Great Environmental Fiction: Top 10 Climate Change Novels
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
There have been claims that the literary world has been slow in dealing with the challenges of climate change, however others have claimed that that only may be true for a narrow range of literary fiction – science fiction for instance has produced many such novels in recent years and even has its own named – cli-fi! It actually makes sense that there would be more SF works than mainstream literary works as science fiction is often about projecting forward and looking about possible worlds in the near future, whereas literary fiction is more often concerned with the present. This is a gross generalisation – a lot of science fiction is literary and a lot of literary fiction is also science fiction – but you hopefully get the point. Anyway, in the list below I’ve attempted a broad range of books covering literary and genre fiction.
The Overstory by Richard Powers – This is a novel about a group of characters and their relationship to trees. This is definitely a literary book, but has elements of magical realism in it. The first part of the book is made up of nine chapters, each following a particular character. These are effectively short stories that work on their own, and wonderful ones at that if reviewers comments are anything to go by. That’s only about a quarter of the book however. The remainder slowly combines these stories together. The book, only published in 2019, has been getting a lot of acclaim, culminating in it winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2019.
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver – This novel who follows a young woman discontented with her poverty stricken and boring life on a farm in the Appalachian mountains of Eastern USA, and seeks out an affair but instead sees a vision in the mountains – millions of Monarch butterflies seemingly setting the land on fire - which is both beautiful and life-changing. This is book about life, nature and climate change, but a deeply human novel at the same time.
The Water Knife by Paulo Bacigalupi – This is a definite cli-fi novel. Set in the near future in the American Southwest, the Colorado River is drying up and so called water knives are people who ‘cut water’ to divert the diminishing flow elsewhere for their rich bosses. This is all about the rich staying wet and the poor getting dust, so is as much about inequality as climate change, but then the two are likely to go hand in hand as we march into the future.
Memory of Water by Emma Itaranta – This is another novel about the scarcity of water. In this story, global warming has rewritten the geography of the world and China rules Europe including the Scandinavian Union. The book follows Noria Kaitio, a Tea Master who keeps the secret knowledge of hidden sources of water, but others are after that knowledge too (obviously!). According to reviewers it is a beautiful, lyrical novel, with many philosophical themes too.
The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – This is an oldie, first written in 1962. Ballard’s novel is set in a world in which solar radiation and global warming have melted the solar ice caps. Jungle has taken over a submerged and tropical London, and there are only a few remnants of human civilisation clinging to the land as nature takes over. It may not be up to date with the latest science, but this got there first, coming out in the same year as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and is a powerful novel depicting a terrifyingly possible future.
Clade by James Bradley – This is an episodic climate change novel on fast forward! The story is told from the perspective of climatologist Adam Leith and in his descendants, generation after generation. This structure allows the epic sweep of climate change across a long period of time to be softened and made relatable by a succession of human characters that all have similar, inherited personality traits. The book is quite short, less than 250 pages, and manages to fit in rather a lot for such a slim volume.
The Wall by John Lanchester – This is another slim volume, but tells a rather tighter story. In the near future, the world is set by climate change and one island nation (something like the UK) in a more fortunate position than many has tackled the problem by building a giant concrete wall around the entire nation. The story follows Joseph Kavanagh, a Defender who is charged with protecting his section of the Wall. This examines a fundamental question faced when we come head to head with crisis and catastrophe – do we seek to build bridges and help our neighbours or build a wall to keep them out?
The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson – This is a book by acclaimed author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit amongst others. In something of a departure for her, this is very much of a science fiction story, with three different stories of different futures each on different planets, told by a narrator in a sort of your guide fashion. As much as it is about the future and different planets, it is about us humans and the stupid things we do.
The Sea and the Summer by George Turner – This is a near future novel set in 2041 (but written in 1988) about a world riven by huge inequality. Sea levels have risen, there’s global warming, mass unemployment (due to automation) and a society divided between the ‘Sweets’ and the ‘Swills’ – roughly equivalent to the present day middle classes and the poor jobless underclass. Considering it was written 1988, it got a lot of things right about the direction we’re heading in.
Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson - If there's one writer that can claim to be primarily a climate change fiction writer, it is acclaimed SF author Kim Stanley Robinson. In this book, his latest, a new ministry has been set up and to help protect future generations: The Ministry of the Future. This is really near future, only a few years away. Packed full of ideas, this is part novel, part climate change essay, and all the better for it.