One could argue that the global rise of science fiction across almost every entertainment medium has something to do with the way the world seems to be hurtling toward a science fiction future, from technological breakthroughs, to extended lifespans, to, less cheerily, horrific climate change. Between endless wildfires, deep droughts, and annual superstorms, it’s easy to start looking at apocalyptic as simply science.
If climate change keeps you up at night, however, science fiction throughout the ages can also help you wrap your head around the future coming our way. There’s a lot to learn about the many possible environments of the future—and no better way to start than by reading these books.
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Dune isn’t set on Earth, but Frank Herbert’s genius lay in the way he imagined the planet of Arrakis so completely, including its ecology. A harsh desert world with few resources suitable for sustaining life, Arrakis is ruled first by the Atreides family, and later by the treacherous Harkonnens, but it is the seemingly primitive Fremen who are truly in touch with the planet and thus able to not only survive, but to thrive, living in harmony with the hostile elements of an inhospitable landscape, most notably the sandworms that swim the deserts. This dense, complicated novel presents a scenario in which humanity survives even in the worst possible climate-change scenario—and makes it an incredibly interesting adventure to boot. The lesson here: you may not be able to stop climate disaster, but you can find beauty—and power—in the world no matter what happens.
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler
Climate change is often framed not only in environmental terms, but economic ones: many foresee a world in which the rich, always getting richer, are the only ones able to afford the scarce resources left after nature turns against humanity. Butler’s novel starts there, with the last remnants of an elite living behind walled communities that protect them from the aggressive hordes of homeless, jobless, and nearly hopeless people suffering from the effects of ecological collapse. When her home in one of these walled neighborhoods is attacked and looted, a young girl named Lauren flees, seeking safety, and plagued by a mysterious ailment that forces her to feel others’ pain as if it were her own. Ultimately, this is a tale of hope—which might be what you need to sleep tonight.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bacigalupi’s grim novel tells a story that seems familiar at first: drought conditions have wreaked havoc on a huge section of the Southwestern United States. Water has become the most precious resource in the world, spurring the creation of private armies and near-wars between states and corporations over water rights. The world on the wrong side of the borders is realistically awful, and the mystery surrounding an ancient water treaty that will change the whole playing board is engrossing. But the main lesson is that ecological disaster, like war and plague, will be run by corporations for profit, because that’s how the modern world works.
Loosed Upon the World, by John Joseph Adams
Think of this collection as a Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) primer, containing a broad selection of stories by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Seanan McGuire (among many others). Each offers a new vision of the world After the Fall, with each author imagining a different way the ecological disaster could happen, and the different ways the world might react. Running the gamut from bleak and horrifying to optimistic and hopeful, this anthology reminds us that while we’re certain things are changing, no one really knows how, or how it will all play out.
Breathe, by Sarah Crossan
One of the main ways stories set in space, or on alien planets, drum up tension is with the terrifying concept of being in an environment without breathable air, the possibility of suffocation inherent in every action. In Breathe, Crossan transposes that fear to Earth, imagining a future after The Switch—the moment the Earth’s atmosphere broke, no longer producing enough oxygen to support life. With future humanity living in domed cities pumped full of artificial air, society comes down to one question: can you afford to breathe? With a rebel group attempting to reseed the planet’s tree population, three young people from different strata leave the dome and have to survive with just two days of breathable air. It’s thrilling enough that you can almost forget the horror of ecological disaster, if only for the adventure potential.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm
This 1977 Hugo Award winner and Nebula nominee was an early entry in the cli-fi genre, imagining a world in which society has fallen apart due to the widespread disaster wrought by industrial pollution (oddly enough, the culprit turns out to be global cooling). As hunger and disease run rampant, one wealthy family establishes an exclusive community in which they plan to outlast the utter ruin all around them—but their salvation seems to be short-lived when they discover that, to a person, they have been rendered infertile. Hoping the problem can be solved down the road, they turn to cloning to preserve their small slice of humanity. But eventually, the clones decide they don’t want to experiment with sexual reproduction, continuing to clone themselves and establishing a new societal structure built on community, conformity—and, unintentionally, creative stagnation. Sci-fi trappings aside, Wilhelm’s novel shows us that even as we’ve sown the seeds of disaster, we also hold in our hands the power to change our ways and fix the problem—provided we’re willing to break the cycle.
What climate change books to you recommend?