Weathering the Storm: Portrayals of Climate Change in Science Fiction
Over time, the genre of science fiction has emerged as a compelling medium to grapple with the complexities of climate change, envisaging its impacts and implications through narratives that are at once alarming, poignant, and thought-provoking.
Our exploration begins with the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'The Overstory' by Richard Powers, a novel that interweaves the stories of trees and humans, calling attention to our intricate ecological interdependencies. We then journey with Emmi Itäranta in 'Memory of Water,' where we confront a future scarred by water scarcity, followed by the desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape in Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road.'
We delve into the biotech dystopias of Jeff Vandermeer's 'Borne' and Margaret Atwood's 'Oryx & Crake,' and immerse ourselves in the eco-conscious narratives of Ursula K. Le Guin's 'The Word for World is Forest,' George Turner's 'The Sea and Summer,' and J.G Ballard's 'The Drowned World.' Through N.K. Jemisin's 'The Fifth Season,' we experience climate change as a catalyst for social and political upheaval, a theme resonating in Octavia Butler's 'Parable of the Sower' as well.
Further, we examine the techno-thriller 'The Water Knife' by Paolo Bacigalupi and dystopian overpopulation in 'Stand on Zanzibar' by John Brunner. We also discuss how climate anxiety is etched into our collective consciousness in Nathaniel Rich's 'Odds Against Tomorrow,' Rita Indiana's 'Tentacle,' and Karen Russel's 'Orange World and Other Stories.'
Our journey through these works not only brings to life the profound and myriad ways in which science fiction grapples with the issue of climate change, but also urges us to reflect on our relationship with the natural world. As we chart these warming worlds, we aim to underscore the power of literature in amplifying the urgency of environmental stewardship, even as we brave the storm of a changing climate.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Richard Powers’ 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning twelfth novel is an ode to the natural world we all live in. The Overstory, a New York Times Bestseller, has been described as an “impassioned work of activism” for its unique take on that which exists around us, that we are not always able to see.
This environmental epic follows a group of strangers as they are brought together by the power of trees in order to take a stand in protecting the remaining acres of forest land. These individuals are as diverse as they come: from the son of an engineer who realizes that the programs he codes aren’t too dissimilar from trees, to an undergraduate student brought back from death by unexplainable forces.
The narratives of these individuals are uniquely woven in Powers’ novel, which is split into four different sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. The science-fiction element within this novel is subtle but powerful. It is a world where the trees communicate with each other and with us, a world that readers will come to see is not all that different from our own.
Recently, Netflix has acquired the rights to a television adaption of Powers’ novel, which will see this fascinating group of individuals and their stories brought to life on screen. The creators of the Game of Thrones fantasy television adaption – David Benioff and D.B. Weiss – are both executive producers of the adaption.
‘“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 by 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 by 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 by 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 by 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 by 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 by 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 by 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 saviors 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 by 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 by 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 by 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
Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich
Nathaniel Rich’s second fiction novel is described as both a novel about a “fear of the future” and a “future of fear”. This novel is set in the city of New York’s near future and follows a young mathematician, Mitchell Zukor, who is hired by an enigmatic financial consultancy firm known as FutureWorld.
Even stranger: Mitchell is only the second employee to join the mysterious firm, which is based in an empty office in the Empire State Building. Stranger still: he’s been asked to calculate an array of worst-case scenarios, from natural disasters to wars. When one such scenario realizes in New York, Mitchell is in a unique position to profit – but at what cost?
Odds Against Tomorrow is a unique science-fiction novel that takes the climate issues of today and dares to question what those issues could look like tomorrow. This novel is both a literary thriller and a philosophical inquiry into the politics of fear, with a surprising love story to boot. There’s a good reason Rolling Stones described this as “the first great climate-change novel”.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana
Rita Indiana’s novel Tentacle begins in a post-apocalyptic Dominican Republic and follows a young maid, Acilde Figueroa. While Odds Against Tomorrow, discussed above, and Tentacle both begin from a post-apocalyptic point in time, Indiana’s novel looks to the past for answers!
This is because Acilde Figueroa is at the center of a prophecy: if she can become who she was always meant to be with the use of an extraordinary anemone, she’ll be able to travel back in time to save humanity from ecological collapse.
Indiana’s novel is a dystopian science-fiction novel that weaves many topical issues into a taut punk-pulp narrative. Despite its short length, this novel comments on everything from the ways humanity impacts the environment to the advancement of technology, from poverty to sex and gender, from queer politics to colonization.
Tentacle’s lyrical prose and unique points of view will guide you through a psychedelic journey that spans many different points in time and space. When you get to the end of the novel and the covert connections between these different periods in time are revealed, you’ll want to read the book again!
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi’s sixth novel is a science-fiction narrative that is based on a short story he originally published in the High Country News journal, which often focuses on environmental issues. This novel considers a wide variety of issues we are currently facing, from an imminent shortage in water to the refugee crisis, from climate change to corporate greed.
Like the novels discussed in this article, this novel takes place in the near future and is set in an American Southwest that’s facing the consequences of climate change, including extreme drought. The Colorado River, once a great water resource for the region, has almost completely dried up, and the powers that be are willing to go to war for it.
In the middle of this chaos is Angel Velasquez, an assassin who has been hired as a ‘water knife’ by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Angel’s mission is to infiltrate the water departments and sabotage them for his ruthless boss. This is a tale about the rich getting richer through water and the poor getting nothing but dust.
The world Bacigalupi crafts in his dystopian novel is a rich one with echoes of our own. In a world where water scarcity is a harsh reality many people face, this novel makes the reader consider a resource we all take for granted, one that could be gone in an instant.
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russel
If you’re interested in climate change science fiction but don’t have the time to devote to reading an entire novel right now, you’re in luck! From Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russel, Orange World and Other Stories is a rich, compelling collection of bizarre tales that manage to echo our own reality.
The titular story, Orange World, follows the mother of a newborn who must strike up a deal with the devil, literally, to ensure the safety of her child. If she breastfeeds the devil, he will protect her newborn. The realities Russel paints in these short stories are steeped in history, while often still imagining the horrors that lie waiting for us in the near future.
Across these eight unique stories that comprise this astounding collection, Russel takes her readers on a journey from their world into the surreal and outlandish while never losing focus of that which makes us human. Russel’s vivid language and mesmerizing imagery are sure to take hold of your imagination from start to finish.
Science fiction has always served as our collective foresight, mirroring our anxieties, hopes, and questions about the future. Over the years, as the looming threat of climate change has intensified, its portrayal in science fiction has transitioned from a distant possibility to an impending reality. Through the lens of this genre, we glimpse the shape of things to come – warmer worlds, rising seas, desperate struggles for resources, and civilizations on the brink.
By weaving narratives around climate change, these tales do more than merely predict a dystopian future. They stir in us a sense of urgency, a compelling call to action. As we journey through the stormy landscapes conjured by these visionary authors, we find ourselves confronting not only the challenges of a climate-ravaged future but also the possibilities of what we can do to avert it.
Weathering the storm is a choice we make, and as these works of fiction suggest, it is a choice imbued with hope. It is the hope that by acknowledging the storm, we can change its course, and in doing so, chart a future where mankind and nature exist in a more harmonious balance.