural ecology. “Robin’s Last Song” explores extinction, human fallibility, friendship, and again, that conflict between technology and nature. Do you think we’re heading toward the kind of dystopia shown in these stories?
NINA MUNTEANU: The scenarios portrayed in these eco-fiction narratives are deeply grounded in current realities that involve a kind of dissonance between technology and natural processes—more specifically our myopic use of technological “fixes” to make nature more efficient for our use, whether it’s to mine water from the air (disrupting the water cycle) or gene-hack monocrops to increase yield (compromising the crop’s resilience and long-term productivity). It isn’t so much the technology, but the thought process driving its use that is undermining the environment we live in. Our unwillingness to think of ourselves as part of the very environment we’re manipulating for shortsighted purposes could certainly bring about some version of these dystopias.
While these narratives are based on the realistic premise of current and projected water use and food production, their trajectories are fluid and multi-faceted. We still have many directions we can go. Concrete precedents set by a changing climate and our several-century interference will ensure continued extinction of species, reduction of bio-diversity, the proliferation of unstable simple ecosystems prone to crashing, and an unruly water cycle. Despite these, planetary responses remain fluid and unpredictable; there is so much about the natural world we still don’t know. And that is what my story “Robin’s Last Song” touches on: even when it looks utterly bleak and nothing seems left, Nature surprises us with hidden gifts. If nothing else, we are humbled by it. And a little wiser, hopefully.
AM: Your stories show readers the kind of world we could be facing if nothing changes. Do you believe such disaster is preventable?
NM: Humanity can destroy habitats and ecosystems; but we can’t destroy the planet—well, not yet anyway. We can only change it. Earth will endure. The question is: as Nature changes will we endure? We are currently destroying and simplifying the ecosystems that best support our species, and heralding in those that may not. Ecologists use a term “natural succession” to describe when one species or group of species create better conditions for another group that will succeed them. We are in danger of doing this. And we’re taking down a lot with us. This planet has experienced four major extinction events in the past (wiping out up to 90% of its species) and each time life came back in full force; but each time, that life looked different from what had preceded it.
To ensure our own survival, we need to ensure the survival of our supporting network: forests that balance a climate best suited to us; a biodiversity that brings resilience; a clean healthy ocean that nurtures all life. But I am hopeful. We need creativity and joy and connection to do this right. We are creators at heart and are more joyful when creating. We are capable of creating so much beauty in our music, art, and science. When faced with insurmountable odds and terrible circumstance, our earnest hearts fill with kindness and compassion. Some countries have embraced the Happy Index—over the GDP—to measure their success. Bhutan has achieved carbon negativity and others are following its lead. We know what the solutions are. We have the technologies. We understand the science. We just need the will.
As Yuval Harari noted, we remain an insecure species; despite our curiosity and capacity for wonder, we are prone to fear, suspicion, and defensive action in the face of the unknown. Our preoccupation with “self” in all its iterations limits our ability to gain a more healthy perspective and to see ourselves as part of our environment, not apart from it. Our hubris and separation comes from that same insecurity. Like the hero in the hero’s journey, we’ve strayed from our “home” to find ourselves. The changes in the world that we’re largely responsible for creating (e.g., climate change, habitat destruction, and oversimplification) are also part of our journey to find ourselves. When we find our humility and our unique gifts to the world, we can prevent disaster. It won’t be the tool—technology—that does it. It will be the wisdom that comes with loss of ego, allowing us to forge a partnership with the rest of the world, human and non-human.
With the wisdom of feminine energy emerging from the shadows and lighting its voice with kindness, humility, compassion, unity, and wholeness, I’m ever hopeful. It’s time to grow up, forgive ourselves and each other, and become whole.
AM: Your novels and short stories examine the role and evolution of humanity in the context of nature and technology. As an ecologist, what do you believe needs to happen—internationally, nationally, locally, and personally—to restore our planet and move forward in a sustainable way?
NM: All things animate and inanimate naturally oscillate toward equilibrium or balance in a kind of stable chaos of polarities. Goethe and Hegel told us this long ago. Our actions have exacerbated this oscillation through massive extraction, habitat destruction, and pollution with associated conflicts, take-over and subjugation. Everything is connected and all have contributed to climate change and habitat change. Our mission—given that we’re responsible for much of that imbalance—is to help the planet return itself to balance. That means ensuring that Nature’s natural checks can do their job to ensure functional forests and phytoplankton, a healthy ocean, a resilient biodiversity—all systems that we rely on for our own healthy existence. Restoring our denuded global forests, and the oceans will need the concerted and united efforts of all nations and individuals. We have the knowledge, the science, and technology; all that is needed is the will. And that can only change as our own narrative changes. That’s where storytelling plays a key part. Surveys have proven that fiction can be deeply persuasive through character journey that convinces at a deeper more emotional level (as opposed to a litany of facts that appeals only at an intellectual level).
AM: Do you believe industry and sustainability are compatible? What about colonialism and sustainability? Capitalism? In other words, is sustainability something we can achieve with our current systems, or is global systemic change required?
NM: Some people—mostly economists—would say definitely yes to the first question; we just need to be conservationist in our approach to doing business. But the very basis of capitalism is exploitation, not conservation. The driving force behind capitalism is fear and uncertainty and its main process is exploitation. From an ecologist’s perspective, this makes sense for a community during its early succession and growth stage … when it first colonizes a new area. Ecologists call this approach r-selected (for rate), based on the need to be profligate and fast-growing to successfully establish. But as we reach a climax community and our carrying capacity—where we are now—this r-selected approach no longer works. We need an economic model that better matches this new paradigm. NOT based on continued growth! A climax global economy, one based on cooperation not competition. Elisabet Sahtouris calls this ecological economy “ecosophy.” In his book Designing Regenerative Cultures, Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration, and inclusion. He promotes a regenerative economy based on true reciprocation.
And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer who promotes a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world. This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of [our] extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”
AM: The language in your stories is richly thematic, using strong description to weave the subtext into the piece. For example, “killing two squirrels with one stone.” Is that something that comes about organically as you compose a piece, or a more intentional part of editing?
NM: I use both processes to achieve a final narrative that is multi-layered with metaphor, symbols, and deep meaning. The first process is through intuition derived through intimacy; the second process is more deliberate and generated through objectivity. Insights from intimacy come about organically, during moments of true inspiration, when my muse connects me to the deeper truth of a character’s voice and actions. Given that the inner story runs many layers (some of which I, as writer, may not even be overtly aware) and links in a fractal relationship with the outer story, those moments of inner inspiration happen as if of their own accord. That’s what writers mean when they admit that their characters “talk” to them and instruct them on what to write. When a writer achieves that level of intimacy and understanding, they can let the muse guide them.
Much of the description that is woven into story is generated through the editing process when I read the manuscript as a reader. The process involves letting the story sit for a while so when I return to it, I am reading more objectively. During this process, I apply my knowledge in storytelling craft to showcase combustible moments in plot, and work in foreshadowing, subtext, and compelling metaphor. A writer can’t add metaphor without context related to story theme (otherwise this may result in what the industry calls “purple prose”). Metaphor—given its roots in the deeper psyche of a culture—must arise organically from a deep, sometimes intuitive, understanding—where the personal meets the universal.
AM: Your work takes complex topics that are nonetheless critical to humanity’s future and pulls stories with compelling characters out of them, making the science accessible, the warnings personal to the reader. This has always been one of the callings of science fiction. What is the role of stories in the climate action movement?
NM: Our capacity and need to tell stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the internet, humanity has always shared story. Story is powerful in how it helps us define who we are, what’s important to us, and where we are going. Stories compel with intrigue, stir our emotions, connect with our souls through symbols, archetypes and metaphor. Stories inspire action. We live by the stories we tell.
For too long, our stories have promoted a dominant worldview of exploitation and capitalism. We’ve been telling the patriarchal story of “othering” for too long; we need a new voice and a new worldview to replace our old stories of conquering and taming a “savage land” and “savage people.” When Copernicus proclaimed in 1543 that the sun did not revolve around the Earth, it took a long time for the world to accept and let go of its Ptolemaic Earth-centered view. But the world did come around eventually to the point now that this is common knowledge and lies embedded in our daily lives and language.
Storytelling about how the Earth takes care of us and how we can take care of Earth is urgently needed. This means shifting our stories from an exploitive capitalist narrative of separation toward an inclusive partnership narrative. This means embracing a more eco-centric worldview; a worldview in which humanity is not central, but lies embedded within greater planetary forces and phenomena. A worldview that sees humanity only as part of a greater entity, as participant in a greater existential celebration of life and the elements. A humanity that must learn to play along, not bully and take over. A humanity that must embrace compassion, respect and kindness; a humanity directed by humility—not hubris. It is my firm belief that until our worldview embraces humility in partnership with the natural world—until we cast off our self-serving, neo-liberal, capitalist ideologies—we will remain hampered in our journey forward. When we change our stories, we change our lives and we change the world along with it.
This is already happening with the emergence of a strong eco-voice by writers through the feminine voice, the gylanic voice, the voice of the marginalized, of ecology and the environment itself. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Richard Powers, Emmi Itäranta Cherie Demaline, Grace Dillon, and Cormac McCarthy give Nature a face and voice to care about. And caring is the first step.
AM: Your stories also bridge fiction with nonfiction, using speculative fiction as a lens to bring your subject into focus for the reader. How does that work? Why do you approach story in this way?
NM: Marcie McCauley with Temz Review observed that, “[Munteanu] does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book [A Diary in the Age of Water] is a bridge between them.” In Herizons, Ursula Pflug called the book “a bit of a hybrid, and Munteanu a risk-taker.” Buried in Print wrote of the same book, “ultimately it exists in an in-between place, some mystical elements of the generational tale possibly alienating the dedicated science-y readers and the instructional elements possibly alienating fiction devotees. And, yet, I read on: strangely compelling.”
I find that I enjoy this in-between place that blurs fiction with nonfiction. It’s more edgy, gripping, and believable, albeit fantastical, even playfully challenging at times. For instance, I may subvert facts, creating semi-facts to tease the discerning reader (e.g. when the diarist in “A Diary in the Age of Water” observed that President Trump had gone blind from staring at the sun during an eclipse; while Trump did stare directly at the sun without eye protection during an eclipse in 2017, he did not go blind—yet). Readers have told me that the story was more impactful; they honestly didn’t know what was taken from fact and what was fictionalized. Such narrative reads like a true story and there is little more tantalizing than eavesdropping on another’s real experience and intrigue. The risk—that the blur will either confuse the reader or invalidate its truths and message—is hopefully addressed through compelling narrative that engages the reader. But this is also why I tend to include an extensive bibliography at the end of a novel or short story.
Readers have told me that my fiction/nonfiction storytelling trope, like “mundane science fiction,” grips my stories with a more keen sense of relevance. Given that I am writing mostly climate fiction and eco-fiction these days, that sense of relevance is exactly what I wish to achieve.
AM: A last question. Both “The Way of Water” and “Robin’s Last Song” showcase the relationships women have with each other, the importance of human connection, the damage that disconnecting from each other can do and, inversely, the power of connection. In your view, what is the role of individuals and local communities in the climate crisis?
NM: There are many things we can do as individuals and as part of a community. I was recently asked this question by the Toronto Star and I responded with three things:
● First, plant a tree; make an actual difference through action. By doing that, we get out from hiding under the bed and face the monster of climate change and show that we care and that we are not alone.
● Second, vote for green politicians. Politicians need to hear directly from their communities. They need you to push them to act on climate change.
● Third, find your tribe and create a movement. Everyone says that people have the power, but that power comes best through numbers and solidarity. Find your tribe and you’ll find yourself more motivated. So, start with you and your home: plant trees; put in a rain garden; put in permeable driveways and solar panels; lower meat intake, especially beef; don’t buy bottled water. Then connect with your physical community and social media community. Let them know what you’re doing and why. Work with your community. All members of a community can help change how your street looks and behaves by communicating with your local government, attending meetings, and having a voice. Initiate a tree-planting program in your parks and street greens. Do stream or lake cleanups. Let the leaders of your community know you care and are willing to do something about it. The wave of change starts local and ripples out into a global phenomenon. Change comes from the heart and heart is where the home is.