‘How To Breathe Underwater: Field Reports From an Age of Radical Change’ by Chris Turner

How to Breathe Underwater coverReviewed by Tim Runtz

When a young Chris Turner flew to the Caribbean on his first major assignment out of journalism school, it’s not entirely surprising that the resulting dispatch channeled the voice of David Foster Wallace. After all, what writer, “terrified, beyond clueless,” and cutting his feature-writing teeth in a foreign country, wouldn’t err on the side of imitation?

What is surprising is that, despite having “no idea what [he] was doing,” Turner picked up gold at the ’99 National Magazine Awards, and, perhaps more impressively, wrote a timely piece on digital technology that is still relevant, readable, and highly entertaining today. Fifteen years later, Chris Turner has grown from an ambitious and gifted young reporter to one of Canada’s most respected and articulate purveyors of literary non-fiction.

How to Breathe Underwater is a mid-career retrospective of Turner’s magazine work, spanning from his early days on Shift magazine’s tech beat to his more recent (and perpetually award-winning) reportage on cultural politics and climate change. It’s an absorbing and important collection, charting the development of a gifted journalist, and the radical cultural change that took place along the way.

The book begins chronologically where Turner began, with three “Dispatches from the Dotcom Frontier.” Included is the aforementioned “Flipflops, a Desktop, and One Billion Reasons Never To Leave,” which documents the advent of Antigua’s online gambling industry, as well as “A Misunderstood Subculture, A Vegas Resort, and Lots of Black T-Shirts, Laptops and Booze,” a profile of DEF CON, the U.S. hacker community’s annual conference and carousal.

Mercifully, Turner soon moved away from sentence-long headlines. He hasn’t, however, abandoned his original M.O. of immersion journalism, with an eye out for the quirky, and enough sincerity to earn his readers’ trust.

Each piece in the collection includes a brief introduction by the author, which lends a back-stage-pass type of perspective, and also solidifies Turner himself as an important character. This is a book as much about its author as it is about video games and climate change.

We get the sense, as we explore the environmental innovations of Europe with his family (and as he declares his undying yet unglamorous love for the Cow Town he calls home) that this isn’t a stodgy, pencil-pushing newshound, but a genuinely inquisitive guy with an unnatural capacity for pointing out society’s ills in gorgeous and inviting prose.

All this said, it must be noted that a few pieces in How To Breathe Underwater haven’t aged particularly well. Turner’s unabashed enthusiasm for the “visual pyrotechnics” of Zelda 64 (a video game released in 1998) is dated to say the least. And 2002’s “The Legend of Pepsi A.M.” – in which the author’s hunt for an ill-fated breakfast cola reveals the absurdity of corporate capitalism – is a slight letdown, if only because its epic-quest-for-lost-relic narrative seems quaint from this side of Buzzfeed and Wikipedia. How many journalists today would cross international borders just to dig up a cultural artifact from the dust of some warehouse shelf? After all, that’s what Google is for.

Aside from invoking the idealism of the dotcom era, or merely celebrating the budding talents of a now accomplished journalist, why bother re-publishing a collection of essays that document the culture and technologies of yesteryear?

Because these admittedly anachronistic vignettes serve as benchmarks, placeholders in time that grant us perspective to see how far we have, or haven’t, come as a culture since them. Hindsight is 20/20, or, in the author’s more eloquent words, “radical change is amorphous, multivalent, its trajectory clear only in retrospect.”

Take for example the “goddamn miracle” of which Turner writes in “Why Technology is Failing Us (And How We Can Fix It).” It’s 2001, and he’s just driven a fully functioning Ford sedan that expels nothing but drinking-glass-ready water vapour from its exhaust pipe. Even thirteen years later, this still seems like space-age technology essentially unavailable to the average consumer. Yet we can chuckle nostalgically about the archaic websites and entertainment products launched that same year.

By showing us how far we’ve come in terms of digital communications technology over the last decade and a half, How To Breathe Underwater sets us up for the realization that, when it comes to global environmental sustainability, we’ve made pitifully little progress. “If fossil-free renewable energy were as high a priority on the global public agenda as the iPhone 5 or Facebook’s IPO, we’d already be halfway to solving the existential crisis of climate change by now.”

This existential climate crisis has become Turner’s journalistic raison d’être in recent years, and indeed, is the primary focus of this collection’s latter half. From a prospective techno-utopian metropolis in the jungles of Malaysia, to thirteen metres below sea level off the Queensland coast, “being there” matters for Turner’s work. Never more so does it matter than in How To Breathe Underwater’s remarkably benedictory closing essay.

“Bearing Witness” is little more than the diary of a weekend trip to the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia’s coastal wilderness. But through surprising characterization, engrossing narrative, and palpable descriptions of leaping salmon and untamed wild, Turner sincerely demonstrates what’s at stake in the fight for environmental justice. For those of us who can’t make it to the Great Bear Rainforest, Chris Turner will take us there.

How To Breathe Underwater is a pleasure to read. But it’s also an urgent call for a drastic realignment of Western cultural priorities. “Peer-to-peer technology, the wireless web, Super Bowl commercials starring sock puppets—the relative merits of all of these are open to discussion. Here’s something that isn’t: the absolute, bottom-line necessity of clean air, potable water, fertile soil, climactic conditions favourable to human survival.” We’d do well to heed this voice.

Biblioasis | 224 pages | $22.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1-927428757

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