Climate Fiction that is getting way too real : A Reading List
5 novels that imagine life in a different world, a climate changed world.
When a book started trending recently over twitter and elsewhere, for its dystopian fictional premise which strikingly came true last week, I knew it was time to take a break from all the scientific facts (but you must read this) for a minute and talk about storytelling.
“When California put its first calls on the river, no one really worried. A couple of towns went begging for water. Some idiot newcomers with bad water rights stopped grazing their horses, and that was it. A few years later, people started showering real fast. And a few after that, they showered once a week. And then people started using the buckets. By then, everyone had stopped joking about how "hot" it was. It didn’t really matter how "hot" it was. The problem wasn’t lack of water or an excess of heat, not really. The problem was that 4.4 million acre-feet of water were supposed to go down the river to California. There was water; they just couldn’t touch it.”
wrote Paolo Bacigalupi in his 2006 short story, The Tamarisk Hunter, of an America ravaged by drought in 2030. The short story was eventually developed into a novel called The Water Knife, an ecological dystopian story taking place in the near future, where drought brought on by climate change has devastated the Southwestern United States. By now, we know climate crisis is first and foremost a water crisis, (errrmm, hello The Weight of Water), and it is eerie how much of the so called near-future, sci-fi seen in both the Tamarisk Hunter and Water Knife reflects todays reality. California and South West America are suffering from an unprecedented drought and the implications are far beyond what our small minds can comprehend at this time.
I recently met an American writer and researcher with an interest in literary fiction and climate change, and we had already talked about climate fiction at length. So I didn’t waste a minute before inviting them to write this article for Climate Matters.
It is quite astounding that despite the impacts of climate change already being felt, and disproportionately so, in Global South, there is very little imagination or mention of this existential crisis in our literary or visual landscape. Hopefully that will be changing very soon, but for now, go ahead and read this list put together by guest author Evan Tims.
And of course, no discussion on climate fiction can be complete without mentioning Amitav Ghosh, who has been zealously vocal and shrewd about the severe lack of climate fiction and the enormous influence of art and fiction in shaping the public opinion. His seminal piece in Guardian titled Where is the fiction about climate change? is a thought provoking article, a must read before you delve into speculative fiction on climate change.
The prescience of Climate Fiction : 5 novels on life in a climate changed world
By Evan Tims
This past week, India and Pakistan’s ongoing heatwave has led to record-high temperatures across both countries, showing the limits of human adaptability. Scientists have warned for years that such events will become more common and more extreme, and those days have arrived. But scientists aren’t the only ones who have predicted this week’s record-shattering temperatures.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 cli-fi novel, The Ministry for the Future, begins with an enormous heatwave overtaking India in 2025. The disaster leads to significant social and political changes around the world. India’s current heatwave is nowhere near the catastrophe depicted in the novel. However, it speaks to the potential for climate fiction, aka cli-fi, to explore the different imaginable futures of the world we live in. Cli-fi can offer a glimpse into how we might live in the context of a changing climate, replete with extreme weather events and social change. Depending on the tone of the book, it can also show how we might rise to the occasion. Robinson isn’t the only author who predicted real events.
In her 1993(!) novel Parable of the Sower, and its sequel Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler describes a devastated United States in 2024, divided along religious and racial lines, made unstable by climate change, wealth inequality and corporate greed. Amidst the chaos, a strongman political candidate rises on the back of extreme conservatism, promising to restore America to its past splendor. His slogan? Make America Great Again.
Butler’s work, which inspired a generation of afrofuturist writers and artists in the U.S., is just one example of an often-prescient genre that shows both the challenges and possibilities of the future. Despite the disasters they portray, each book is also fundamentally optimistic. They all show characters living within climate-changed worlds. People build community, find love and seek solutions despite the circumstances.
Ranging from the technically accurate to the fantastic, the books below can offer a glimpse of the futures that may await us. And these novels aren’t just valuable for their predictive potential. They also can provide a way of understanding the avalanche of climate data by putting relatable characters in circumstances that are typically depicted by graphs and heat maps.
After all, the power of fiction lies in its capacity to make us feel.
The reading list below is a collection of international cli-fi that can inspire you, challenge you, and show you the world we and our ancestors may live in.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel has become one of the most significant works of cli-fi to date. His sprawling story follows the creation of a U.N. organization called The Ministry for the Future, which is designed to save future generations from the effects of climate change. The main character, the head of the Ministry, pursues economic, technological and social innovations in pursuit of this goal. Reading it is the equivalent of obtaining a Master’s degree in climate solutions–but despite Robinson’s focus on the technical, the book is never boring. There are massive floods, political crises, assassinations and kidnappings as the Ministry seeks to change the world.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler’s novel takes place in a near-future California, beset with massive droughts, violence, and fear. Despite this, the main character–a young girl–builds her own philosophy and religion called Earthseed. Earthseed calls for colonizing other planets, finding hope for humanity’s future among the stars. The novel’s approach to environmental crisis and optimism is unique, juxtaposing a terrifying possibility alongside the grandest imaginable future for our species. There’s a reason Parable of the Sower is one of the most significant works of speculative literature ever written. And, despite being almost thirty years old, its relevance becomes clearer with every passing day.
The Storm by Arif Anwar
Arif Anwar’s The Storm is a contemporary and historical novel set primarily in coastal Bangladesh and the United States. Anwar’s novel follows five intertwined plot threads set throughout Bangladesh’s history, all centered around love, loss, and the devastation wrought by the 1970 Bhola Cyclone. For readers interested less in speculation and more in the human reality of one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable regions, The Storm is a must-read.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin’s book is a work of fantasy far removed from the problems of today’s world. It takes place on a planet, perhaps our own, where society is devastated by environmental catastrophe every few centuries. Some people, including the remarkably resilient main character, have rare powers that allow them to manipulate stone. The sheer imagination and creativity of the world makes this book a pleasure to read. The characters are also some of the most memorable and intriguing in contemporary fantasy.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s sprawling, magical realist novel set in Krungthep (Bangkok) in the past, present, and future is one of Thailand’s most notable contemporary works of fiction. It is also a wonderfully imaginative work of climate fiction. The latter half describes the mysterious and beautiful landscape of Thailand after being transformed by a massive flood. Bangkok Wakes to Rain focuses on the ways in which people live despite and within the effects of climate change, rather than the horrors of environmental disaster. It’s an inspiring and poetic read, and highly informative about the history of a metropolis facing serious climate risks.
Evan Tims is a writer, researcher and facilitator currently based in Nepal as a Henry J. Luce Scholar, a leadership development fellowship. Evan is interested in the intersection between climate change and society, and the role of literature in reflecting the changing climate.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have suggestions for other great cli-fi books? Let me know in the comments!
While doing my engineering major in college, we had to take two humanities courses each semester for minor credits. I didn’t think much and chose a course mainly because of a chill and undemanding professor one semester. That was probably the first time I realised I enjoyed philosophy and ethics, and that I enjoyed writing! The course was, of course, Science Fiction. I had zero interest in sci-fi and technology-driven dystopian stories, but I was rather taken by all the moral imagination and ethical dilemmas that laced these fantastical, imaginary worlds. Science fiction had as much to do with new technology as it did with the human condition. It was a revelation to me and I had a new found appreciation and respect for sci-fi since then. And I think the time is just right for climate fiction to similarly change our perceptions and expand our minds on what’s possible, what’s acceptable and what are all the troubles we have in store while we wade through these hypothetical, uncharted (& rising) waters.
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And now I’m curious to hear you thoughts on this. Hit reply or leave a comment!