I spend all day reading (and writing) the news. So when I log off, I don’t want to read any non-fiction. I want to retreat to the world of fiction, but that doesn’t mean I want to forget about the climate crisis.
In fact, science fiction that focuses on climate change—dubbed cli-fi—is my absolute favorite type of novel. And even amid the coronavirus pandemic, I’m constantly thinking about the climate crisis. Maybe I’m a little twisted, but escaping our current terrifying reality for another dystopian one set in the future is how I like to spend my evenings. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, too, here are some books (from newest to oldest) that offer a glimpse of what could await humanity if world leaders continue to do absolutely nothing about climate change.
The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde
This is a book I haven’t yet read, but the premise is beyond fascinating. Written by best-selling author Maja Lunde, The End of the Ocean takes place in 2041 with Southern Europe in the throes of a drought.
A father and daughter flee in search of their family when they discover a worn-out sailboat filled with its owner’s personal belongings from 2019. It shows the ways our lives are interconnected across time and space, especially amid the climate crisis.
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh
A surreal tale of migration and ecological collapse, Gun Island takes some of the crises Earth faces today—from stranded whales to the movement of humans in search of somewhere safer—and uses it all to tell the story of a Bengali-American rare book dealer in Brooklyn. It’s a fictional tale for sure with heavy themes of folklore and the supernatural, but many of the real-world issues we’re facing make an appearance, too.
I haven’t yet read this book, but Earther’s Dharna Noor is reading it and a fan.
Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
If someone’s going to write about a climate change-caused drought, they’d be foolish to ignore California. The state is a poster child for weather whiplash driven by rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Dry tells a story where water has disappeared and the unraveling of the social fabric that follows. The book chronicles teenage Alyssa’s attempt to protect both herself and her brother. Now that youth have become climate leaders, Dry’s protagonist feels eerily relevant.
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
You guessed it: This one takes place in New York City more than 100 years from present day. The novel won the 2018 Hugo Award for best novel—and for good reason.
While most of the stories on this list paint a climate apocalypse where humanity’s made all the wrong choices, New York 2140 is a somewhat more utopian novel. Sure, humanity let carbon emissions increase, triggering catastrophic sea level rise and severe storms. But the book also shows humanity’s resilience and how we can come together to upend the capitalist system by following a band of motley characters around the streets-turned-canals of New York.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Similar to Dry, this novel looks at what happens when water runs outs. Except instead of looking at dry conditions in California, The Water Knife examines what happens when the Colorado River gives out and zooms in on the impacts in Las Vegas.
The story shows how the lives of three different characters merge—all in the search of water, safety, and with a story to tell. It’s a thriller and offers readers a sense of what the future water crises may look like in the U.S., especially as we see drought threaten the Colorado River and the reservoirs it fills in real time.
California by Edan Lepucki
This New York Times best-selling novel isn’t necessarily about the climate crisis. But all its events unfold to the backdrop of strange weather events that wipe out vast swaths of the U.S. and terrorist plots that ultimately push the novel’s two main characters into the remote woods of California.
California is both a heartbreaking love story of raising a child on a doomed planet and a look at the world we may leave behind for our own children should society continue to crumble.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
We never quite learn what happened to the world in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but it’s clear something went wrong. The Road follows the journey of a father and son in search of shelter and struggling to find it. The story jumps between flashbacks to the days when everything burned to the ground and the present-day when the air is full of dust and toxins.
It’s a scary and sad story, but it’s a damn good one. Through a focus on just these two characters, Cormac McCarthy never fails to keep the reader engaged, invested, and on edge to find out where the father and son wind up amid this chaos.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler is the queen of science fiction. While I haven’t yet read this book, it’s definitely on my list for 2020 (and it comes with a strong recommendation from Earther’s managing editor Brian Kahn). Parable of the Sower was written the year I was born, but it’s more relevant today than ever before.
The novel was written in 1993 and takes place in the early 2020s. It examines a future U.S. where climate change is here, inequality is more rampant than ever, and people are desperate (sound familiar?). Written from the perspective of a 15-year-old black girl, the book provides a much-needed voice to understand the ways the climate crisis will impact us all differently.
The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
Coming up on its 60th anniversary, The Drowned World is still incredibly relevant. The novel is set in 2145, but the Earth faces some problems much like today’s woes, with melting ice caps and global warming. There are even mosquitoes spreading malaria.
However, the novel is also a bit more fanciful in other ways. The global landscape has completely transformed and giant reptiles have returned, things that have (thankfully) not happened yet.
The book also has some unnerving racist undertones, but what do you expect from a novel written in 1962 by an old white dude? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯