Exploring Cli-Fi Part II: Books by Theme

earth floating on a wave
Photo by Grafner on Dreamstime using NASA image

Exploring climate fiction is a journey into scientific, political, social, economic, epidemiological, zoological, philosophical, and practical new horizons. Last week’s post on how authors are grappling with the climate crisis really struck a chord!

Thanks to the readers who suggested some of their favorite titles and sent me links to additional resources. Here are two good ones: The website Cli-Fi.net is a treasure trove of links to news and popular culture references to cli-fi. The Econ-SF wiki of books at the nexus of economics and sci-fi has some intriguing cli-fi recommendations, several of which are included below.

Forthwith, loosely sorted by theme but otherwise in no particular order, is a list of cli-fi books. Many are fairly new, but I’ve also included a few earlier books that paved the way. No doubt this list is woefully incomplete.

I’ve read a few of the novels below. Others are by authors who have written other books I’ve enjoyed, and the rest are now on my to-read list. Some come from the lists I shared last week, some from recommendations from friends and colleagues both on and off of LinkedIn.

Authors Who Are Sub-Genres Unto Themselves

Kim Stanley Robinson’s many books of speculative climate fiction are practically a sub-genre unto themselves: 2312New York 2140, and the Science in the Capital series (Forty Signs of RainFifty Degrees BelowSixty Days and Counting) all look at the world after climate collapse. The Ministry for the Future (2020) imagines efforts to keep the collapse from happening. Other works by this extremely prolific writer, while not strictly about climate change, explore outposts on other planets, where humans presumably end up after ruining much or all of ours.

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy explores what might happen in the aftermath of environmental collapse. The first installment, Oryx and Crake (2004) explores a world where humans have been decimated by a plague and genetic engineering gone wrong. The second, The Year of the Flood (2010) takes readers through the aftermath of the Waterless Flood, a pandemic. In the final book of the trilogy, MaddAddam (2014), the Children of Crake, the bio-engineered successors to humans, forge a new future.

Biodiversity Loss

Amanda Kool, Resembling Lepus (2022) After Earth’s Sixth Great Extinction, humans have supplemented natural fauna with high-quality replicas. Every living thing –both natural and human-created—is tracked, numbered, and categorized. A detective’s quest to solve a series of strangely staged murders of rabbits raises another question: What is the impact on humanity when mankind is required to play god to the creatures they have all but destroyed?

Michael Christie, Greenwood (2020) In this Canadian writer’s eco-parable, a new fungus is killing off the last trees of the last remaining forests in what is known as “the great withering” in 2038 -not so far in the future from now. (reviewed in The Guardian)

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012) imagines the catastrophic effects when pollution and other environmental disruptions send an entire colony of butterflies off track. No doubt you’ve heard of the butterfly effect whereby a single butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet. Now think about that magnified many, many times over. (Read all the way to the bottom of this review in The Guardian for one of the funniest corrections I’ve seen.) While not strictly cli-fi, many of her other works engage the environment so closely as for it to count as a character.

Sarah Blake, Clean Air (2022) Decades after a climate apocalypse in which trees suffocated humans with pollen, a serial killer stalks the residents of the domes in which humanity rebuilt a new society.

Charlotte McConaghy, Migrations (2021) (The Last Migration in the UK)The protagonist of this Australian writer’s acclaimed novel tracks the world’s last Arctic terns across the high seas – migrating birds for what may be their last time– in search of the last fish. The Economist describes it as “Moby Dick for the age of climate change.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory (2018) This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel follows five trees and nine people across generations as a complex environmental catastrophe unfolds. (From The Guardian)

Security, War, Pandemics, and Other Cataclysms

Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock (2021) A geo-engineering scheme goes badly awry. Several people have mentioned this one, completely unprompted, so it’s high on my to-read list.

Jeff VanderMeer, Hummingbird Salamander (2020) A fast-paced thriller following a missing eco-terrorist.

Bethany Clift, Last One at the Party (2021) The diary of the sole human survivor of a pandemic and her golden retriever sidekick. (You knew I had to get a dog in this list somehow, right?)

Omar El Akkad, American War (2017) Northern U.S states outlaw fossil fuels in 2074, provoking a second civil war.

Tobias S. Buckell, Stochasticity, (2008) Eco-terrorists roam a dystopian post-fossil-fuel Detroit.

Tochi Onyebuchi, War Girls (2019) In 2172, two Nigerian sisters separated by civil war attempt to reunite after global climate and nuclear apocalypse.

Migration

Niall Bourke, Line (2021) This Irish writer’s fictional world is centered on the Line, a tented community and a state of the perpetual waiting, depending on whether you take things literally or metaphorically, in a world where people barely subsist 

Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (2019) The Guardian describes this novel, focused on mass migrations of humans, languages, and animals, as the author’s answer to his own 2016 accusation that fiction writers were complicit in climate denial.

Water: Scarcity and Flooding

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (2015) In a world where water is worth more than gold and the Colorado River is drying up, this thriller “deftly explores corporate greed, social inequality, deregulation, and privatization.”

Stephen Baxter, Flood (2009) and Ark (2011) This two-part series begins in 2016 -an interesting twist that puts the protagonists in what is now the recent past, though both were written just a few years before then– and continues for the next 42 years as the oceans rise higher and higher.

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962): Set in 2045 in a world that climate change has rendered barely livable, this novel is an early, prescient, precursor to today’s cli-fi.  

Jessie Greengrass, The High House (2021) A family takes refuge in a house built high on a bluff, protected from floods and pandemic, amidst an increasingly uninhabitable world. “As I grew up, crisis slid from distant threat to imminent probability, and we tuned it out like static. We adjusted to each emergent normality and we did what we had always done,” one of the survivors laments.

Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water (2014) In the future, when wars are waged over water, tea masters are entrusted with the knowledge of remaining stashes of the precious liquid.

John Lanchester, The Wall (2019) In this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, young “defenders” patrol Britain after it erected a fortress along its shores to protect the nation from rising seas. Read the review in The Guardian.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The New Atlantis (1975) This short novel is a prescient depiction of geological and social upheaval after climate change has raised seas and as populations grow out of control.

Rita Indiana, Tentacle (2018) A young maid in Santo Domingo must travel backwards in time to save the ocean and humanity. Translated into English by the talented Achy Obejas, Tentacle was originally published in Spanish under the title La mucama de Omicunlé. (If you know my first book, Why the Cocks Fight, you’ll understand why this one in particular appeals to me.)

Social Justice

Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993) “This seminal cli-fi novel addresses climate change, social injustice, and corporate greed,” wrote the editors of Grist/The Fix.

N.K. Jemison, The Fifth Season (2015) A woman searches for her daughter in End Times. “The first book in the Broken Earth trilogy addresses racial and social oppression with obvious parallels to the injustices of this world.” 

Sam J Miller, Blackfish City (2018) Disease ravages a floating Arctic city of climate refugees beset by corruption and widening social inequality when a mysterious warrior, accompanied by her orca and polar bear, arrives.

Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) Some commentators have credited this hallmark novel as having helped catalyze the rise of environmental activism.

The Shifting Nature of Humanity

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning (2018) As the gods and heroes of Indigenous legend roam a desolate world decimated by environmental disaster, a supernaturally gifted monster-killer and a medicine man must unravel a mystery that threatens the future. The Verge calls this novel “a fast-paced urban fantasy adventure with an exciting set of characters and an enticing world that begs for further exploration.”

Leandra Vane, Cast From the Earth (2017) In this post-apocalyptic novel, an epidemic turns men into monsters. The protagonist, a one-legged woman, and her companions fight for survival.

Lauren C. Teffeau, Implanted (2018) Climate catastrophe has forced humans into domed cities, where human connections are artificially heightened by neural implants. (from Grist’s Definitive Climate Fiction list)

This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

To subscribe to “Around My Mind” and get notifications of new posts, click the blue button at the top right corner of this page. Please don’t be shy about sharing, leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.

For more content, including guest posts and ways to engage me for keynotes, workshops, or strategic deep dives, please visit www.thegrayrhino.com.

Exploring the Future via Cli-Fi

Earth on tightrope above flames
Image © Grafner via Dreamstime.com

Several colleagues have recently suggested novels that imagine the future if the world fails to arrest climate change. When a national security specialist recently asked for recommendations along the same lines, I asked around for more books, which I realized fit into the relatively new genre of “cli-fi.”

“Born as the unfortunate love child of global environmental crisis and narrative imagination, climate fiction is a timely cultural reaction to the growing societal awareness of human impact upon the planet and its climate system,” Juha Raipola wrote in Fafnir, the Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research.

Climate fiction tends to fall into two categories: one that is realistic, describing climate change affecting its protagonists in a world like the one we know, and the other more closely resembling science fiction. Raipola describes the latter as follows: “Speculative visions of flooding cities, melting glaciers, catastrophic storms, or drought-suffering environments demonstrate the potentially disastrous effects of climate change on the global environment, while the plot-level events of the narrative focus on the experience of living in a changed world.”

Cli-fi novels can play an important part in changing the conversation about climate crisis because of the way that fiction immerses readers in the reality that the author creates. It establishes an emotional connection in a way that no scientific analysis, modeling, or regurgitation of facts can do. That’s why the most dedicated policy wonks and business nerds can benefit from reading fiction related to their work.

Without an emotional connection to a challenge, it is hard to create urgency. And without a sense of urgency, it’s hard to change the way we do things.

I’ve started reading a few of the suggestions I dug up. This week, I’ll share some of the places I found promising lists and anthologies.

Grist, a nonprofit media outlet dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions, has published a glossary of cli-fi sub-genres, which you can peruse HERE. You’ll find descriptions and book recommendations exploring diverse versions of futurism; solar, eco, cyber, and hope punk; ecotopia, dystopia, and “ustopia” (a mix of the two). The list is part of the Climate Fiction Issue published by Fix, Grist’s networking and events arm.

The Guardian’s Claire Armistead compiled a list focused on “the new wave of climate fiction” and reached out to Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, and other novelists for insightful comments about their own work and the genre writ large. “Cli-fi often rests on the familiar trope of a nightmarish new reality unleashed by a catastrophic event,” Armistead wrote. But authors have also woven in various narrative tools and tropes including myth and mysticism, social comedy, thriller plots, stream-of-consciousness, and experimental formats.

Heather Hansman recently compiled a list for The Atlantic of books in which climate change plays a role. “The books below aren’t about climate change—they’re about immigration, corporate malfeasance, and tourism; they focus on families, neighbors, and friends,” she wrote. “But in each, the anxieties of our warming age force their way in, simmering quietly in the background or erupting across the page.”

Andrew Dana Hudson, himself a prolific author of climate fiction, in a Medium essay similarly poses the question of how to define the genre. “Many stories set in the future are classified as science fiction, or sci-fi. Doesn’t that make climate fiction, or cli-fi, just a form of sci-fi?” He makes the point that “In most science fiction, social change is driven by advancements in science and technology. It’s fiction about science.” In imagining science-driven transformations, sci-fi examines the impact on society. And here, Hudson argues, is how climate fiction differs from the broader sci-fi genre: It lets us pick up a different theory: that the biggest driver of social change in the coming century or more will be climate change.

The anthologies below give a taste of cli-fi in a wide-ranging set of short stories.

Anthologies

Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Vol. 1 (2016), Vol. 2 (2018), and Vol. 3 (2021). Published by Arizona State University Imagination and Climate Future Initiative, this series of anthologies was named after a quote from a talk that Margaret Atwood gave at Arizona State University in 2014.

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers (2018) and Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters (2020). This pair of anthologies combines utopian and dystopian visions of a future characterized by extreme heat and extreme cold.

Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors. The winners and finalists of the first climate fiction contest organized by Fix and the National Resources Defense Council.

McSweeney’s Issue 58: 2040 A.D.(2019) A collaboration between McSweeney’s and the National Resources Defense Council, this anthology brings together literary luminaries including Tommy Orange, Elif Shafak, Luis Alberto Urrea, Asja Bakic, and Rachel Heng, all of whom set their stories in 2040.

Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures (2021) A global roster of authors explores the impact of climate change on cities.

The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures (2019) This optimistic anthology of short fiction imagines what a solar-powered world might look like.

Warmer. (2018) A collection of seven short Kindle books, also available as audio books, which amazon.com plugs as “Fear and hope collide in this collection of possible tomorrows.”

Next week, I’ll share a list of novels sorted by focus, ranging from drought and flood to violent conflict to biodiversity loss and social justice, with a few authors qualifying as genres unto themselves.

Do you have any favorite cli-fi authors or books? Please share them in the comments.

[Links to bookshop.org are affiliate links]

This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

To subscribe to “Around My Mind” and get notifications of new posts, click the blue button at the top right corner of this page. Please don’t be shy about sharing, leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.

For more content, including guest posts and ways to engage me for keynotes, workshops, or strategic deep dives, please visit www.thegrayrhino.com.

Books That Inspired Me in 2018

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year and peaceful and prosperous 2019!

Wrapping up 2018, I’m reflecting on the books I’ve read over the past year that have made the biggest impressions. They reflect a range of interests, from ruminations on the nature of risk and uncertainty, to how we classify personalities and attitudes, to a memoir of celiac disease, to a wide-ranging list of fiction.

Risk

Before he died on New Year’s Day 2015, Ulrich Beck was as close to a cult figure as a German academic sociologist could get. In the first five years after its publication, his classic book Risk Society sold more than 60,000 copies. Yes, with four zeroes. He’s not an easy read, but amid the dense academic prose in Risk Society and the later World at Risk are flashes of brilliance.

In similar tone and style, Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty reflects on “a society impotent, as never before, to decide its own course with any degree of certainty, and to protect the chosen itinerary once it has been selected.”

Personalities

Merve Emre tells the story of the mother-daughter team who invented the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs personality test, leading to the $500 million psychometric testing industry and the controversies that surround it, in The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing

In Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, Michele Gelfand explores the cultural context of just what the title says: how wedded groups of people are to the rules they’ve set up to shape their society, and how willing they are to take risks in breaking those rules.

Celiac Disease

After she saw me put our waiter through the Celiac Inquisition as we caught up over brunch, a mutual friend of author Paul Graham recommended his memoir of learning to live with celiac disease, In Memory of Bread. His account of how he ended up in the hospital and was diagnosed is epic: an orgy of traditional bread baking (and eating) and craft beer brewing (and drinking). His baking tips are helpful. But what I really loved was how he put into words the worst part of celiac disease: the angst it causes in social meal situations. I gave it to a friend who also cannot eat wheat or other gluten products, and she loved it as much as I did before passing it on to her (also gluten-free) daughter.

Fiction

When Scott Turow spoke at a recent Authors Guild event here in Chicago, I picked up a copy of his recent international legal drama, Testimony, involving the atrocities of the collapse of the now-former Yugoslavia. I’m enjoying it as much as his earlier books, which gave me a glimpse of Chicago many years before I moved here.

Two of the year’s most celebrated novels fully deserve the praise heaped on them.

Madeline Miller’s Circe, a #1 New York Times bestseller, tells the story of the witch who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs. Since my dad has a master’s in classics and I grew up on Greek and Roman mythology, I particularly loved this fresh take on the Odyssey and related myths.

The family of “Marsh Girl” Kya, the protagonist of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, abandons her in their home in a swamp when she is seven years old. She raises herself, furtively interacting with the townspeople until their stories intertwine. Both a mystery and coming of age story, the book benefits from Owens’ own expertise as a naturalist.

Most of the other fiction I’ve read over the past year comes from around the world.

I cannot say enough how much I loved Turkish best-selling author Elif Safak’s The Architect’s Apprentice, the story of a boy turned elephant caregiver, architect, and man, and his interactions with royalty and ruffians in Ottoman-era Istanbul. Amazing detail, characters, and plot.

Two Chinese contemporary authors explore the nature of uncertainty through the (mis) adventures of two protagonists making their way through contemporary Beijing.

Orange Prize Finalist Xiaolu Guo’s semi-autobiographical Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the story of a plucky would-be actress who leaves her country home for a career in Beijing.

The narrator of Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing has just been released from prison, and has to figure out how to make a life out of air permeated by the fine yellow dust that so often descends on Beijing. He hawks pirated DVDs and tries to make sense of old and new relationships.

After my trip to South Korea late last year (with a day trip to the DMZ), I discovered several wonderful authors. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a National Book Award finalist, is an epic family saga set in the wake of the Korean War, which drives the protagonists to a complicated new life in Japan.

I picked up Han Kang’s Human Acts in Seoul on the recommendation of a Korean friend who said that it was even better than her Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Vegetarian. She tells the story of the violent student uprisings that took the lives of some of her characters, exploring people’s motivations in taking extreme risks on behalf of family members, friends, and their society.

My friend also recommended Gong Ji-Young’s Our Happy Time, perhaps an odd title for a book about a suicidal young woman and a death row inmate. But it works. The subject interested me in part because I’d heard about Korea’s high suicide rate, but what made the book work was the portrayal of the struggles of the main characters.

And from Japan, Keiko Furukura, the title character of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, is a singular personality, probably somewhere on the spectrum. An unlikely but welcome heroine, she breaks with social expectations and makes her own way through life in Tokyo.

I’ll be continuing my literary tour of the world in 2019 and am looking for books to add to my list. What books have moved you recently?

This article is part of my new weekly series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

Click the blue button on the top right hand of this page to subscribe to “Around My Mind” and get notifications of new posts. Please don’t be shy about sharing, leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.