Memory of Water – Emmi Itäranta

MemofWatI think it’s fair to say that the Arthur C. Clarke Award has a theme this year. This is the third book I’ve read from the shortlist, and it’s yet another lit-fic – genre crossover with a post-apocalyptic setting.

And I really didn’t like it.

It’s probably best to start with the premise, because everything that’s wrong with the book more or less stems from the flaws therein. Several hundred years into the future, global warming (or some such similar climate catastrophe) has melted the ice caps; oceans have risen, entire continents have been lost, and almost all sources of fresh water have dried up. The teenage narrator, Noira, lives in the “Scandinavian Union”, a state ruled by the totalitarian “military”, which controls all of the water, and rations it out to the citizenry in such a way as just-about keeps people alive.

The primary narrative concerns Noira and her immediate family as they attempt to keep a freshwater spring near their home hidden from the military. Hiding or not-disclosing a source of water is a “water crime”, punishable by death.

So far so good; climate change is, of course, a very worth topic for SF to cover. The first problem, though, is that Memory of Water’s larger-scale worldbuilding isn’t consistent with its basic premise. Fresh water is supposedly ultra-scarce (so much so that sacks of it have become currency, valued like gold), yet the text is peppered with casual descriptions of the characters taking showers, washing their clothes, and watering their gardens, which completely undermines any efforts the writer makes to generate tension and hammer home her themes of desperation and water poverty. Noira’s father’s assertion that living without their hidden spring would mean “the garden would suffer somewhat” is hardly evocative of a fraught struggle to cling to life.

There are also numerous references to a nearby sea; in fact, the world is almost entirely covered with water – but there is no mention whatsoever of desalination technology. This would be fine if the post-apocalyptic society of the Union was technologically atavistic, but it isn’t: there are trains, fingerprint scanners, solar panels and a network of communication devices called “pods”. All of this stuff has survived the climate catastrophe, but the basic knowledge needed to remove salt from water has, apparently, been lost. (Also: with such an abundance of modern technology, why are the characters so amazed when they stumble upon some old CDs, or a broken radio, or any of the other salvage that seems strewn all over the place?)

The second problem has to do with the book’s moral direction. Memory of Water is sympathetic with the plight of Noira and her family. She’s a likable, honest, and loving narrator, and at no point is this presentation ambiguous or ironic. Noira is the heroine. But it seems to me that keeping a source of fresh water hidden from the dying-of-thirst society that surrounds you (and hogging all the water for yourself) is an extremely dickish thing to do. Exactly why Noira and her family want to hide the spring at the back of their house isn’t clear. There’s some vague stuff about water being “free”, and the military wanting to “own” it, but this isn’t at all satisfying or substantial. The real reason, it seems, is that the narrative just needs a conflict to move things forward.

Other sub-plots are picked up and abandoned haphazardly.  Noira and her best friend spend a good chunk of the novel attempting to uncover the fate of a lost scientific expedition, which is by far the most interesting part of the book, and by far the most frustrating when no answers are forthcoming. Likewise, what her mother is researching when she leaves to work in a faraway university is never explored, and the deeper politics and power structures behind the ubiquitous “military” are anybody’s guess.

Thematic and emotional interests are similarly underdeveloped. For the first half of the novel, Noira will often try to imagine what winter is like (a season that’s vanished in the climate-changed future), which creates some wonderful visual contrasts between the arid world of the books’ setting, and the crystalline snowscape of Noira’s dreams. There’s a suggestion that Noira’s winter-obsession will eventually have implications for the book’s plot, or at least some metaphorical significance, but about half-way through the text, all the winter stuff is abandoned, never to be mentioned again.

***

Stylistically Memory of Water is a real grab bag. Emmi Itäranta is clearly a sensitive writer; the prose is very stylised and highly emotional, but it also overreaches itself philosophically. Almost every page contains some kind of aphoristic or quasi-spiritual statement about water, most of which are nowhere near as deep or as poetic as the writer seems to think. The basic notion that, in a water-scarce world, a whole philosophy of water has arisen with its own set of metaphors, idioms and symbolism is commendable. Unfortunately, Memory of Water lacks the intellectual nous to make this really work. A lot of the water-philosophy is twee, and a lot of it is just baffling nonsense. Some examples:

Water has no beginning and no end (p31)

We are children of water, and water is death’s close companion. The two cannot be separated from us, for we are made of the versatility of water and the closeness of death. (p 113)

Water is the most versatile of all elements […] it doesn’t hesitate to shatter against sharp rocks in rainfall […] it exists beyond all beginnings and ends. (p221)

I was like a calm surface of water, extreme and unnatural (p62)

The overarching idea that, in this world, water has a memory – specifically a memory of everything human society has done to it – is strong, both poetically and metaphorically. Unfortunately, though, this concept is just lost amid the never-ending salvo of confusing, cod-philosophical gibberish that dominates the narrative.

There’s also the regrettable fact that the vast majority of this stuff that enters the dialogue makes every character sound as if they’re suffering from a bladder disorder, “I can feel water wanting to leave me”, “my water may run dry freely” etc.

Elsewhere, the sentence-by-sentence styling just feels sort of, off. Sometimes, as above, there’s an eloquence issue, and sometimes the characters themselves just sound weirdly artificial, an attempt at over-styling that hasn’t paid off:

Silence is not needed to chain tame things (p. 134)

You’ll be a better tea master than I know how to be anymore. (p86)

A circle only knows its own shape (p. 219).

Memory of Water is a perfect example of a book that’s brilliant in abstraction, but let down in its execution. There’s so much I wanted to like about it. The styling is way off, but at least it’s an *attempt* at an idiosyncratic style; something that’s too rare in modern Science Fiction. Likewise the ending would be very striking if I’d been made to care about the characters or anything that happens to them. There are little nuggets of success; the counter-intuitive idea that water, so abundant, has nonetheless become more valuable than gold is a wonderful inversion of the way the world is. And the basic concept of a post-apocalyptic story that’s very small, personal and intimate, rather than the Big, Important, Violent stuff that dominates the genre is also refreshing. I’m intrigued to see where Emmi Itäranta goes next, but as it stands, Memory of Water is just… forgettable.

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6 responses to “Memory of Water – Emmi Itäranta

  1. Interesting. Hoarding at times of shortage is generally seen as morally reprehensible. It often receives extremely harsh punishments, even death, and there isn’t usually much popular pushback against that as in a sense it’s a crime against the wider community.

    To make hoarders heroes is possible, but you do need a good reason for them to be hoarding. Watering the garden seems a bit doubtful if others are struggling to get enough to drink.

    • Yeah, it’s pretty odd.

      I *think* the rationale behind it is that, if they disclose the water source to the authorities, then those authorities will confiscate it, without sharing any among the people. So, rather than that, they keep it to themselves. But it’s not very clear. The de facto position of the text is just that the “military” are bad, therefore we have to keep the water for ourselves. Or something.

  2. I was tempted to check out this novel given its listing for the Clarke Award, but based on what you’ve written (a review so coherent as to reduce the novel to pieces) I’m left wondering why it was short-listed. Any thoughts? (And if it wasn’t clear, I love well written critiques. The field could do with many, many more.)

    • Many thanks 🙂

      I read it as part of a project to read the entire Clarke shortlist this year, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

      As to why it was nominated? I have no idea. I think it’s obviously of a qualitative level below the other 5 nominees. I mean, the premise is a good one, and the fact that its story occurs on the outside of something that’s much bigger, but that’s never described, is quite interesting. And, as I said, its attempt at something very stylised and quasi-philosophical is commendable. But otherwise… I just don’t get it.

      Thanks again for you kind comment. Much appreciated.

  3. Ugh. I have heard a number of very short and quiet comments about this one not being great, but now I really know why. Sounds far too problematic to bother with. Glad to get it off of my to-read list really.

    Did you read the entire nominee list then? What did you think about the ultimtae Clarke winner in comparison to the rest? Worthy? Not what you would have chosen?

    • I read them all before the award except for the Michael Faber, which is a bagillion pages long, so I couldn’t fit it in. The difficulty with the Clarke award is that the shortlist is only announced, like, 3 weeks before the award is given, so it can be tough to read them all.

      I thought Station Eleven was fine. (my review is here: http://wp.me/pWuJh-Bd ), probably my second favourite of the shortlist. I would have liked Harry August to win, as I think that was the most successful at marrying its literary elements with its purely genre/science-fictional parts. Which, I think, is also where Station Eleven struggled the most.

      And yeah, Memory of Water is pretty problematic. I didn’t mention it in my review because it’s a sort of under-developed idea, but I wonder if part of the book’s problem is a kind of privilege blindness?….. Scarce access to clean water is a lived, real-world reality for millions of people RIGHT NOW, but apparently Science Fiction needs to create some unthinkable apocalypse in order to address/appreciate such a thing.

      But I’m not saying that SF can’t use abstraction to deal with real-world issues (which is, actually, where SF is most powerful IMHO – its potential for metaphor), but that’s very much *not* the vibe I got from this book. I dunno; this is kinda a sketchy rant on my part and, as I said, underdeveloped atm, but the idea that no access to water is a real world thing, but when imagining it happening in Europe, it’s suddenly an APOCALYPSE!! … it’s all a little troubling to me. Is it offensive? Or maybe just dismissive/erasure? Not sure. Needs more thought.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting, much appreciated 🙂
      Tom.

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