18th September 2019
‘Climate Fiction’ at Surly
Writers and artists have been exploring aspects of the climate crisis for several decades – in fact you may have heard the term ‘cli-fi’, used to define the genre as a subset of sci-fi / speculative fiction.
The popularity of dystopian fiction has been skyrocketing recently, and yes, it may sometimes seem like cli-fi books are just another reminder of the seemingly inevitable environmental crises we already see on the news every day. BUT, as novelist John Lanchester says – “My main ambition is for my book to be wrong… I’m deeply optimistic… I think there is a moral obligation to be optimistic, because if we’re pessimistic we will despair, and if we despair, this will happen. If we despair we won’t act and we morally can’t let it happen.”
So, we read cli-fi not for despair, but for hope and learning. If we allow these stories to feed our imagination and determination, then we can instead use cli-fi as an opportunity to critically examine our reality and the future we are building, and ultimately seek creative and courageous solutions.
Read on for 11 Cli-Fi recommendations available at Surly, plus some non-fic recommendations if you’re keen to continue your learning.
The Wall – John Lanchester
The Change has brought environmental and economic disaster, and one island nation is protecting itself with a an enormous concrete Wall around the entire island. Joseph is a Defender of the island, enlisted to prevent The Others from getting past The Wall. If he fails, he will be cast out to sea; but sea levels are still rising, and The Others are attacking with increasing determination….
Borrowing elements from British, American and Australian politics, and exploring the difficulties of blame and responsibility in the climate crisis, this is a very timely cli-fi novel.
The Flight of Birds – Joshua Lobb
This book follows the protagonist through twelve stories about the connection between the human and the animal world, particularly our relationship with birds. We inhabit the same space as birds, but they are also free to fly above us. We relate to birds in a variety of different ways – as pets, as pests, as food, as metaphors, as domesticated or wild beings.
The stories are all influenced by an awareness of climate crisis, exploring how we simultaneously inflict and suffer from grief, loss, and violence. The book will make you re-examine our place in the world, and how we can reclaim the possibility of positive transformation.
The Current – Yannick Thoraval
Peter Van Dooren is an engineer and an entrepreneur, working on a new idea to curb the effects of climate crisis on a sinking tropical island. Meanwhile his wife and children, on the other side of the world, are adrift in their own unhappiness and sinking into the deep waters of consumerism, pornography, and extremism.
This is a book about the seemingly unstoppable currents that shape the world – socially, psychologically, and environmentally. The writing is sly and clever, and drives home the need for us to work toward better relationships with nature and with each other.
The Overstory – Richard Powers
This book is structured as a tree – beginning with 8 independent short stories as the ‘roots’, that then merge into the ‘trunk’, branch out into the ‘crown’, and sow ‘seeds’ for the future.
The word overstory refers to the highest layer of vegetation in a forest; the leaves that grow above the canopy, intrinsically part of the forest yet invisible to those within it. This is the story of people learning to see that invisible part of the world through scientific discovery, family history, and life’s explorations. The book is passionate and explicit in illustrating the transient nature of human as opposed to natural life, and in advocating for the protection of trees. The Overstory was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019.
The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi
The Colorado River is drying up. Water prices are soaring higher than petrol or gold, dust storms ravage the American landscape, and the rich-poor divide is becoming ever more apparent. Angel Velasquez is a Las Vegas ‘water knife’ – a hard-knock spy who ‘cuts’ water for profit. When rumours start circulating about a potential new water source, Angel goes to investigate and becomes tied up in the legal, economic, and moral battle for water rights.
This is an action-packed book that doesn’t shy away from the hard, at times terrifying, realities of war and drought.
Also check out The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Permafrost – Alastair Reynolds
In the year 2080, the earth is sterile and humans are on the brink of extinction. A group of scientists in the Arctic Circle are attempting a last-ditch experiment to avert global catastrophe, and save the future by changing the past. In the year 2028, a young woman is recovering from brain surgery and starts hearing a voice in her mind – a voice with very specific intent and instructions. Will she collaborate with the voice, or are there further complications in this time-travel plot? (Hint: there are always further complications in a time-travel plot….)
This book combines cli-fi with more traditional sci-fi elements – time-travel, paradox, technology, adventure, and of course intriguing plot twists.
Clade – James Bradley
Adam and Ellie are awaiting the results of Ellie’s latest round of IVF treatment – a tiny moment in time that will start their family and change their lives forever. Meanwhile, the world around them is changing in a different way – storms, pandemics, civil unrest, mass displacement, and more. Environmental breakdown is made very personal in this story, as we follow one family, generation to generation, exploring the changes that affect us on both an intimate and an epic scale. The climate crisis is not portrayed a single event, but a background of continual change and degradation. The problems that Bradley details are feasible – but thankfully, so are the possible solutions he suggests.
2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson
Swan Er Hong lives on the planet Mercury, in a city that is continually, slowly moving around the planet to stay out of direct line of the Sun. One day while she is out of town, her city comes under attack – artificial meteorites hurl towards the city’s crucial infrastructure, threatening humanity’s precarious existence on the barely-inhabitable planet. Meanwhile, Swan begins investigating a conspiracy surrounding her grandmother’s death, and eventually becomes involved in a project to restore Earth from its post-climate-crisis desolation. How are all these pieces of the puzzle connected, and where does humanity’s best hope for the future lie?
This is a truly classic sci-fi read, with lots of futuristic technology, engineering, terraforming, A.I., and more.
Solar – Ian McEwan
Michael Beard is a wealthy, well-respected, Nobel Prize-winning physicist. He is also a lazy, middle-aged, balding womaniser whose (fifth) marriage is falling apart. Worried that he is ‘over the hill’ in both his work and his relationship, he takes up an opportune position researching solar energy. Can he somehow find a solution to fix both the global environmental crisis, and his own dysfunctional life? This is a satirical novel about deceit, ambition, and the chaos that arises when we fail to take responsibility for our own actions.
Oryx and Crake begins with the character Jimmy, mourning the loss of his friend Crake and the mysterious Oryx, and fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Surrounded by a new breed of genetically-created beings, physically flawless but emotionally void, Jimmy may be the last real human left.
Atwood’s iconic MaddAddam trilogy deals with a whole host of dystopian (but realistic) issues – overpopulation, genetic engineering, global plagues, violence,social disparity, etc – but at the heart of these is the impending climate crisis, and the humanity crisis that it represents.
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
Dellarobia Turnbow is hiking up a hill, on the way to meet her secret lover. When she turns around, she is shocked by the sight of the valley aflame – not with fire, but with millions of monarch butterflies. Although beautiful, this abnormal mass migration is a disturbing symptom of global warming that brings their small rural community into the spotlight from scientists, religious leaders, and journalists.
The book explores our personal and collective responses to the climate crisis, including the motives that drive both action and denial.
Want more Cli-fi recommendations? Check out ‘Burning Worlds’, a monthly review of new cli-fi from the Chicago Review of Books.
Interested to learn more about climate science & politics? Check out some of these in Surly:
- The Wizard and the Prophet – Charles C. Mann
- Atmosphere of Hope : Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis – Tim Flannery
- The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World – Jeff Goodell
- The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy – Michael McCarthy
- This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate – Naomi Klein
- The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells
- This is Not a Drill – Extinction Rebellion
- After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene – Jedediah Purdy
Want to learn more about Sustainable Living?
- Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture – Rosemary Morrow
- Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability – David Holmgren
- The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More – Adam Grub
- Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World – Richard Denniss