Saturday, March 10, 2018

With “Missions”— Mars Delivers!

Komarov sees the light...
Since “Expanse”, I’ve been on the lookout for an equally sophisticated treatment of space exploration—something that doesn’t slide into horrific mind-numbing and gut-wrenching insult to the senses, unrealistic character twists and visceral shock devices. Something that delivers…

Season 1 of “Missions” has delivered in so many ways. Created by Henri Debeurme, Julien LaCombe and Ami Cohen, this French series on the exploration of Mars has so far explored human evolution, ancient history, trans-humanism, artificial intelligence, and environmental issues in a thrilling package of intrigue, adventure and discovery. From the vivid realism of the Mars topography to the intricate, realistic and well-played characters, “Missions” builds a multi-layered mystery with depth that thrills with adventure and complex questions and makes you think long after the show is finished. 

The first episode of the series starts with a real tragedy: the first human to die in space flight; the 1967 fatal crash landing of the Russian Soyus 1 piloted by Cosmonaut Vladimir Komorov. In a stirring article on National Public Radio, Robert Krulwich provides incredible insight into this historic tragedy:

Starman by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Kamarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space. The two men were close; they socialized, hunted and drank together. In 1967, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn't back out because he didn't want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement. 
Gagarin and Komarov, hunting
The story begins … when Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, decided to stage a spectacular mid-space rendezvous between two Soviet spaceships. The plan was to launch a capsule, the Soyuz 1, with Komarov inside. The next day, a second vehicle would take off, with two additional cosmonauts; the two vehicles would meet, dock, Komarov would crawl from one vehicle to the other, exchanging places with a colleague, and come home in the second ship. It would be, Brezhnev hoped, a Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Brezhnev made it very clear he wanted this to happen. 
The problem was Gagarin. Already a Soviet hero, the first man ever in space, he and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems — serious problems that would make this machine dangerous to navigate in space. The mission, Gagarin suggested, should be postponed. The question was: Who would tell Brezhnev? Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command. Everyone who saw that memo, including Russayev, was demoted, fired or sent to diplomatic Siberia.
With less than a month to go before the launch, Komarov realized postponement was not an option. He met with Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, and said, "I'm not going to make it back from this flight." Russayev asked, Why not refuse? According to the authors, Komarov answered: "If I don't make this flight, they'll send the backup pilot instead." That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn't do that to his friend. "That's Yura," the book quotes him saying, "and he'll die instead of me. We've got to take care of him." 
Jeanne Renoir
In the opening scene of “Missions”, we never see the actual crash landing; instead, as Komarov hurtles to the ground, he suddenly sees a strange white light and then we cut to the present day. 

Now in an alternate present day, the international crew of the space ship Ulysses is readying for its journey to Mars. Days before the mission take off from Earth, psychologist Jeanne Renoir is asked to replace the previous psychologist who died suddenly in a freak accident.

The eccentric Swedish billionaire, William Meyer is also on board the Ulysses. His goal is to be the first mission to land on Mars. However, shortly before they are scheduled to land, the crew discover that Z1—a ship sent by charismatic Ivan Goldstein of rival corporation Zillion (partnered with NASA)—has overtaken them and has already landed on Mars. But the Z1 crew have not been heard from since sending a cryptic warning: “Don’t come here. Don’t try and save us… It’s too dangerous,” an intense Z1 astronaut warns.

Finding Komarov
After a rough landing through a major dust storm on Mars, the Ulysses crew struggle to fix an inoperable computer system (Irene) and life support system aboard their shuttle, which was presumably damaged by the landing. While not expecting to find any survivors of the Z1 crew, part of the Ulysses crew head to the Z1 landing site in a rover, looking for parts they can scavenge to power their shuttle. They find only remnants of the Z1 ship. Then they discover someone alive in the Martian desert. They presume he is from the American team but he insists that he is Russian and that his name is Vladimir Komarov…

Jeanne picking up a Martian "pyramid"
So begins this surrealistic mystery that transcends history, identity and our concepts of reality with tantalizing notions of Atlantis, the mythical metal orichalcum, DNA as data and much more. The first season of “Missions” focuses on Jeanne Renoir as she unravels the mystery of Mars; a mystery that ties her inextricably to Komarov. Who, what is he? Surely not the dead cosmonaut resurrected from 1967?

From the beginning, we glimpse a surreal connection between Jeanne and Komarov and ultimately between Earth and Mars: from her childhood admiration for the Russian’s heroism on Earth to the “visions” they currently share that link key elements of her past to Mars and Komarov’s strange energy-giving powers, to Jeanne’s own final act of heroism on Mars.

As the storyline develops, linking Earth and Mars in startling ways, and as various agendas—personal missions—are revealed, we finally clue in on the main question that “Missions”—through Komarov and finally Jeanne—is asking: are we worth saving?

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

My Secret Places in The University of Toronto

entranceway to Terrence Donnelly
These days, if I’m not in some indie cafĂ©, writing while sipping a flat white, you can most likely find me somewhere on the University of Toronto campus. I teach engineering students, social science students, and health science students how to write. As I dash all over campus from one writing centre to another, I think how lucky I am.

What I wrote not long after I came to Toronto and started teaching at UofT, remains true today:

When I first came to the University of Toronto to teach, I felt an abiding sense of “home” braced with the thrill of adventure. It was like “falling in love.”
 Really. To fall in love is like coming home, after all. And what is “home” but a tapestry of splendid memories whose textures weave us into who we presently are. It’s been four years since I came to UofT and I still feel that glowing thrill every time I walk through campus. Whether it’s past a century-old stone building, beneath a canopied archway of chestnuts, into a well-treed enclave, or through a high-ceilinged glass building; I am both home and on an adventure. UofT is a place of learning—erudite, splendid, yet humble—beautifully epitomizing “new embracing old”. When new embraces old, we get magic. Wizard-magic. Harry Potter kind of magic. The kind of magic that only someone who is open, faithful, and confident can wield. This is ancient magic. The magic that lurks like Reznikoff’s ghost in the ancient halls of University College, or the magic currently wielded at 1 Spadina. A magic borne of wisdom, lore, and story.

Established in 1827, the University of Toronto is snugly located in the centre of downtown Toronto; yet, it’s not so much a part of the city as the city is a part of it.  UofT’s campus probes into the city’s infrastructure like a creative amoeba: interacting, absorbing and expressing. The UofT downtown campus sprawls dozens of blocks in all directions; embedding itself in the city with a blend of century-old buildings and avant-garde modern chic. It’s not so much re-inventing itself at every turn as morphing and co-evolving with the city.

windows of University College
The UofT campus represents for me the very best the city—any city—has to offer: a vibrant, well-connected place of learning and activity, supported by original and tasteful landscape architecture: healthy trees and parkland full of songbirds, tasteful new and old architecture and alluring courtyards and doorways that beckon my soul. The UofT campus provides a myriad of possibilities and historic depth for the adventurous soul. Did you know, for instance, that Canada’s first electric computer was installed at UofT? Or that UofT is haunted? Or that much of UofT’s architecture was inspired by structures at Oxford and Cambridge? Or that an old nuclear accelerator sits fallow in the McLennan Physical Labs building?

The avid naturalist in me appreciates UofT’s original integration of nature into its architecture and grounds. I seek its natural enclaves for quiet contemplation and reflection. They’ve become my “secret places,” destinations along my journeys across campus to my various writing appointments. Here are just a few:

Terrence Donnelly’s Bamboo Garden in Terrence Donnelly Centre:

Stairway alongside bamboo garden
The Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research (CCBR) is where some of the coolest research and discoveries in biomolecular and cellular research are being made. Benjamin Blencowe and his team’s recent uncovering a protein’s sweeping influence on autism last December using introverted mice, for instance. Named after the philanthropist Terrence J. Donnelly, the centre was the vision of UofT Professors Cecil Yip and James Friesen. In the 1990s they foresaw that new genomic technologies would open-up progress in biomedical research in a time when there was no human genome sequence or stem cell technologies and DNA sequencing was slow and inexpensive. Yip and Friesen envisioned a collaborative and interdisciplinary research facility that, when it opened in 2005, brought together over 500 specialists—biologists, computer scientists, physicians, pharmacists and engineers—to advance the university's groundbreaking research in molecular biology.

Wall of Rosebrugh Building from garden
The centre is located on what was previously Taddle Creek Road. The CCBR building—which from College Street resembles two colourful stacked cubes—is set back by a gradually sloping plaza with granite benches and groves of white paper birch. The building and plaza are flanked by several historic buildings (80-year old Fitzgerald Medical Building to the east; the 1919 Rosebrugh Institute of Biomaterials and 100-year old Lassonde Mining building to the west; and the Medical Sciences Building to the north).

The bamboo garden in Donnelly’s spacious atrium is meditative and calming; a lush forest of bamboo and shrubs amidst wooden floors, benches and steps. Created by landscape architect Diana Gerrard, the garden offers several "picnic" sites of wooden platforms and benches, which I learned had come from the ash, tulip and cherry trees that had occupied the original lane way.

Looking down at bamboo garden
Upon entering the complex from College Street, the granite plaza gives way to white terrazzo flooring in an expansive multi-story atrium. The top lit glass-ceilinged atrium connects the adjacent heritage Rosebrugh building to the CCBR in a counterpoint of techno-minimalism with Romanesque tradition. As I walk up the shallow wide steps lined by pillars that reach skyward, the tall bamboo forest to my left beckons. I’ve had many lunches there. I also spend many moments sitting there with a book, reading or just daydreaming beneath a texture of greens.

Breezeway of Knox College Quad:

I usually enter the perpendicular gothic style building from St. George Street; though, you can also come in via Kings College Circle, past the chapel—known for its Hellmuth Wolff organ. Once I pass through the heavy doors of the St. George entrance, I enter a dark foyer and instantly feel like I’m in a church. The chapel is on the other side, yet the deep quiet and surrounding dark wood of the floors, walls and stairways to the right and left of me, enclose me with a sense of sacred holiness. I walk the echoing foyer to the stained-glass doorway of the breezeway ahead. As I open the glass door, the complex scent of tulips and pine greets me with the warm breeze. I have entered another magic place.

Knox College Breezeway
The gothic archway that connects the Knox College Quad is an open breezeway that looks out onto the interior gardens of the quad. Tables and chairs along each side provide a peaceful place to read and write with a quiet view of the outside courtyard of flowers, shrubs, trees and benches. Hanging vines provide additional greenery in the archway.

Whenever I come here, the hustle and bustle of the city just fades away. Busy St. George Street is nearby; yet I don’t feel its influence within this quiet haven, where the soft sounds of Nature embrace me with their songs and stories. I often come here to read and write. I listen to the birds and other natural sounds, letting them lull me into a meditative quietude of bliss. Life slows to a philosopher’s pace and my creative muse awakens. Sometimes I bring one of my indulgences—a poutine from one of the chip trucks on St. George—and feast in my secret place as Nature’s melodies feed my soul. On a warm day, the breezeway also provides a cool respite.

The Laidlaw Quadrangle behind University College

Gateway to magic...
When I first discovered this hidden quadrangle, I felt goosebumps of pure magic course through me. My discovery visit was through the west arched entranceway off the west green, past Bissell House. I passed the gateway into the Courtyard Colonnade, and faced a sunken courtyard shaded by large ironwood and maple trees and surrounded by gothic brick and stone. I’d entered an enchanting world of quiet reflection.

A paved walkway—supported by retaining walls and planted with flowering shrubs—runs on three sides of the quadrangle. The walkway broadens into a terrace to the north, forming an extension of the new Library colonnade. Mature maple and ironwood trees overhang the cloisters and the walkway.
View of west colonnade from quadrangle

Designed by Canadian landscape architect Michael Hough, the quadrangle evokes the courtyards of medieval monasteries and old English universities. Built in 1964, when the Laidlaw wing (and library) separated the college from back campus, Hough’s design translates the essential feature of a monastery or college courtyard—access from inside the building to a covered walk around an open centre—from architecture to landscape.

West cloister facing south with view of courtyard to the right
I’ve since discovered other ways to enter and leave the quadrangle, each one presenting a new perspective to this peaceful place. Each time I come here, I feel my soul sigh with joy. Birds sing the poetry of Nature. Leaves rustle as the wind plays on them. When I’m here, I feel at peace in the city.

UofT Faculty Club: Every journey requires repast—a place to relax, eat and drink—and my feet naturally direct me to one of my new favourite haunts: the UofT Faculty Club.

UofT Faculty Club
Located close to the hub of the campus, on Willcocks Street just east of Spadina, the club is open to members who include faculty, staff, graduate alumni and their guests. I enter the 1896 heritage building, built in a Georgian Revival-style, and passed the elegant first floor lounge to the pub below. 

The pub welcomes me with excellent food, drink and a relaxing ambience. Bathed in rich tones of wood and comfortable chairs and warmed by a cozy fireplace, it reminds me of a Dorset pub I’d visited years ago; full of colourful characters and a well-stocked bar. I feel both at home and like a traveler. Like I’d walked into history with modern comfort. I order the beet salad from my friendly waitress; it provides a refreshing and attractive light meal for a mid-day traveller.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice by Margaret Atwood.