Climate Crisis in Fiction | Collection Development, August 2019

Climate change fiction, sometimes abbreviated "cli fi," has grown dramatically in recent years. The selected 21 titles are a representative sample. 

Climate change is affecting the weather and environment already in many parts of the world. Novelists are helping to lead society’s discussion, tackling our most pressing fears and nurturing our nascent hopes. Climate change fiction, sometimes abbreviated "cli fi," weaves a story around and through the humanity-caused warming of Earth, in the process bringing it to a human scale and personal impact with which readers can identify and empathize, which may be easier to relate to than sometimes-overwhelming statistics. Often cli fi is mixed with other genres, such as sf, romance, or mystery. Though many are, not all climate change titles are dystopian.

The subject is not new to fiction: Sherri S. Tepper’s novels often discuss climate change along with feminism. Meanwhile, Barbara Kingsolver is lauded for her 2012 novel Flight Behavior, and Margaret Atwood’s "MaddAddam Trilogy"—consisting of Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013)—is a classic. Nor is cli fi new to the big screen. A classic in this genre is The Day After Tomorrow (2014), which not only demonstrates the full dramatic force of climate change, but also pointedly shines a light on how climate change denial has become a political issue. Titles such asBeauty (1992), The Family Tree (1997), or The Waters Rising (2010) are also more relevant than ever.

Building on these roots, the number of books and films grappling with the approaching crisis has grown dramatically in recent years. The included novels are far from all there is to offer, but they are a representative sample. In the selected titles, sometimes the changing environment is the story itself and sometimes an accepted reality through which characters move. We see themes of isolation as infrastructures fail, massive disruptions to technological and societal norms, and humans both giving into our worst demons and following our better angels. In some, we find technology that could save us, communities that pull together and rally around hope. In others, the crisis has reached its tipping point and survival becomes the only option. In several, the crisis is in the past, and building a new future all that remains.

The included offerings are well-written, thought-provoking, and as frightening as knowing the future has always been. We have a limited number of years left to halt the progression and keep catastrophic climate warming exclusively in the realm of fiction.

Starred (redstar) works should be considered essential for most collections. 


Jennifer Beach is Research and Instructional Services Librarian and Assistant Professor at Longwood University (Farmville, VA). She holds a Master of Science in Library Science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her career spans service in public libraries, state libraries, and now academia. She has been an LJ reviewer since 2009

Contemplating the Future

redstarHunter, Megan. The End We Start From. Grove. 2018. 144p. ISBN 9780802128591. pap. ISBN $14.
While laboring in childbirth, the narrator receives news that the oceans have suddenly risen, the city is flooding, and her home is lost. As soon as they are cleared to leave the hospital, the narrator; her baby, Z; and her husband, R, evacuate to higher ground, then again into the Scottish highlands. Soon, R leaves them, fleeing the crowded refugee camp. As baby Z learns the world through sight, touch, and smell, building experiences into knowledge, so too does the narrator learn her new place as a single mother, refugee, observer, and teacher. A quick, beautiful book; impossible to put down.

McKibben, Bill. Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance. Blue Rider. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780735219861. $22.
Vern Barclay is an accidental radical. A native son of Vermont, he has watched his beloved state slowly transform from a small, neighborly, rural culture to one that values big box stores, stadiums with retractable roofs, and—horror of horrors—big-name, cheap beer. A spirited, engaging, modern, thought-provoking, fable set in the immediate future, complete with references to current politics, the book feels possible, even probable. Vern and his compatriots are engaging and realistic, leaving the reader struggling with the same ethical questions of how and when resistance is necessary. Characters lament the changes in Vermont’s natural environment and promote environmental responsibility.

Powers, Richard. The Overstory. Norton. 2019. 512p. ISBN 9780393356687. pap. $18.95.
The world’s trees are disappearing after centuries of human exploitation and very few people have noticed. But the trees keep striving, branching, trying to communicate with people. Artists, activists, scientists, computer game designers, and prophets all try to bring public attention to the felling of the old giants, the loss of habitat, and the dangers of monoculture forests. But in the end, human lives are fleeting, ends are sudden, and the meaning behind their actions obscured. This story, with a long, slow build much like its subject matter, features excellent writing and deliberate pacing. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Seiler, Mark Daniel. River’s Child. Homebound. 2018. 312p. ISBN 9781947003392. pap. $18.95.
Deep under Norway’s Svalbard mountain, seeds from all the world’s plants are preserved in a vault designed to withstand the end of the world. Biologist Mavin Cedarstrom is the only human in the vault when the end arrives, and when he awakens from cryogenic sleep nearly 1,000 years later, the world has changed dramatically. But civilization has adapted. Mavin is rescued by Simone Kita, a warrior of a matriarchal society, charged with returning seeds to her city in the south. Together, Mavin and Simone travel south into a world of new myths, magic, and intrigue. Winner of the 2016 Landmark Prize for Fiction.


Environmental Dystopias

Beckett, Chris. America City. Atlantic. 2019. 368p. ISBN 9781786491541. pap. $15.95.
By the 22nd century, the ravages of climate change are undeniable. America’s East Coast is now colloquially called the "Storm Coast," for its frequent, massive storms. Likewise, the American Southwest is now "Dust Country," as drinkable water runs out and the land reverts to desert. But those fleeing find no comfort in the northern states. Into this political landscape comes Senator Slaymaker and his plan to restructure the United States, move the population northward, and colonize Canada.

redstarBeckett, L.X. Gamechanger. Tor. 2019. 576p. ISBN 9781250165268. $26.99.
Earth’s environment declined so dramatically by 2060 that strict global measures were enacted, including restrictions on breeding, forced relocations to high-density interior cities, and an end to capitalism. Now, in 2100, "the bounceback" is in full swing. Privacy has been traded for security. Prosocial actions allow luxury purchases, while antisocial behavior or language reduce social capital. Sexy, richly imagined, and fast paced, this is a must-read. Readers will delight in the nonbinary characters, LBGTQ relationships and identities, and the land acknowledgment statement at the end of the book.

redstarLanchester, John. The Wall. Norton. 2019. 288p. ISBN 9781324001638. $25.95.
John Kavanaugh is beginning his two-year tour on The Wall, where he will serve 12-hour shifts in freezing wind, rain, and spray, watching the sea. Mandatory service after "The Change," when the seas rose enough to require seawalls around an unnamed island, require that all citizens serve to protect the country from The Others. If an Other gets in, a Defender is put to sea. Thus, the balance of humanity on the island is maintained. Climate change, immigration, love, and survival make for a highly readable and compelling novel.



Bradley, James. Clade. Titan. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781785654145. pap. $14.95.
Australian climatologist Adam has been studying the changing climate and fearing the future. Adam’s marriage to Ellie, who is desperate for a child, is also endangered. A child cannot save their marriage, and as the birds die off and the seas begin to rise, it dissolves. Their daughter, Summer, becomes a wild teenager who eventually runs off to England. The planet continues to heat, violent hurricanes engulf England and the northern countries, and wars and famine break out. When Adam brings Summer’s son Noah back to Australia, the bees are dying, fires rage, and plague spreads. Technology cannot save humanity, but adult Noah, an astronomer, might find hope in the stars.

Feffer, John. Frostlands. Haymarket. 2018. 166p. ISBN 9781608469482. pap. $15.95.
As the world succumbs to the ravishes of climate change, octogenarian Rachel Leopold maintains a garden and grows heirloom apples in her orchard in the utopian community of Arcadia, and takes up arms against its attackers. A former glaciologist, Rachel also secretly researches methods to reverse the polar ice melt, an action that may save Earth’s dwindling population and prevent the release of methane pockets under the permafrost. A stand-alone sequel to Splinterlands (2016), Frostlands picks up the story after Julian’s death, this time from the perspective of his ex-wife.

Lye, Harriet Alida. The Honey Farm. Liveright: Norton. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781631494345. $25.95.
Against a backdrop of extended drought, sheltered 22-year-old Sylvia has left her family’s strict Catholic household to spend spring and summer at an artists’ retreat on a honey farm. Here she works the farm with other youths, while she wrestles with her faith, finds some independence, and explores first love. An unplanned pregnancy, gaslighting by a mother-figure, and a confusion of symbols all contribute to Sylvia’s mental instability. Is the honey farm just a strangely isolated place run by an eccentric poet, or is something truly sinister happening behind the scenes?

Miller, Sam J. Blackfish City. 2018. Ecco: Harper Collins. 328p. ISBN 9780062684820. $22.99.
After the poles have melted, the largest nations failed, the city of New York collapsed in fire and flood and war, the city of Qaanaaq became a refuge for wealthy and poor alike. Built on a geothermal vent in the Arctic, run by AIs, and owned by hidden shareholders, Qaanaaq is bustling, lawless, and home to a growing epidemic. The Breaks are spread through blood or sex and cause neurological degradation and eventual death. They also seem to allow the infected to share memories in the form of vibrant hallucinations. Now hope may have arrived in the form of a woman bonded to an orca through illicit nanotechnology who has come to Qaanaaq seeking vengeance. Nonbinary and queer characters add to this brilliant and engrossing read.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. Orbit. 2018. 656p. ISBN 9780316262316. pap. $17.99.
It has been years since the Second Pulse, when the polar ice caps rapidly melted and the seas rose 15 feet. New York has become a city of canals. It is still the center of commerce, real estate is at a premium, wealthy residents live in sealed, converted skyscrapers, while the poor squat in waterlogged, condemned, and crumbling buildings in the intertidal zone. Real estate is still king, and some people will do anything to control it.


Psychological Reads

North, Claire. 84K. Orbit. 2018. 496p. ISBN 9780316316804. pap. $15.99.
The English government has been privatized, all services monetized, prisons closed, and only people who can pay their way are able to move up. The Company uses auditors like Theo to assess the exact value for crimes. If the perpetrators can pay, they go free. If not, they go into forced labor for the Company. Theo is content in his job, until a woman from his past returns with a tale of a lost daughter, his lost daughter, and corruption that could shake the Company to the ground. As he tries to find his daughter, to save his own life, and solve a murder, Theo must also find out who he really is. In monetizing everything, London’s environment has degraded significantly. Those who try to survive without the Company must scrounge for clean water and battle the persistent cold.

redstar Poore, Michael. Reincarnation Blues. Del Rey: Ballantine. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780399178504. pap. $16.
Every human gets 10,000 reincarnations to reach perfection; 10,000 lives on Earth or in space, on planets and moons, as Neanderthal or poet, leader or slave. Milo is the oldest soul in the universe, and after lifetime 9995, he is running out of opportunities to reach the Oversoul. Milo wants perfection, but he also wants Suzy, or as she is known elsewhere, Death. Fearing that if he moves forward into the Oversoul, Milo will be forever separated from Suzy, he has never quite put in the effort to reach perfection. But now time is running out, and Milo and Suzy have a plan. In more than one of Milo’s lives he has watched Earth’s environmental decline, eventually helping the escape of a lucky fraction of Earth’s population before a meteor wields the final blow.

Watkins, Claire Vaye. Gold Fame Citrus. Riverhead. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781594634246. pap. $16.
As a baby, Luz was the political rally point in California’s last efforts to fight climate change. When politicians passed bills to empty swimming pools, it was Baby Dunn they invoked. As aquifers dried up and farms failed, it was Baby Dunn of whom they spoke. Now, Luz and her love, Ray, are just two of the hordes of "Mojavs" trying to survive in the dried-out husk of Los Angeles. When they take on an abandoned toddler, Ig, Luz, and Ray will risk it all—life, sanity, and peace—to reach safety. This tale is violent, desperate, perverse, and at times dreamlike and confusing.



Beasts of the Southern Wild. Color. 94 min. Fox Searchlight. 2012. $10.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in a bayou community they call The Bathtub. Hushpuppy, a deep-thinking, independent, and observant child, listens to the heartbeats of animals and watches as her father succumbs to a debilitating illness. When a giant storm finally changes the landscape, as the waters rise and don’t recede, the community of survivors forms a desperate plan to maintain their way of life.

Geostorm. Color. 109 min. Warner Home Video. 2017. $15.
In response to devastating climate change, the nations of the world have come together to create Dutchboy, a network of satellites coordinated from the international space station, which can control the weather and counteract global warming. But either through a virus or sabotage, Dutchboy is suddenly glitching, and only a rogue scientist can save it. If you like your disaster movies big, but not bloody, Geostorm is a fun choice that captures the reality that even our potential for global demise can be harnessed for political gain.

Interstellar. color. 169 min. Paramount. 2017. $8.99.
The world’s infrastructures are collapsing, and now massive duststorms and blight are endangering the food supply. When former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter, Murph, decode a mysterious extraterrestrial message, they embark on a journey that may save humanity. Cooper is chosen to pilot the last spaceship through a wormhole to find planets that might be able to sustain human life.

Snowpiercer. color. 126 min. Anchor Bay. 2014. $10.
In an effort to slow global warming, the countries of the world spread a chemical into the atmosphere to cool the air. The plan backfires horribly, sending the world into a permanent ice age. Only the people riding a specially engineered train survived, perpetually circumnavigating the frozen planet. A violent class system has developed in the sections of the train. Revolution is brewing and Curtis (Chris Evans) is leading the charge.



Artists and Climate Change

An initiative of The Arctic Cycle, Artists and Climate Change is a site devoted to artists and artistic works exploring the theme of climate change. Updated weekly.

Chicago Review of Books: Burning Worlds

A monthly column exploring climate change fiction, with interviews and book reviews.

This article was originally published in Library Journal's August 2019 issue.

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