Nina Munteanu’s novel A Diary in the Age of Water roots a woman’s story about the future in an imagined past that’s been preserved in a journal. Munteanu draws on dual passions—for storytelling and for science—and she invites readers to recognize themselves in the “historical” story (partly set in Toronto’s recent past) and to project themselves into her imagined future.
What’s familiar here is the diary, which operates as a doorway. The 2017 Philip K. Dick Award for science fiction recognized Claudia Casper’s novel The Mercy Journals (2016), which explores the contents of two Moleskin journals from 2072. Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017) is also part of the pattern of “letters and diaries written in times of tumult and discovered later.” Through Lauren’s Earthseed texts in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), readers can glimpse aspects of her journey. And without June’s record of her experiences, the Gileadian Research Association would have hosted a dull symposium in the 2175 that Margaret Atwood imagines for her characters in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
The connection with Margaret Atwood is pertinent as Nina Munteanu quotes a long passage from Atwood’s mythic retelling in The Penelopiad (2006) about the nature of water, a substance in short supply in Munteanu’s novel:
What’s unfamiliar is the way that Nina Munteanu combines methodologies, familiar literary motifs with text and images from non-fiction. For instance, the favoured source for chapter epigraphs in her novel A Diary in the Age of Water is Robert G. Wetzel’s Limnology (1975); it’s a classic text reissued several times and most recently in 2001—also, finally, in Munteanu’s imagined 2022.
Nina Munteanu’s fiction quotes Margaret Atwood’s fiction, but this passage is also quoted in full in Munteanu’s ecological study Water Is… (2016). She does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book is a bridge between them. (Water Is… also displays the wonder of water droplets creating a bridge: it seems like it has to be fiction, but it’s real.)
Her Water Is… contains both ecological and creative-writing teachings. Her ecological textbook chapters include Life and Motion, Rhythm and Vibration, but also Beauty and Story, Prayer and Wisdom. She outlines her own twelve-step, Hero’s Journey of Water and Humanity progression, which draws on Joseph Campbell’s archetypal Heroic Journey.
The chapters in A Diary of the Age of Water are short; they alternate timelines (often) and contain scientific visuals like sketches, diagrams, lists, and maps—even schematics and formulae. The images build on the idea of readers’ discovery of a notebook rather than a novel: an artist’s notebook—there are also lines of poetry, for instance—and also a scientist’s notebook.
Readers need not have any scientific background. The author understands that many readers require the kind of reminder that this character considers unnecessary:
Because she has written speculative- and science-fiction before, she manages disorienting elements—in both time and place—competently. Readers never forget that this is Nina Munteanu’s imagined future, but there are enough elements to allow readers to imagine it with her:
One observation in the published novel will have a particular relevance for today’s readers, even if it was not so remarkable when this story was in manuscript form—when it would have seemed a matter of imagination rather than reality:
This overt statement about the imbalances which have led to the climate crisis is at the heart of the novel: readers recognize the rampant capitalism and patriarchal governance that bolster the novel’s “historical” timeline even though Munteanu’s future bears little resemblance to today’s British Columbia (to continue her Highway 95 reference).
One of the novel’s characters is a science-fiction fan, who most enjoys the classics by Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Isaac Asimov (Munteanu even describes two specific copies of Foundation, an Avon paperback from 1966 and a Spectra paperback from 1991); these hold “fond memories” for her. Stylistically, A Diary in the Age of Water is similar to these classic works in that the focus remains on story, relationships are observed rather than felt, and ideas are displayed more often than emotions.
There are tremendous benefits, however, to revisioning the broader relationship that runs beneath this work, to bridging what has traditionally been a divide. In “Imagining Climates: Writing about the Past, Present and Future of the Environment,” Madhur Anand and Lawrence Hill discuss the benefits of scientists and writers collaborating to confront the climate emergency and to design solutions which incorporate different knowledge systems. (This conversation from May 17, 2021 was part of Toronto Public Library’s “Our Fragile Planet” series.)
This is an important step towards creative solutioning. In Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do about It (2020), Erin Brockovich also discusses the need for greater cooperation and broader engagement to address the climate crisis. She writes: “None of us need a Ph.D. or a science degree, or need to be a politician or a lawyer to be aware and to protect our right to clean water.” What we need, is a desire to change: “The solution starts right now, right where you are at this moment.”
One of the characters in Nina Munteanu’s novel A Diary in the Age of Water asks: “Why do I keep doing this to myself? I am in my own version of a dead zone.” Those of us who are captivated by fear, who despair in a dead zone—we need to consider new ways to tell familiar stories, to envision different endings. A book like this can change the way that you see the world at this moment, can allow formulae to take root in fiction and grow into a different kind of solution.
Marcie McCauley's work has appeared in Room, Other Voices, Mslexia, Tears in the Fence and Orbis, and has been anthologized by Sumac Press. She writes about writing at marciemccauley.com and about reading at buriedinprint.com. A descendant of Irish and English settlers, she lives in the city currently called Toronto, which was built on the homelands of Indigenous peoples - Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg, Huron-Wendat and Mississaugas of New Credit - land still inhabited by their descendants.