Graduate student combines storytelling, science in debut dystopian novel

Dévorés, University of Guelph, Charles-Etienne Ferland, entomology, insects, biology, ecology, science fiction, dystopiaDisaster strikes. A swarm of giant wasps are devouring everything around them, causing worldwide dystopia. But there is one hope: a tiny island off of Lake Ontario may have avoided the chaos. It’s up to Jack to get to the island, break into the hive where the wasps are hibernating, and free the human hostages inside.

This forms the premise of Charles-Étienne Ferland’s new book, Dévorés, skillfully combining his love for storytelling and his research in entomology.

The University of Guelph graduate student’s debut novel hits the shelves today, but it has been a culmination of years of work and thought into how he could best integrate his creative side with his scientific work. As an undergraduate student studying Environmental Studies and Biology at the University of Ottawa, Ferland also took literature, theatre, and music classes. Initially, he planned to write a comic book and had even started preparing the drawings.

“After a couple of all-nighters here and there, and maybe not as focused in some classes as I should’ve been, at some point, I set the drawings aside,” says Ferland. “By then, I had published a few short stories, so I thought, ‘Why not try to make it a novel?'”

Meaning “devoured” in English, Dévorés is published by Les Éditions L’Interligne and has already received some fanfare with Ferland featured on Rogers TV and the CBC.

He took some time to answer questions from Research Matters about his childhood devouring books from a neighbourhood entomologist, why its important to study insect ecology (both socially and economically), and his hope to spread the love for these “formidable creatures that don’t get all the attention they deserve.”

What message do you hope readers will leave with after reading your novel?

Curiosity for the beautiful microcosm of living beings. Sure, in the novel, the wasps are depicted as terrible and dangerous, and one of my concerns was for entomologist colleagues to say, “Aren’t you afraid this will turn people away from insects?” But people didn’t dislike Steven Spielberg’s E.T. after seeing Ridley Scott’s Alien. Therefore, even if the insects in this novel are not so nice, hopefully I can trigger some sort of curiosity about insects.

Dévorés, University of Guelph, Charles-Etienne Ferland, entomology, insects, biology, ecology, science fiction, dystopiaIn this book, I was hoping to use science fiction to promote entomology. My plans for the next novel would be to add a short educational blurb at the end indicating where fiction stops and where science begins. I think this is missing from Dévorés. Insects are a world to discover! Every species has a story, a name, a biological cycle, etc. While the fictional insects are portrayed as evil and despicable in the novel, insects in real life are formidable creatures that don’t get all the attention they deserve. I would be delighted to hear if people went on to investigate amateur entomological societies or professional societies afterwards to learn more about the six-legged world because of Dévorés!

I do encourage interested amateurs to reach out to amateur entomological societies if they want to discover entomology as a hobby, or even to seek out academic entomological societies if they are thinking about pursuing further work in this field.

What inspired your novel?

The novel was inspired by my field of interest: entomology, or the study of insects. While I do work on wasps in my graduate work, the one that I study is a very small parasitoid (~1mm) in the family Platygastridae. In my novel, Dévorés, a giant, terrible wasp species devours everything, including human beings. It is hell on earth for the survivors; nothing but misery, chaos, and desolation. It is, of course, a fictional insect inspired by the family Vespidae. This includes hornets and yellow jackets. Most members of this family are known for their eusociality, meaning their level of social organization featuring a queen and workers in a nest—absent features in Synopeas myles.

There are four pieces of fiction that influenced me: The Road by Cormac Mccarthy, I am Legend by Richard Matheson, The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, and The Last of Us scripted by Neil Druckmann. I can’t really explain why the genre caught my attention, maybe because, when facing the end of the world, the possibilities to build a new one are endless! There’s an undeniable freedom in which characters can evolve.

What led you to your field of research?

Dévorés, University of Guelph, Charles-Etienne Ferland, entomology, insects, biology, ecology, science fiction, dystopiaMy passion for insects began when I was a child, living across the street from an entomologist from AAFC, whom I bugged—pun intended—every now and then to borrow a book or two. My interest grew while working as a crop scout during my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies and Biology at the University of Ottawa. While working in agronomic services, I was introduced to gall midges and witnessed how the swede midge, Contarinia nasturtii (Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) could severely damage cole crops.

During a volunteer internship at the Station Linné in Sweden, where I spent two months sorting Malaise trap samples to different taxonomic levels, I got in contact with Dr. Rebecca Hallett at the University of Guelph, which led to pursuing a master’s degree in insect ecology under her supervision. I now investigate the distribution, abundance, and bio-control potential of a parasitoid of the swede midge, a study that will contribute to understanding where this platygastrid wasp can integrate in an integrated pest management program to mitigate the pest’s population.

Why is it important to study insect ecology and invasive insects?

It is important to study insect ecology and invasive insects to be able to better manage our resources. In the grand scheme of things, I like to refer to Rockström’s (et al.) Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. The authors identify anthropogenic pressures challenging the sustainability of the Earth system and suggest nine boundaries within which we, as a collective sharing a planet, should strive to remain. These are challenges for us to solve. If not for our own good, for the one who will be there after us. For me, studying insect ecology and invasive insects to develop better agricultural practices was a way to do what I enjoy doing, and hopefully earn a living from it. Also it addresses three of the nine boundaries laid out by the Stockholm Resilience Centre: the rate of biodiversity loss, land-system change, and chemical pollution. A single piece of graduate research might just be one small brick in a big wall, but it’s a way to make a contribution to science and to take a step in a more sustainable ensemble of pest management strategies.

There’s a significant economic argument for caring about swede midge management in canola. There is 22.4 million acres of canola grown in Canada and it contributes $26.7 billion to the economy annually. Bio-climatic models suggest the swede midge has potential to spread to most of North America. So, there’s an economic interest in improving management practices.

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

The swede midge can cause severe damage in Brassica productions. Investigating the biological control potential of the parasitoid Synopeas myles on swede midge populations will help us understand how field characteristics and production practices can affect parasitism rates in agroecosystems. This information will be used in the integrated pest management program against swede midge in North America. Biological control tactics can have economic benefits in limiting yield loss and environmental benefits in reducing the use of pesticides.

Why is it important to communicate research?

Both fundamental and applied research holds their importance in their role to enable us to take better decisions, informed decisions, about our world. Communicating our research or our field of study informs people about what it is that we do, and perhaps even inspires them to pursue research of their own.

To find out more about Ferland and see some more drawings, take a look at his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ferland.ce/

 

Tagged: Arts & Culture, Environment & Sustainability

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