There’s a new “kid” on the block—make that new literary genre. It’s called Climate Fiction or Cli-Fi. Actually, while the name is relatively new, the genre is not. Books forecasting climate catastrophe have been shelved with Science Fiction for years. It’s only now that we realize we have a real climate catastrophe on our hands—The Warming—has Climate Fiction emerged as a genre in its own right.
Definitions of climate fiction vary widely, but most contain similar language: Literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Not necessarily speculative in nature, works of cli-fi may take place in the world as we know it or in the near future. Unlike traditional sci-fi, its stories seldom focus on imaginary technologies, alien invasions, space travel or faraway planets.
One of the hallmarks of cli-fi is its attempt to do what objective, rudderless scientific non-fiction about the subject can’t. “Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior. “It only tells us what is.”
The following 10 works were selected primarily to demonstrate the diversity of climate fiction in terms of style and approach to the subject matter. The prescient early works of J.G. Ballard were included to provide some historical perspective.
1. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future by Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway
“The year is 2393, and the world is almost unrecognizable. Clear warnings of climate catastrophe went ignored for decades, leading to soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, widespread drought and―finally―the disaster now known as the Great Collapse of 2093, when the disintegration of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet led to mass migration and a complete reshuffling of the global order.
“Writing on the 300th anniversary of the Great Collapse, a scholar presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies failed to act, and so brought about the collapse of Western civilization.
“In this haunting, provocative work, the authors imagine a world devastated by climate change. Dramatizing the science in ways traditional nonfiction cannot, the book reasserts the importance of scientists and the work they do and reveals the self-serving interests of the so called “carbon combustion complex” that have turned the practice of science into political fodder. Based on sound scholarship and yet unafraid to speak boldly, the book provides a welcome moment of clarity amid the cacophony of climate change literature.”
2. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
“New York Times bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver offers a stunning and unforgettable work. Flight Behavior is a brilliant and suspenseful novel set in present day Appalachia; a breathtaking parable of catastrophe and denial that explores how the complexities we inevitably encounter in life lead us to believe in our particular chosen truths.
“Kingsolver’s riveting story concerns a young wife and mother on a failing farm in rural Tennessee who experiences something she cannot explain, and how her discovery energizes various competing factions—religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians—trapping her in the center of the conflict and ultimately opening up her world.”
3. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
“In the near future, the Colorado River has dwindled to a trickle. Detective-assassin-spy Angel Velasquez “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, ensuring that its lush “arcology” developments can bloom in Las Vegas.
“When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in Phoenix, Angel is sent south, hunting for answers that seem to evaporate as the heat index soars and the landscape becomes more and more oppressive. There, he encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist with her own agenda, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas migrant, who dreams of escaping north.
“As bodies pile up, the three find themselves pawns in a game far bigger and more corrupt than they could have imagined, and, when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only truth in the desert is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.”
4.-6. Maddaddam Trilogy by Margaret Attwood
“A boxed set (three trade paperbacks) is now available of the internationally celebrated speculative fiction trilogy by Margaret Atwood. Across the novels, the best-selling novelist projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.
“In Oryx and Crake (2003), a man struggles to survive in a world where he may be the last human. In search of answers, he embarks on a journey through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. In The Year of the Flood (2010) the long-feared waterless flood has occurred, altering Earth as we know it and obliterating most human life. And, in Maddaddam (2014), a small group of survivors band together with the Children of Crake: the gentle, bioengineered quasi-human species who will inherit this new earth.
“Set in a darkly plausible future shaped by plagues, floods, and genetic engineering, these three novels take us from the end of the world to a brave new beginning.”
7. The Wind From Nowhere by J.G. Ballard
“In Ballard’s debut novel, a super hurricane that blasted round the globe at hundreds of miles per hour burying whole communities beneath piles of rubble, destroying all organized life and driving those it did not kill to seek safety in tunnels and sewers where they turned against each other in their desperate struggle to survive.”
8. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
“In the novel that catapulted him to international acclaim, Ballard’s mesmerizing and prescient The Drowned World imagines a terrifying future in which solar radiation and global warming have melted the ice caps, and Triassic-era jungles have overrun a submerged and tropical London.
“Set during the year 2145, the novel follows biologist Dr. Robert Kerans and his team of scientists as they confront a surreal cityscape populated by giant iguanas, albino alligators, and endless swarms of malarial insects. Nature has swallowed all but a few remnants of human civilization, and slowly, Kearns and his companions are transformed―both physically and psychologically―by this prehistoric environment. The Drowned World is both a thrilling adventure and haunting examination of the effects of environmental collapse on the human mind.”
9. The Drought by J.G. Ballard
“Weird and mesmerizingly grotesque, The Drought (also published as The Burning World) tells the chilling story of the world on the brink of extinction, where a global drought, brought on by industrial waste, has left mankind in a life-or-death search for water. Violence erupts and insanity reigns as the human race struggles for survival in a worldwide desert of despair.”
10. Tales from The Warming by Lorin R. Robinson
“The anthology of 10 short stories takes readers all over the world and over time to experience—in human terms—the growing impact of what the author has dubbed “The Warming,” the man-made catastrophe that is increasing the world’s temperature, raising ocean levels and causing increasingly violent weather.
“The stories—powerful, prophetic and poignant—are thought exercises that blend fact and fiction to examine the human impact of the crisis. They are based on current worst-case scenarios proposed by climate science. Each concerns a different challenge thrust upon us by the warming. In them readers witness people’s struggles to deal with these new realities. Some of the stories put people in harm’s way; others focus more on human creativity in mitigating its effects.
“Story locations range from Bangladesh to Venice, Los Angeles to Polynesia, South Sudan to Southwestern China, Mount Kilimanjaro to the Persian Gulf, Miami to Greenland. The time frame is 2022 to 2059, a period during which the world is beginning to suffer the far reaching effects of this civilization-changing phenomenon.”