Dystopia & Scale: Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water

Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water is set in a far future that, after centuries of global warming, feels almost pre-modern in many respects. In the Scandinavian village where 17-year-old Noria Kaitio lives, drinking water is rationed out in waterskins, but people still have personal electronic devices they can use to read and to communicate with each other. Adding to the time-out-of-time feel of the novel is Noria’s status as the daughter of the local tea master; as his only child, she’s been learning the rituals of the tea ceremony, even though it’s far from traditional for women to take on the position. The ceremonies are like an anchor to the past, something we can grab on to as recognizable (even if only in principle) in a strange new world. (Although the novel doesn’t explain how the Japanese tea ceremony came to be handed down through generations of a Finnish family, Itäranta did think this through, and has discussed it in interviews.)

As Noria’s father prepares her to inherit his role as tea master, he reveals the existence of a natural spring, hidden in the caves near their home. This water source needs to be kept secret from the New Qianese army that has conquered the Scandinavian Union, but that’s not the only emotional burden that it places on Noria. Itäranta pays just as much attention to her young protagonist’s more intimate crises, dovetailing them into the political dilemma in a way that fans of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale can well appreciate.

One thing that I’m learning to appreciate as I read around what we might call “dystopia” is that, although it’s set in worlds that have undergone big (literally cataclysmic) changes, the most successful stories work on a much smaller scale. Yes, the backstory of the disasters that shaped Noria’s world, or the world of Edan Lepucki’s California, is intriguing enough that we expect some details. Too much information, though, and a story risks veering into disaster porn, the bookish equivalent of special-effects explosions covering up a weak narrative.

That’s not the case here. Itäranta zooms in tightly on Noria and her immediate environment: her family, her family’s legacy, her best friend, her village. Beyond that, we know just enough to set the scene at first, then a little bit more to make the external threats to Noria credible. There is a mystery about the past that Noria uncovers, and you read because you want to learn what that’s about, but you read primarily because you want to see how Noria copes with the responsibilities that are thrust upon her.

In that respect, it’s worth noting that Memory of Water is presented to readers by its publisher as “adult” science fiction, although I can easily envision a scenario where it could have been published as young adult fiction, recognizable as a coming-of-age story in a futuristic setting. It’d be interesting to see if teenage readers find their way to Noria’s story anyway; it also goes to show just how arbitrary the boundaries between YA and “grown-up” reading can be. That said, no matter how ridiculous the anxiety that some literary observers display about people over 21 reading books branded as YA may be, it’s good, I think, that such a label can’t be held against this compelling debut. It’s a story that deserves to find a wide readership, and I look forward to seeing what Itäranta does next.

Back in April, I picked Ann Leckie’s debut, Ancillary Justice, as my frontrunner for the Nebula Award for best novel, presented annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America. It did, in fact, take that prize—and, recently, also won the best novel award for this year’s Hugos, which are voted on by a consortium of science fiction and fantasy fans. It also won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction published in the United Kingdom. All of which is to say, you might want to read it now, so you’re up to speed when the sequel, Ancillary Sword, comes out this October.

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on Beacon.)

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20 August 2014 | read this |