MEMORY OF WATER by Emmi Itäranta – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to pursue some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
There are those who would argue that climate fiction is a newly emerging genre or sub-genre. However, I have my doubts about the pigeon-holing aspect of genre classifications. It seems unhelpful to lure a particular collection of books up a dark alley and imprison them in a cage of genre identity that somehow denigrates their literary merit, relevance and impact.
Even in the dozen or so books I have so far read which touch on climate change and its effects, there is a huge breadth of style, context and content. Climate change is not the cell that confines them but a theme they explore in so many different ways. And that is as it should be, because climate change is a huge and variegated issue that will make the world transforming effect of Covid-19 look little more significant than a soft zephyr blowing through the pages of human history.
Which brings me to my latest climate change themed book – Memory of Water. This is a delightfully told tale – an easy five stars when I came to it on Goodreads.
Itäranta sets her story several centuries in the future. A hot and arid Scandinavia is now ruled over by a militaristic Asian empire, New Qian, drawing heavily on the traditions and culture of China – particularly the tea ceremony. Noria Kaitio, our first-person protagonist, is the only child of the local tea master and his wife who was herself once a university academic.
In this future the dominant effect of climate change is climactic rather than oceanic. The ice has certainly disappeared. Although Noria lives somewhere near the arctic circle “This time of year even the nights didn’t drown the sun in the horizon,” she has no direct experience of snow or land/sea ice. However, it is the hot dry climate rather than the swollen seas that alienate Noria’s everyday experience from our own. Water has become a precious rationed resource. The currency for trade and the measurement of wealth is in skins of water. There is no water to spare even for a shower, let alone a bath. Hygiene is limited to a sponge bath and simple infant illnesses are accentuated by dehydration.
Itäranta conveys that transformed world with some minimalist and wonderfully incidental world building. The characters all wear “insect hoods” when they go outside, and Noria’s friend Sanja works her recycling/repair shop business in a lean too workroom walled on three sides by insect screens. I imagined them as being like mosquito nets. The insect hoods obscure facial expressions, masking intent and emotion as well as – in their existence and use – underlining a radically altered environment.
The authoritarian empire of New Qian decrees water crimes a capital offence and Noria is fearful for her friend over Sanja’s attempts to tap into a watermain and draw off illegal supplements of water for her sick baby sister. But Noria has her own secret, her father the tea master has access to a secret spring – a source of pure water that makes his tea the most prized in the region, a secret that he shows Noria in the book’s opening chapter.
Another aspect of the world building is in Sanja and Noria’s trips to the plastic grave. The indestructable, or at least unbiodegradable, plastic of our time has found a use as the base material for waterskins and scavenging through the plastic grave yields up other treasures. Noria and Sanja’s fascination with an old cassette and cassette player reminded me of another post-apocalyptic scavenger – the roaming city of London in Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines. One might wonder how durable a tape player might be centuries in the future, never mind the tape itself, but Sanja’s talent uncovers a fragment of lost history and sets both girls planning a quest.
Itäranta’s future Finland also uses extrapolations of our own technology. Those who can afford it hire or rent helicarriages – simple vehicles that I pictured like solar powered Tuk Tuks. Multifunction Pods and multi-pods resembling basic smartphones are used to send messages between households. Biometric fingerprint identification is used to link individuals to their own “internet” accounts or register their arrival in cities – which makes for security of access but also ease of government tracking. Names of places emerge, distorted by the Chinese whispers of time – and possibly relocated by sea level rise – but recognisable none the less; “In a place like New Piterburg or Mos Qua, even as far as Xinjing.” That made me want to search for the origins of Kuoloyarvi – the nearest big settlement three hours from Noria’s home village. I asked and Wikipedia answered
Kuoloyarvi is a rural locality in Kandalakshsky District of Murmansk Oblast, Russia, located north of the Arctic Circle at an altitude of 191 meters (627 ft) above sea level. It had no recorded population as of the 2010 Census.
Books that touch on climate change each have to find their own language for the transformation that reshaped the world. Will Self’s The Book of Dave has the “Madeinchina” event, Kim Stanley Robinson in New York 2140 has the “first pulse” and the “second pulse” John Lanchester’s The Wall just has “the change” while Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Last Day has “the slow” and “the stop.” Itäranta has “the twilight century” a time of lost history when complex political and climate changes happened. Itäranta recognises that – much to the disappointment of Hollywood – climate change in all its complex entirety will not play out to the convenient telescoped timescale of a blockbuster action film.
The Orwellian aspects of New Qian’s regime come through the visits to the teahouse by the sinister commander Taro. Noria finds herself caught between upholding the purity of the teahouse traditions, safeguarding her access to an illicit spring, supporting her friend Sanja and embarking on a real-life version of their childhood game “Explorers of New Qian” to follow the path of the people who recorded the tapes. No-one and no story can stand to be pulled in so many different directions for long.
The writing scintillates like the Northern lights, there were so many places where I stopped to make a kindle note of an elegant line or insightful observation.
When Noria is told of the now mythical substance of snow
“I imagined the snowfall coating the fells, changing their craggy surfaces into landscapes as soft as sleep and as ready to drown you.”
When disappointed in some ancient tape recordings
“If the tapes had once held something comprehensible, earth, air, rain and sun had worn the past-world echoes thin a long time ago.”
Noria expressing another approach to a thought I have seen Mark Lawrence and Josiah Bancroft both mention in different ways, that we are simultaneously all versions of ourselves marching through time – a palimpsest if you will.
“A younger version of myself, or perhaps several, nested under my skin, swinging feet that didn’t reach to the floor from the seat, not imagining a day when her parents would not be safely within arm’s reach – or if she did, she closed it quickly out of her mind.”
There are many other lines and perhaps at this point it is worth mentioning the issue of translation. As an English speaker I am always embarrassed by my command of just one language, particularly given my many bilingual friends within and beyond the Fantasy-Hive who hear, speak and write second language English with a fluency that shames the tattered relics of my O’level French and German. On holidays abroad (ah sigh, remember them) I find a terrible defamiliarization on entering a book shop and realising that – in this usually stimulating context – I am as functionally illiterate as a toddler. I know of bilingual friends who come to Bristolcon and stock up on books in English because they value experiencing reading books in the author’s original language. But in a world which has shrunk while its crises have grown, we are all more interdependent and interrelated than ever. It is increasingly important for readers to step outside the echo chamber of English language writing. It is a time to see how authors in other places and other languages are reacting to a crisis imposed on them more by the industrial history of the anglophone west, than by any sins of their own economies.
I mention this because Memory of Water is not in fact a translation, Itäranta wrote it simultaneously in both English and in Finnish. I can be sure then that I have read her words and intention unfiltered by any third party translator – no matter how skilled. However, it is humbling as a mono-linguist writer to see the quality of her English prose.
While Memory of Water has aspects of a YA story in its two teenage protagonists and their rebellious activities, it is something more than that. While Sanja and Noria stand poised on the brink of a great adventure events ultimately pull them in different directions and bring Noria and the reader back to where they started. Goodreads may list Itäranta as a science fiction author, but Memory of Water is in many ways a work of literary fiction as much as speculative fiction. The story is focussed on the character’s journey more than their destination and defies the neat resolution of ending that one might expect from more conventional genre fiction. The book does not try to tell the entire truth of climate change, but it builds its world well enough to frame characters and dress the story. Some aspects of world or plot might not withstand too detailed a scrutiny, but the character’s reflections are more than sufficiently absorbing as Itäranta plays with themes of cycles and stories and history. The water cycle and the carbon cycle both get a subtle mention.
“Most of the soil we walk on once grew and breathed, and once it had the shape of the living long ago.”
Reading an ancient tea master’s notes
“The bones of this man and the water on his blood had returned to earth and sky long ago, but his words and stories were alive and breathing”
This story looks not just at the impact of climate change but at ideas of history and how it can be preserved or overwritten, that electronic records can be more readily edited/overwritten than what is set on paper, and that we are all of us made from water and dust borrowed from the earth. We may shape it into a human form for a few decades or so, but it has been many living things before us and will be many more after us – what memories that water must have!
As Noria’s father tells commander Taro at their first tea ceremony.
“It’s ignorance to think that earth and water can be owned. Water belongs to no one.”