A world ravaged by climate change is hard to imagine—but that world could be in our future, unless we do a better job of imagining it now. So we’re lucky that some of our most talented authors have tackled the challenge of depicting an environmental apocalypse.
There’s a whole genre of fiction taking on the literary world. Call it “climate fiction,” “eco-fiction,” or “cli-fi”—or don’t label it at all, if you prefer. This emerging genre features worlds like our own and futures not-too-distant, where a carbon-loaded atmosphere has caused the planet’s thermostat to go haywire, and societies are grappling with the consequences.
Here are seven novels that show the real terrifying prospect of climate change.
Unabashedly dystopian, Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning novel about an Earth ravaged by genetic engineering and global warming was the book that convinced me fiction has a role to play in the climate conversation. Set in Thailand several centuries in the future, The Windup Girl follows scientists working for Monsanto-esque calorie corporations as they attempt to steal precious genetic material from a country devastated by GMO diseases. Somehow, nothing about this tragic future comes off heavy-handed or preachy—it’s just a great biopunk thriller with some seriously flawed protagonists. If you haven’t read The Windup Girl, fix that immediately.
Humans have pondered many solutions to the climate crisis, from renewable energies to wacky geo-engineering schemes. But there may be another way to save the planet, and it’s even more radical than hacking the atmosphere: re-engineering ourselves.
That’s the premise of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the first novel in her MaddAddam trilogy. Disillusioned by the sorry state of the planet, the brilliant but psychopathic Crake genetically engineers a new brand of humans who lack “destructive features responsible for the world’s current illness.” Crake’s humans are efficient—they can obtain all their energy from grass—but more importantly, they have no interest in forming hierarchical, industrial societies. Then, in true mad scientist fashion, Crake unleashes a super-virus that kills everybody, so his “children” can inherit the planet. Let’s hope things don’t go down this way.
In a not-too-distant future Manhattan, mathematician Mitchell Zukor is hired by financial consulting firm FutureWorld to crank out worst-case predictions for the future, which are sold to corporations at a profit. Just as Zukor’s scenarios are reaching apocalypse proportions, a disastrous hurricane floods New York City. A fast-paced literary thriller, Odds Against Tomorrow reveals a world where humanity’s worst fears about the future are being realized in the present. Eerily enough, Rich finished the novel right before Superstorm Sandy struck New York—so maybe there’s a touch of prophecy in here, as well.
I wavered about putting 2312 on this list because it’s so much more than climate fiction—but Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant future history is also a tale of ecological change—both unwanted and engineered. Three centuries from now, humans are rocketing across space in hollowed-out asteroids, terraforming Mars and Venus and finding ways to colonize the Solar System’s hostile fringes. Contrast this picture of expansion and prosperity with the situation on Earth: runaway global warming has melted Greenland and drowned coastal cities, and billions live in urban squalor. As Annalee Newitz put it in her review, 2312 “demonstrates that hopeful futures can be as complicated as any dystopia.”
Imagine if the drought out West grew a thousand times worse—and you have the backdrop for Claire Vaye Watkins’ starkly beautiful desert nightmare, in which a young couple struggles to escape the the wreckage of post-apocalypse Los Angeles. Separated while crossing the vast dune sea that swallowed the Mojave, Luz and Ray must find ways to survive on their own. But many things about the desert are not as they seem—and in this broken future, illusions can be deadly.
After penning an almost universally acclaimed work of climate fiction in 2009, Bacigalupi was back this spring with an even grittier tale of ecological devastation and human greed, this one, set in a drought-ravaged southwest just over the horizon. Water is everything in this future, and corrupt states and corporations will go to any lengths to defend their claims on it. In a world of scarcity, desperation and violence, the fates of three characters—an assassin, a journalist and a refugee—become intertwined over the discovery of some legendary water rights. It’s a terrifying survival story, and it’ll keep you hooked until the bittersweet end.
While some who grew up before global warming was a household phrase still have trouble accepting it, to the kids forced to inherit our mess, climate change is reality. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that cli-fi is becoming a hit in the world of YA fiction. Sarah Crossan’s Breathe, set in a world where humans live inside environmentally-controlled biodomes after a global oxygen shortage kills most of us off, is in many ways your run-of-the-mill YA dystopia: a band of teenagers uncover a dark government secret and set out to change the world. But broad outlines aside, the plot is surprisingly original, and the characters well-written. This book is a terrific starting point for the budding climate activists in your life.
Follow the author @themadstone