Following Father Theodore Hesburgh through the Civil Rights era
Our changing climate is inspiring a new genre. Start with these 5 novels
Countless reports and studies have told us for decades that human-driven climate change is affecting life around the planet, with more dire, long-term devastation to come. As scientists, international organizations and frustrated citizens sound the alarm against inaction, a new crop of writers have sought to depict what a future world might look like if humans don’t do something.
This genre of climate fiction is a “kind of imaginative worrying,” said author Pitchaya Sudbanthad, one that helps to illuminate “what we’ve collectively done to the planet and the likely consequences ahead.”
Sudbanthad’s 2019 debut novel, “Bangkok Wakes to Rain,” depicts Thailand’s low-lying and vulnerable capital in ruins after it’s been submerged under water. The book, which spans both past and present, is an elegy to what might disappear.
While he says climate novels adhere to science to some degree, they are still fiction, and facts are used to suit “their narrative situation.” What he finds alarming is that “what had been unimaginable is arriving faster than writers can keep up,”
As the climate crisis becomes more apparently urgent, “related narratives become even more necessary as a mirror that both reflects and warns,” Sudbanthad said.
Below, Sudbanthad recommends five other climate fiction books, including some older titles, to read now. In his words:
1. “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell
It’s a book that brilliantly weaves across time and place, as well as multiple voices, for the expansive canvas required to tell its far-reaching story of greed and cruelty — and their devastating effects on the world. One of the threads takes us to the wrecks of “Civ’lise Days,” a future post-apocalyptic setting that seems like a warped mirror of our history. This kind of environmental collapse is an avoidable fate that feels immensely difficult to escape, if Mitchell is right about human nature.
2. “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler
Many books, films and TV shows likely owe a debt to this classic by Butler. It depicts a brutal world with walled communities fending off invaders and drug-fueled arsonists, and the forced exodus of survivors into the unknown. As a hyper-empathetic main character posits, change is a fundamental truth, and what we change truly comes back to change us. Because of this dearly held faith, one that keeps survivors moving forward in spite of carnage and danger, Butler’s is also a novel about a resilient hope for renewal in the aftermath of a fallen society on a ruined Earth.
3. “Gold Fame Citrus” by Claire Vaye Watkins
With the flight of its characters through a landscape devastated by a climate crisis, Watkins’ novel can be seen as an offshoot of Butler’s classic, but this novel does not hint toward much hopefulness for the future. Within it is a cavalcade of situations and consequences made more severe in a future California devoid of water. Across the dunes, we follow Watkins’ characters through a place so transformed that it needs its own field guide of animals newly adapted for strange survival, as a result of acts we do or do not commit now.
4. “2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson’s vision of New York City a little over a hundred years from now is populated by characters whose lives do not feel so distant from our own. In a city long swallowed by risen seas, they find ways to live as normally as they can — ice skating over frozen canals that once were streets or trying to get rich on inundated asset derivatives. So many things familiar to us survive, including mass inequality and the kind of harmfully calculated economics that bring catastrophe for the many and enrichment for the few.
5. “The Overstory” by Richard Powers
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is told through several narrators whose lives are progressively shown to be interconnected through their reverent relationship with trees. One life touches on another and then another, as would occur in an ecosystem, wherein lives are bound together in ways that at first seem unapparent but are vital for mutual hope of survival. In Powers’ book, qualities of life, intelligence, and society extend far beyond the human story, as they also do in our own living world.
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