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book review

Chris Turner’s essays span years and find maturity

Chris Turner's essay collection, How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change, is many things: a travelogue, a work of tech reportage, and a document of our frightening ecological moment. It's also, arguably, a coming-of-age story. The essays are in rough chronological order. The oldest are from the late '90s and early 2000s, when Turner was a twentysomething writing for the Toronto tech magazine Shift. The latest, from 2009 to 2012, appeared in The Walrus and Eighteen Bridges, where he found a home for his writing after Shift's demise. Each essay comes with a short preface, where Turner sometimes acknowledges their flaws. He refuses, however, to airbrush them. The book is like one of those mid-career gallery retrospectives where the artist's works (juvenilia, experiments, breakthroughs, and masterpieces) hang sequentially, each representing a phase in life.

The early essays are good, but Turner relies too heavily on his journalistic heroes. While at Shift, Turner ventured to remote outposts of the "dotcom frontier": the risky, lucrative Internet gambling sector in Antigua, the Cyberjaya IT-themed city in Malaysia, and DEF CON, the legendary Vegas hacker convention. This last essay is the weakest in the collection, for a reason Turner acknowledges: it's too indebted to David Foster Wallace. The prose is pedantic and hyperbolic. And, like Wallace, Turner places his self-deprecating persona at the centre of the narrative. (In his non-fiction, Wallace seemed eager to convince us that he was a humble Midwesterner, not the surefooted egoist who could write Infinite Jest.) Turner's false-modesty enables him to evade what should be the number-one priority for a writer at DEF CON: explaining the software that the hackers are making. He gets close at times but then steps back, claiming, at one point, that technological specifics are "way over my head."

In another essay, Why Technology Is Failing Us, Turner punctuates his prose with folksy, conversational ticks  ("I mean, fuck," and "It was – listen – it was a goddamn miracle"). These are affectations, and not just because they're indebted to Hunter S. Thompson: people use interjections like these in speech, but nobody inadvertently writes them.

This piece is important, however, because it marks the beginning of Turner's long-standing engagement with climate change. It begins at Montreal's Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, where Turner witnesses a demo of an early hydrogen car, the Ford P2000, and wonders why it's taking so long to get the thing to market. (Depressingly, Turner wrote the essay thirteen years ago.) Compared to the problems of climate change, he argues, the Internet seems like a novelty. We've run fiber optic cables underneath poisoned oceans, and we've brought connectivity to an imperiled Arctic ecology, but so what? Our global village sits amid the ruins of a desecrated natural world.

In a more hopeful essay, The Age of Breathing Underwater, he dives to Hardy Reef, a part of the Great Barrier Reef, a natural wonder that isn't long for the world. He comes to see scuba diving as a metaphor for the technologies we'll need to create in the future – the kinds that enable life to carry on amid seemingly inhospitable circumstances. In "The New Grand Tour," he travels to northern and western Europe, the one region, he argues, where such innovations are flourishing. He marvels at Copenhagen's intricate bike and pedestrian infrastructure, houses in the Freiberg suburb of Vauban that are rigged up to generate their own power (and then some), and the glistening, sunlit spires of Solùcar, a massive Andalusian solar-energy complex.

By this point in the collection (a little more than halfway through), he's settled into his identity as an environmental reporter, and his prose has blossomed.  When writing about the Great Barrier Reef, Turner describes "tiny fish the colour of a roadworker's safety vest or the hat on a backwoods hunter's head." And in the remarkable final essay, Bearing Witness, about British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest, Turner describes "pan-frying halibut steaks as thick as a Melville novel," and walking on porous river banks so dense "with foliage they seemed to exhale when you stepped on them." These are writerly flourishes (original, tactile) but they serve their subject matter well. Turner's later work is memorable but not bombastic; he's learned to take an expressive picture without stepping into the frame.

My favourite essay in the collection is "Calgary Reconsidered," about his hometown, which he loves, sometimes in spite of itself. He argues that behind the "Calgary monomyth" of rodeos, oil kingpins, and Smithbilt hats, there's a progressive city finding its footing – the Cowtown of Ralph Klein giving way to the creative class metropolis of Naheed Nenshi. Is it possible that the green-tech revolutions of Europe will find a future in Canada's oil capital? Turner doesn't make such a bold prediction outright, but he argues that Calgary's best innovations are ahead of it.

"[Calgary] is a young city," Turner writes, "stupid and headstrong, brilliant and bold, and it may embarrass itself (again), but it will probably surprise you yet." I believe him. He's a prescient writer, and he knows what it means to be ambitious, eager, and full of potential. He knows what it means to grow up too.

Simon Lewsen is a writing instructor at the University of Toronto and a contributor to Hazlitt, Reader's Digest, Toronto Life and The Walrus.

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