Science fiction born from the imagination of post Renaissance astronomers, to a generation enthralled by the industrial revolution, reached its widely regarded zenith in its 20th century novel form. Now after countless space-odysseys and technological mayhem, what was once a sub-genre, is now a fast growing part of the science fiction universe – Science Climate fiction, or as it is divisively known, Cli-Fi.
Anthropologist David Graeber, one of the most acerbic critics of the current world system begins one of his essays by mentioning the ‘conspicuous absence of flying cars in ‘2020’’ in response to a widely promised fantasy from the 50’s and 60’s, of everyone driving winged automobiles by the time we sit here, reading this in the 21st century. As banal as the complaint is, one thinks of where all the wealth and genius went as soon as we built ourselves a couple of spaceships and airplanes. ‘Science climate Fiction’ has risen from this disenchantment with the way things are going; a planet struggling to contain global warming, pervasive technology that does more surveillance than assistance and an unprecedented drop in the number of species around the globe. As gloomy as it might sound, the almost full bodied genre of Cli-fi or eco-fiction, whatever you might want to call it is on a fast track of creating some of the most immersive and engaging pieces of science fiction that might make us rub our eyes open today, or serve as a grim reminder of its once oracular value when we’re on a small cruiser docked above an ash struck California or a submerged Venice.
Here is a definitive list of some of the finest science climate fictions to bring home a new sense of wonder, criticality and urgency to what we know as science fic and speculation. In the words of Asimov…
‘“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
The Overstory, 2018 – Richard Powers
Winner of the Pulitzer in 2019, ‘The Overstory’ follows nine strangers around the world who in their unique and simple ways have developed everlasting bonds with trees. A future video game developer falls from a tree and is paralyzed, a disenchanted American soldier goes about planting thousands of saplings, a Chinese immigrant daughter who falls in love with a mulberry bush her father planted, a dendrologist who discovers that trees can communicate, an artist who inherits hundreds of photographic portraits of a doomed chestnut tree, and more such narratives are interwoven together in a delicate yet irresistible web of narrative prose.
Unknowingly intertwined with a vast nether layer of thought, emotion and inspiring inventiveness between humans and non-humans, these individuals become privy to a larger cause of struggle and preservation in a tale spanning the ‘once’ great wilderness of North America.
‘“Remarkable…This ambitious novel soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction.” —Ron Charles, Washington Post’
Memory of Water, 2012 – Emmi Itäranta
A tale set in the Scandinavian Union that is now taken over by a vast Chinese State called New Qian, young Noria Kaitio grows up in a world without access to fresh-water, where only a select few Tea-masters like her father are equipped with secret knowledge of the last fresh water springs on Earth. Upon her father’s death, Noria is responsible for tending to the spring that her father took care of, but sooner or later, everything comes under the purview of the State and she is forced to choose between kinship and power.
With a gentle, lyrical and vivid form of prose, Emmi Itäranta creates a tale laden with wisdom and environmental poignancy. Her use of water related metaphors and flowing writing style dissolves the reader into a book as clear as the springwater it eulogizes.
“The writing is gorgeous and delicate in this dystopian award-winning debut, which is unique in both its setting and the small scale that Finnish author Itäranta employs.” – Library Journal
The Road - Cormac McCarthy
Not as much science fiction as it is an eco-fiction literary masterpiece, McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ deserves to be on this list for its sheer imaginative force of depicting a post-apocalyptic America through the eyes of a father and son, traversing its wide breadth in search for a better future. The landscape is ash-scarred, with no real hint to what exact cataclysm tore through the deserted, burnt and vicious place that was once a great continent. With scenes of utter horror and tenderness interspersed throughout this short novel, McCarthy delivers crystal clear prose, with periodic statements that are almost biblical in nature. Winner of the Pulitzer, amongst a host of other prestigious honors, ‘The Road’ will probably be understood as having astonishing foresight for the highly probable emotional tumult that future generations might face.
‘A work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away. It will knock the breath form your lungs’ - Tom Gatti, The Times
Borne, 2017 – Jeff Vandermeer
If one tires from dystopic visions and longs for a vision of humanity that is desirable, Borne is a novel that maintains hope. Rachel survives in a world where biotechnology has run amok after the disaster in the labs of ‘The Company’. She lives with her partner, scavenging in a city which is victim to the unpredictable predations of a colossal grizzly bear. The tale narrates her meeting a strange but enigmatic sea anemone like creature called Borne. The beginning of this relationship changes Rachel’s outlook on a bleak life and makes her wonder.
Things soon start tipping over as Borne grows and threatens the presence of various other sinister characters that emerge from this ravaged bio-tech cityscape. Vandermeer firmly takes on the burden of plunging science fiction into a world that is truly bizarre.
In Borne, Vandermeer continues his investigation into the malevolent grace of the world, a thorough marvel.” ―Colson Whitehead
The Word for World is Forest, 1972– Ursula K. Le Guin
The novel narrates the haunting tale of the forest dwelling Athsheans, on a planet that comes within range of a colonizing human force. Oscillating between human and non-human perspective, one follows the despotic Captain Davidson, who is hell bent on extracting all the forest resources from Athshea, having forced the local populace into becoming ‘voluntary workers’, and Selver Thele, an Athshean who loses his wife to the colonial violence and leads his people into a battle with a violence that is not inborn but learnt from its occupiers. The Athsheans engage in dream practices that heal them, aggression halting postures and competitive singing that have almost completely eradicated violence from their behaviour. With the arrival of the humans, their entire way of life is thrown askew.
There are striking parallels between Le Guin strong Anti-Vietnam war stance which blurs the boundaries between the countless dark moments in war and conflict, and the plight of a fictional Athshean planet. Le Guin’s reactionary Hugo award winning work from the 70’s is more than just a science fiction novel. With enough emotional force to have galvanized an array of academics, environmentalists and artists over the past four decades, the sheer amount of eulogies stand testament to its potency.
“Like all great writers of fiction, Le Guin creates imaginary worlds that restore us, hearts eased, to our own.” ―The Boston Globe
The Sea and Summer, 1987 – George Turner
Published as ‘The Drowning Towers’ in the United States, the tale is set in 2041 Australia, inundated due to rising sea levels, an intensely polarized division of wealth between the ‘Sweet’ and the ‘Swill’ sections of society, vast government corruption and the young Francis who attempts at navigating a society rife with inequalities, excessive automation and the collapse of a monetary system. As much as it is grounded in a context of climate crisis, Turner also masterfully rhizomes through the collective doom spelled out by faulty social systems, financial disaster and profit driven tech models. There is a slightly jarring structural jump in the middle from the author’s lit-fic fantasies to a need for a hard plot, but is still immensely readable. This is George Turner’s most widely celebrated novel, shortlisted for the nebula Award and winner of the prestigious Arthur. C. Clarke Award. As relevant today as it was 33 years ago, this is a climate fiction classic.
“The Sea and Summer is almost the definition of what good science fiction is about.” – New York Journal of Books’
The Drowned World, 1962 – J.G Ballard
Set in 2145, J.G. Ballard’s seminal work follows the adventures of a biologist Dr. Robert Kerans, who with a handful of scientists has been asked to map the flora and fauna of the drowned city of London. Due to series of large solar storms and the continued heating of the atmosphere, the polar ice-caps and the contours of the continents were reshaped with mammalian life struggling to survive. Reptiles proliferate across the globe and a small settlement - Camp Byrd, Greenland is the only known home to humanity.
A forebearer of the climate fiction genre as it is known today, ‘The Drowned World’ remained under appreciated during the 20th century but is of great significance today.
"The Drowned World ought to be recognized as one of the pioneering works of climate fiction…Writing during the era we believed most fervently that the world was ours to mold and shape, Ballard warned us that it wasn’t." -- Michael Christie, The Guardian
The Fifth Season, 2015 – N.K. Jemisin
This Hugo Award winner, is set in a single supercontinent called the ‘Stillness’. The entire world goes through a periodical apocalypse, (somewhat resembling our own Triassic and Anthropocene oriented disasters) and is occupied by a small population of ‘Orogenes’, people with the ability to sense and manipulate thermal and kinetic energy. They are in a sense saviours as well as destroyers of this clockwork disaster scheme.
This astounding piece of fiction displays two gigantic glossaries (hated for some, loved by others) which is testament to the depth each character possesses, and underlines the scale of transformation which the geology and the characters of this book undergo.
"Jemisin is now a pillar of speculative fiction, breathtakingly imaginative and narratively bold."―Entertainment Weekly
Parable of the Sower, 1993 – Octavia Butler
Set in a California of the mid 2020’s where water is scarce and vast mobs rule in full Dune style, and a zealot in government with a motto of ‘Making America great Again’ (written in 1993!!) The reader follows Lauren Olamina who suffers from hyperempathy and lives within a gated community with her preacher father and other religious neighbours. Lauren due to her condition creates a new form of faith and understanding through her diary writings under the title ‘The Book Of Earthsea’ as a potential saviour for the long-forsaken setting of America. Butler with enormous dexterity of the written word, places within this story, multiple layers of faith and questioning and anoints the next saviour as one with enough empathy to balance out its very loss from society.
"In the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time, Octavia Butler's 'Parable' books may be unmatched." ―New Yorker
Oryx & Crake, 2003 (MaddAddam Trilogy) – Margaret Atwood
The story is told from the perspective of Snowman, last knows as Jimmy, before a plague hit mankind and leaves a handful of homo-sapiens amongst a barrage of genetically modified passive and docile ‘Children of Crake’. They have no inclination towards creativity, sex or technological comprehension. Slowly the tale pieces together a post-apocalyptic world and Snowman’s own role in it.
In what she insists is speculative fiction and not SF as we know it, Atwood still has the ability to elicit a deep and disorienting sense of horror from the sheer technological numbness induced in the first book of her acclaimed MaddAddam trilogy.
“Towering and intrepid. . . . Atwood does Orwell one better.” —The New Yorker
Stand on Zanzibar, 1969 – John Brunner
A history lesson in innovation and world-building, ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ mixed entire chapters with short story like interludes, rubrics for advertising and conversations in order to create a vast world of fantasy in the burgeoning cli-fi literature of the late 60’s.
Society is facing the brunt of overpopulation, as we follow Norman Niblock House an executive at General Technics with a knack for political and social domination. With a world tainted by invasive supercomputers, psychedelic and technologically induced hallucinatory lifestyles and people living like rats in a tunnel, the sheer eccentricity of this novel might have taken it out of competition with ‘1984’ or the other heavyweights, but is till today one of those works of science climate fiction that has the ability to be a ‘fanspeak’ point of reference.
“Brunner's 1968 nightmare is crystallizing around us, in ways he could not have foreseen then” – Joe Haldeman
I am a writer, photographer and programmer based out of Chicago, IL USA. I enjoy finding creative ways to combine my studio still life photographs with fictional stories. I am always on the lookout for interesting stories and writing, which I love to really dissect and figure out how it works, and to share what I have found.