Reviewed by Paul Kincaid. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.
There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, drowns us all. Not quite what Brutus was trying to say, but a sentiment much closer to the common impulse of humankind. We are drawn to disasters and catastrophes, to worst-case scenarios and conspiracy theories. Even if the thing we dread the most is no more likely to occur than the thing we hope for most fervently, still it is the dread that seems to prevail. And so we tell ourselves tales of the end of the world and the hopelessness of existence, perhaps secretly believing that the more we detail the worst the less chance there is of the worst occurring.
A sense of collective guilt runs through our fictions of a dying earth. At one point it might be nature, or perhaps more commonly god, reacting against the hubris of humanity. In time that became a common dread of the finger poised above the nuclear button. Nowadays, our visions of finality seem to fall into one of two variants. Either we dread the failure of the technology we have become so reliant on, as in Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (2018) or The Silence by Don DeLillo (2020); or we dread the failure of our ecology. Since the natural disaster that is climate change is most commonly caused by human technology, these two variants are perhaps not that far apart.
A Diary in the Age of Water by the Canadian author and environmental activist, Nina Munteanu, clearly belongs in the second camp. It is a step-by-step guide to the way that human malfeasance, greed, and ignorance exhaust the water that we all rely upon for our very existence. One of Munteanu’s recent works, Water Is … (2016), is a non-fiction account of the role that water plays in every aspect of our lives. The influence of that earlier work in shaping Munteanu’s new novel is illustrated by the frequency with which the phrase “water is …” is repeated throughout the work.
Except I hesitate over the word “novel”. I’m not exactly sure what this book is, but it has few of the novelistic virtues – well-drawn characters, story, sense of place – that we might normally expect to find. Apart from relatively brief opening and closing scenes set in an undefined but relatively distant future, the bulk of the book is made up of extracts from a diary written over a period of some 20 years starting in 2045. The author of the diary, Lynna, (like the author of the book) is a limnologist, someone who studies the relationship between lakes and rivers and their ecological context. As the diary opens, she is an academic at the University of Toronto whose work is sponsored and controlled by an outfit called CanadaCorp. CanadaCorp, it turns out, is really an American company owned by China, and it is concerned with channelling Canadian water to the drought-stricken USA, leaving Canada itself subject to severe water rationing. Despite Lynna’s tendency towards self-deception (during the course of the book she is apparently responsible for the firing of one colleague and indirectly for at least one murder) her doubts about her political masters grow until she is forced out of her job, only to watch as her daughter, Hilde, takes to dangerous but only vaguely described activism.
Outlined like this, the book might seem dramatic enough, but none of this is centre stage. There is nothing that might be considered dramatic that does not occur off-stage; and even the overall story I’ve imputed to the book is mostly drawn from reading between the lines. The entries in the so-called diary are not accounts of the events of the day, but are rather meditations on the behaviour of rivers and lakes and their impact on the surrounding environment. These are almost invariably couched in technical language that is not, for the most part, interpreted for a non-technical reader. Sometimes, particularly when they are given over to ferocious (and well-deserved) denunciations of the ecological policies of the Trump regime, these entries rise to the level of polemic. For the most part, however, they read like lectures aimed at undergraduates, particularly given their frequent and extensive quotes from academic texts on the subject, most consistently Limnology by Robert G, Wetzel (2001).
Typically, as we begin to suspect that Hilde’s actions might be giving the book a belated plot, the diary comes to an abrupt end and the scene jumps forwards decades to when a blue-skinned, four-armed girl who may be Hilde’s descendant is reading the diary. What happened in the interim, and how a blue-skinned, four-armed girl modelled on a Hindu deity is supposed to be the answer to surviving the environmental collapse caused by the loss of water is never made clear.
Ursula Le Guin talked about the lure of the pulpit, the writers who were more interested in expounding their ideas than in exploring them. Munteanu has succumbed to the lure of the lectern. She is so intent on layout out her scientific ideas about water that these ideas never acquire the novelistic weight of metaphor. They seem, therefore, divorced from the polemical aspects of the book. While the polemic, focused as it is upon the Trump presidency, a quarter of a century or more before the setting of the book, is similarly divorced from what passes for story here. There are interesting and important ideas underpinning the book, something that we should be paying urgent attention to. But the structure, a series of technical lectures pretending to be a polemic disguised as a novel, is not the best way to convey these ideas.
Copyright Paul Kincaid. All rights reserved.