As climate change communicators we often get asked about the possible influence of stories. How, or if at all, climate fiction or cli-fi helps to create awareness, changes beliefs and perceptions or even inspires positive action. In one of the scenes in Memory of Water, the teenage protagonist Noria Kaitio, in a water-scarce future Scandinavian Union, seems to echo these thoughts about the links between creative imagination and action as she muses about the people from past times.
“I imagine one of them standing by the river that is now a dry scar in our landscape, a woman who is not young or old, or perhaps a man, it doesn’t matter. Her hair is pale brown and she is looking into the water that rushes by, muddy perhaps, perhaps clear, and something that has not yet been is bleeding into her thoughts.
I would like to think she turns around and goes home and does one thing differently that day because of what she has imagined …”
But Noria is not too sure if those visions bleeding into her mind, perhaps of an imagined future, dark and fearsome, would really move the stranger on that riverbank of the past to act differently. However, by the end of this finely woven tale that grows upon us like an incessant whisper, this young daughter of a tea master would put her faith in the need to tell stories for “there will be others who will carry the story forward. Perhaps some small stretch of the world will be more whole after them.”
Memory of Water is set in a post-oil climate dystopia, mostly around a small village of the Scandinavian Union which alongwith large parts of Asia have been colonised by the New Qian. Noria lives with her father and her scientist mother at the edge of the village. Water scarcity is rampant in the region and many past world technologies have been lost. In this world of water quotas, ‘water crimes’ and ruthless blue uniformed water guards, the introspective teenager and her industrious friend Sanja, chance upon a carefully hidden secret which could change the stories of the past as much as it could change the future.
Told in the first person narrative of Noria, this coming-of age story is about choices in the face of utter hardship, questions of environmental ethics, and the role of an ancient tea masters’ tradition as lodestone of meaning and a compass to navigate the darkness of the world.
“The distance from dreams to words is long and so is the way from words to deeds,” Noria says, bringing us back again to the recurring theme of the importance of the imagination in fashioning the world – the world will always be an image of what we dream. The power of the author’s own imagination, vivid yet measured, rendered in poetic prose which is melancholic in a myriad monochrome shades, makes this a very different climate novel, in a genre whose early years, as pointed out by Axel Goodbody, are crowded with thrillers.
Making climate change ‘meaningful’
Cli-fi researcher Gregers Andersen in justifying the need for a fiction of climate change says that these stories will allow us not only to imagine a climate changed world, that is how such a ‘world may look like’ but also to ‘come to terms with’ what living in such an altered future will ‘mean’. Elsewhere Sophia David argues how cli-fi can help engage readers and make climate change ‘meaningful’ to non-scientific people.
Itäranta’s novel, with its close attention to setting and a finely honed aesthetic sense, accomplishes these tasks brilliantly, transporting us to this possible future of terrible water scarcities, wars and a life of untold hardship that looks increasingly probable in our times. Perhaps the very real climate-induced droughts and water scarcities of today and the endless conflicts tearing up nations have primed us for the messages of this book.
While the altered future is revealed to the reader with starkly drawn images of uncommon beauty, the author also devotes pages to look back at the widespread impact of climate change in the ‘past-world era’ when things began to fall apart.
“On the old map North and South Poles were shown in white. I knew this stood for the ice that had sometimes been called eternal ice, until it became clear that it wasn’t eternal after all. Near the end of the past-world era the globe had warmed and seas had risen faster than anyone could have anticipated …”
Not far from the village where Noria lives is the Dead Forest. In evoking the past and the present of that vanished wilderness and all through the story, the author through carefully chosen words and the felicity of her style plants poignant images in our minds.
“The Dead Forest had once been called Mosswood, a name that recalled deep-green leaves moving in the wind and verdancy so lush and moist that you could feel it on your skin. Even longer ago, when words for such greenness were not needed yet, because it was a given in these lands, the forest had not had a name at all … now it’s bare trunks and branches twisted towards the sky sand-dry and colourless like a cobweb woven across the landscape, or the empty husks of insects caught in it. Life no longer circulated in them, their veins were brittled and broken, their skins frozen into letters of a forgotten language, near-incomprehensible marks of what had once been.”
A story of contrasts
It will be no exaggeration to say that this novel easily convinces us, about the dangers that tomorrow might bring, with its use of evocative prose and carefully calibrated storytelling in a way scientific papers or media bytes about the climate crisis would not. In the use of foregrounding and what Shklovsky calls ostranenie or defamiliarisation, Itäranta injects new meaning into the uncanny settings of this novel, infusing this cli-fi work with a literariness that is still hard to come by in this ‘genre’. It is the magic of her prose that is the beating heart of this book, alongside the setting and also a deft characterisation that adds persuasiveness to this story.
Memory of Water is also about contrasts. There is an enduring quality, a kind of changeless essence in the centuries old traditions of a long line of tea masters who had lived in the same house as Noria and there is also the transience of the world around them that is slowly unravelling – things turning from bad to worse, scarcities multiplying, wars raging endlessly, the military water guards getting more and more ruthless towards those illegally tapping into water pipes.
In this backdrop of a gathering darkness, Noria’s mother who is a scientist, plans to travel to a distant city called Xinjing to pursue her research. Meanwhile her father introduces her to a generations-old secret, hidden inside a cave of the Alvinvaara fell: A secret spring watched over by tea masters over the centuries.
“You’re seventeen, and of age now, and therefore old enough to understand what I’m going to tell you,’ my father said. This place doesn’t exist. The spring dried a long time ago. So the stories tell, and so believe even those who know other stories …”
This very secret as she soon realises will draw her family into trouble as the local Qianese administrator Commander Taro suspects they have access to a hidden source of water and to investigate this, he digs up their garden and wrecks the tea house. Noria is well aware of the weight of the secret she is entrusted with, when she promises to her father not to divulge it.
“I’ll remember,’ I told him, but didn’t realise until later what kind of a promise I had made. Silence is not empty or immaterial, and it is not needed to chain tame things. It often guards powers strong enough to shatter everything.”
There is a strand of philosophising woven into the narrative, in the thoughts and reflections of the young woman, which complements the quiet brilliance of the Itäranta’s prose. This was the author’s debut novel and already at that time, critics had compared her writing to that of Ursula K Le Guin. We also find good reasons to seek parallels between the spare but lyrical quality of her writing and the language employed by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. In both these books, style, voice and literariness, and in McCarthy’s case even the vocabulary, goes beyond the needs of the narrative, entering into a fascinating symbiosis with the story to evoke the denudations of a ravaged planet.
The world where Noria’s tale unfolds is meticulously crafted, down to the use of blazefly lanterns to light up houses, beeping message-pods, slow-moving solar-powered helicycles and helicarriages, plastic waterskins for carrying water, heavily guarded desalination plants for urban water supply, ubiquitous seagrass bags, and a sprawling plastic grave which hides another secret that drives the plot. Rummaging through the plastic grave for past-world tech, Noria and her friend Sanja chance upon a recording from the Twilight Century which was when the world ran out of oil. This recording and another chance discovery seem to indicate that fresh water may be available in the forbidden region of the Lost Lands but sinister powers are withholding this secret.
After Noria’s father dies, these discoveries place her in a dilemma. She cannot decide whether to go looking for the hidden water reserves or as the new tea master, keep guarding the secret spring, or even join her mother in far away Xinjing to pursue a scientific vocation. What will happen in the end? That is for the story to tell but as Unionists launch a revolt against the occupying forces of New Qian and water thefts begin to be punished with executions, Noria will have to face a bigger ethical question, whether to share water with her community, risking her life in the process.
With Noria Kaitio, Itäranta has created a character, who is a spring of humanity amidst a world starved of water. In his essay on climate novels, Axel Goodbody writes about this book’s ‘sensuous evocation of the sight, sounds, smell and taste of water’ as well as its ‘use of the element as a multidimensional symbol, linking climate change with an exploration of personal development and issues of gender and sexuality, and beyond these with reflection on the meaning of life and the ability of art and writing to provide a permanence which human life does not afford.’ Memory of Water is definitely one in a still sparsely populated line of cli-fi works where the best of literary fiction meets a clear-eyed appreciation of the planetary crises that is engulfing us all.
In my activist avatar, I once published a book about water, where we focussed on citizen’s rights to water. After reading Itäranta’s novel and following years of tracking the climate crisis one has arrived at the realisation that the question is not only about rights but also of duties. The duty to share, the duty to acknowledge nature’s gifts, the duty not to hoard and the imperative as stewards of the planet to protect scarce resources.
Like the tea master of this book, we have to say in one voice, “Not everything in the world belongs to people…We are the watchers of water but first and foremost we are its servants.”
Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta, Harper Voyager.