An Interview with Nina Munteanu by Derek Newman-Stille
Nina Munteanu is both an author and a writing coach, sharing her gifts with other aspiring writers to help them to share their stories with the world. She is both an author and an ecologist, branching the worlds of science and fiction. Nina is tha author Darwin’s Paradox (and you can see the Speculating Canada review of this book posted on October 20, 2012), Angel of Chaos, and Outer Diverse. I will let Ms. Munteanu tell you a bit about herself below.
Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about yourself to start this interview?
Nina Munteanu: I was born in a small town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to immigrant parents. The youngest of three children, I started writing and drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. Even before I could read, I wanted to become a “paperback writer” like in the old Beatles song.
I’m a bit of a bohemian and enjoy wandering the world in search of the strange and wonderful. I come by my gypsy lifestyle quite honestly: 40% genetics (from both my passionate philosopher Romanian Dad and my wanderlustich explorer artistic/scientific Mom); 40% my upbringing (they were very supportive of my artistic pursuits) and 20% God’s will. I love them both dearly. They let me be who I was and because of that they helped shape what I now am: a loving mother; courageous artist; creative scientist; wandering explorer; everlasting child, trickster and storyteller; faithful student and enthusiastic teacher; judge and fierce advocate for the oppressed-ridiculed-and the silent; lover of all living and inanimate things and God’s humble servant.
After moving to British Columbia, I raised a family and taught science courses at the University of Victoria and Douglas College. I hold a masters degree in limnology and served for over 25 years as a research scientist and environmental consultant, writing technical reports and delivering research papers at conferences. I coach writers who want to publish their works and give workshops in various venues on writing and publishing.
In addition to eight published novels, I’ve written short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which have been translated into several languages throughout the world. Darwin’s Paradox (Dragon Moon, 2007) was the recipient of the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award and the Delta Optimist Reader’s Choice. Its prequel Angel of Chaos was a finalist for the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year in 2010. I regularly publish reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. I also serve as staff writer for several online and print magazines. I was assistant editor-in-chief of Imagikon, a Romanian speculative magazine and now serve as editor of Europa SF a site dedicated to the European SF community. Outer Diverse (Starfire, 2011) the first of the Splintered Universe Trilogy, is now an audiobook with Iambik (2012). My latest book The Last Summoner (Starfire, 2012) is a historical fantasy. Inner Diverse and Metaverse are due this December and early next year, respectively.
Spec Can: In addition to being an author, you are also an ecologist. What is it like to balance these two interests? How do they influence or support each other – i.e. do you find your fiction writing influences the way you look at ecology and do you find that your practices as an ecologist influence your fiction work?
Nina Munteanu: Definitely. My fiction and my ecology have co-evolved in a synergistic way. My interest in ecology stems from my interest in preserving this planet as well as my fascination for how Gaia works; these themes pervade most of my fiction and much of my non-fiction articles and essays.
The science of ecology studies relationships more than any other science. It looks at how things relate to one another. Ecology is the study of communities and ecosystems and how these interact in a global setting. Science fiction writing explores the interaction of humanity with some larger phenomenon involving science. Robert J. Sawyer calls it the fiction of the large. Large ideas, large circumstance, large impact. Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.
My ecological interests and experiences have influenced my writing in every way: in providing me with ideas, in world-building, and in the interactive fractal nature of plot, theme, character and premise. For me, the two are intertwined. Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing. It’s a win-win situation, really.
I just wanted to add (almost as post script here) that, as a writer, I distinguish ecology as a science from most other hard sciences (e.g., chemistry, biology, physics). Most science and technology presents itself in literature through premise or plot, which influence various characters in their life journeys. Ecology—like setting—manifests and integrates itself more in theme. This is because, while most of the hard sciences study the nature and behavior of “phenomena”, ecology studies the consequences of the relationship of these phenomena and the impact of their behaviors on each other and the rest of the “world”.
Spec Can: What role does SF have in advocating for ecological awareness and curiosity about environmental issues?
Nina Munteanu: Environmental issues are largely a global phenomenon—concerns like water quality and quantity, air pollution, resource acquisition, allocation and sharing, wildlife extinction, etc. Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity. Critic Frederic Jameson posits that the literature of “science Fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself.” The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s “Brave New World”).
Spec Can: Your novel Darwin’s Paradox shows an intense interest in the experience of the outsider and the role of the media in casting certain groups as abject or ‘lesser’. What inspires your interest in the outsider and what have you noticed about the role of media in influencing what society considers socially desirable or the biases that develop?
Nina Munteanu: I honestly can’t say why, but I have always championed the downtrodden, misunderstood and outcast. I remember in primary school making a point of defending and befriending a young girl who was ridiculed by my peers (just because she was French Canadian and very poor). It seemed to be a calling. Maybe I’m just an INFJ, like Chaucer, Goethe and Joan of Arc (giant grin).
I find the concept of “the outsider” fascinating from a psychological perspective. How we treat the unknown (e.g., with suspicion and fear or with wonder and curiosity) tells so much about who and what we are. The tension of this interaction not only makes for excellent and compelling story but serves an excellent platform to study our psyche.
Several of my books explore my fascination with mind-control, the use of propaganda and influence of the media on the population at large. It fascinates me how people in general can so easily be swayed by what they read or see (with some exception, we are not taught in school to question what we are told and to research for ourselves). There’s something out there that I call the “they say phenomenon”; it’s rampant, particularly now with “expertise” being re-defined through the Internet. Everyone seems to have an opinion of an issue, but when you ask them how they got it, “they” is invoked… “they say”… Who are they? No one seems to know…
We are a fickle, multiplexing busy culture who want it now, fast, easily digestible—and already summarized. Letting others decide for you what is newsworthy is so dangerous; it spawns gossip and feeds into propaganda. The example of the Nazi posters of Jews with long noses should be a reminder of where such things can lead.
I find much of what media does is seduce us to hand over our freedom through insidious tyranny of the mind. I studied George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as allegories in high school. While they still serve their purpose as dystopian cautionary tales, their concepts have already been in use. The trick to the successful implementation of mind control on a massive scale is 1) introduce concepts and related technology in ways that appeal to the public: in the guise of a service (e.g., Joe Public uses his RFID for safety but the government uses them to track his every move; Jane Public uses her Safeway card to get points but Safeway uses her information to better market its products); 2) introduce the changes in small steps (the analogy of the lobster in the boiling pot). When I read Orwell’s 1984 I never thought we would ever sanction such intrusive surveillance. Now, there’s a surveillance camera on every street corner, every storefront and inside every commercial building and hallway. The only place there isn’t one is in your home. Or is there???
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realist” fiction can’t?
Nina Munteanu: The science fiction genre is the pre-eminent literature of allegory and metaphor. By describing “the other” (what does not yet exist, what might never exist) science fiction writers describe “us”. Through our POV characters and their world’s reactions to the unknown.
Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”: “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.
Spec Can: How much does your Canadian identity influence the worlds you create?
Nina Munteanu: Quite a bit, actually. It’s a wonderful and interesting question that had me pondering quite a while—just like a Canadian—to respond. I feel a strong Canadian identity and I’m certain it imbues my main characters and the cultures I portray. Firstly, I make a point of using Canadian places as settings for my fiction (if set on Earth, that is).
I like that Robert J. Sawyer, back in the 1980s, either set part of his novels in Canada or made at least one of his main characters a Canadian. This was in a time when it wasn’t vogue for a large American publisher to set your novel outside the USA unless it was some place globally recognized, like Paris. Sawyer wasn’t the only one; other notable Canadian SF authors who set their stories in Canada include Charles De Lint, Cory Doctorow and Guy Gavriel Kay.
Most of my novels are set at least partly in Canada, even my space adventure, the Splintered Universe Trilogy. In the trilogy, detective Rhea Hawke travels to Quebec, where she encounters her past. Canada is a truly multi-cultural country and serves an excellent fractal microcosm for writing about mixed civilizations in the universe. The trilogy features over thirty alien cultures, worlds and species. I used both my ecological background and my own multi-cultural background to create it.
Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?
Nina Munteanu: It tends to be darker and more reflective. With fewer happy endings… LOL! Who else but a Canadian would write a science fiction romance with a tragic ending? When I wrote The Cypol (Extasy Books) I discounted the protocol of the romance genre for happy endings. The Canadian publisher accepted the novelette, which says a lot. Even though the critics liked it, romance fans hated the book. LOL! I think that Canadian SF authors bring a dark edge to the genre that slides a bit into literary fiction. Again, perhaps why Booker prize-winner in literary fiction Margaret Atwood finds herself writing speculative fiction. Her works are a good example of what Canadian SF writers do best: infuse meaningful reflection and deep allegory in speculation. I think much of Canadian speculative fiction springs from our multi-cultural and northern setting.
Spec Can: What important role can curiosity play in creating a better future?
Nina Munteanu: Curiosity is a wonderful trait to cultivate. When you’re curious you step outside of yourself into a wonderful world. One of the things I re-learned from my son was how to stop and look. Really look, as in bend down on hands and knees and peer close, get dirty. Curiosity feeds our souls. It slows us down so we can pay attention. It teaches us to be interested in our world, to observe and feel. It helps us crawl outside the box, peer around corners into dark alleys where thrilling adventure lurks. It gives us courage to move and act. It helps direct us and self-correct. A great person once said that there is nothing disinteresting in the world; only disinterested people. If we all expressed interest in our world—instead of focusing on ourselves—I think we’d find it a much better place. One with less worry, conflict and war.
Spec Can: Darwin’s Paradox deals with the intersection of humanity and technology. What role do you see technology playing in our future?
Nina Munteanu: Technology is a wonderful tool. Tools, of course, reflect their user. So a tool can give aid in one case or be wielded as a weapon in another. This is the paradox of technology. In Icaria, the biotech world of Darwin’s Paradox, even people are considered tools (veemelds, bioengineered with the ability to meld with the machine community) to be used and abused according to the whims and insecurities of its Technocratic politicians.
I see technology playing a more dominant role in our society as we embrace its integration more and more. I’m thinking of wearable AI, intelligent homes, vehicles and roads, biotechnological implants that will make communication seamless and immediate or heal colds through nano-technology. Back in the 1980s, when I wrote my first draft of Angel of Chaos (prequel to Darwin’s Paradox) in which everyone wore a Vee-set (computer & communication device) on their head, there were no cell phones and certainly no Bluetooth devices in existence. Now, we don’t think twice when we see someone walking down the street talking to “themselves”.
Spec Can: Your work often deals with the collision of past and present and the way that our pasts continue to influence us no matter how much we try to escape from them. What inspires your interest in the lingering of the past?
Nina Munteanu: I like to explore the nature of causality, destiny, fate and free-will and how these interact in the hard choices we must often make with our limited perception. This is something I investigate much further in my latest book, a historical fantasy about parallel universes and splitting realities: The Last Summoner. In the story, the young hero Vivianne discovered that she was unable to alter History the way she’d intended. She found to her dismay that every time she set out to alter a crucial event, quirky consequences ensued and events did not yield to her clever manipulations—as though History had an uncooperative conscience and a predetermined destiny to fulfill. So, I ask the question: what if History (as in any realized reality) is predetermined through its harmonic relationship with other realizable realities? Given that all mass and energy is governed and expressed through frequency, and given that in physics (and music) frequencies exist as multiples of some fundamental frequency; then does it not follow that threads of realizable realities, intertwined around a fundamental path (of history), would move inexorably toward a common destiny?
Our past follows us like a shadow. Who we are is very much a function of our past (our upbringing, our education, culture, parental guidance and experiences of childhood and adolescence) and more; what we do with that is fascinating and compelling. Do we enslave ourselves to our past? Or do we learn from it and move on into the future? Do we fatalistically wait for destiny to unfold or do we create our own? But then, what about quantum mechanics and harmonic frequencies? What about karma, reincarnation, quantum entanglement, morphic resonance and the extended mind? Is that destiny?
More and more, I’ve become fascinated by the interrelatedness of things in space-time, particularly in ways that can’t be explained. Coincidence, precognition, déjà vu—these all appear to play a shadow-dance with each other. Quantum mechanics shows us that not only is “solid” matter made up mostly of energy and “empty” space but what makes a solid a chair vs. you sitting on it is the vibration of its energy. Quantum science has demonstrated that light and matter are made of both particles and waves and can exist in two simultaneous states: Schrodinger’s cat…quantum entanglement or non-local connection, the notion that particles can be linked in such a way that changing the quantum state of one instantaneously affects the other, even if they are light years apart. And what does it mean when solid flows, ghost-like, through itself under certain conditions? In my trilogy Splintered Universe one person’s past is another’s future. And where they meet…perhaps in dreams.
Spec Can: Your work employs scientific discourse, while being completely literary. In what ways can science and the humanities speak to one another?
Nina Munteanu: Through the literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy. These genres explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.
Spec Can: Darwin’s Paradox explores the politics of fear and the use of fear as a mechanism for social control. What inspired your interest in this area? What should we, as a society, be concerned about regarding political uses of fear?
Nina Munteanu: Tyrants have always used fear as their primary tool to enslave a population. There is nothing like fear to motivate us. Fear of heights, of the dark, of failure, of change, of the unknown. Letting fear rule us spawns prejudice, racism, conformity and conservatism, and even tradition.
History has provided us with so many examples of how governments used fear to motivate its citizens, either through subversion (e.g., by pointing to an outside enemy, the “other”; e.g. the Jews in Nazi Germany and Poland; Taliban terrorists in the USA) or open oppression (e.g., dictatorship of Ceausescu in Communist Romania). While the latter is of course dreadful, it is the former that we must be so mindful of. It is far more insidious. Subversive use of fear allows shape-shifting politicians in the guise of “doing good” to do evil.
Spec Can: You have also coached and offered resources to aspiring authors. What is it like to mentor new authors and what is one of your most memorable experiences coaching an author?
Nina Munteanu: I’ve been teaching biology in college and university since the 1980s. There’s something very special about mentoring and helping turn on lights, particularly creative lights. I’ve helped so many writers find their confidence and their way to get closer to publication. It’s very rewarding to see that. And when they get their first book out, that’s even more cool!
Spec Can: Are there any other ideas or thoughts that you would be interested in sharing with your readers?
Nina Munteanu: None except to say thank you for a wonderful interview and thought-provoking questions. I really enjoyed answering them.
I want to thank Nina Munteanu for this wonderful interview and for sharing her insights with readers. It is always a pleasure to interview such insightful people. One can easily see what a fantastic educator as well as writer she is.
You can explore Ms. Munteanu’s website at http://www.ninamunteanu.com/