Fiction about Climate Change

The Financial Times carried a long review by Energy Editor Ed Crooks about a week ago on a number of recent novels about climate change. It’s a good review of some interesting looking books—check it out. Crooks is clearly a good one to take this on—he knows his climate change and energy stuff, and looks like a pretty good judge of books as well. But, as always, I was surprised to see so little reference to the stuff that science fiction writers have been putting out. Of course, it’s science fiction, so who cares? It’s worse than that, though. Here we have Ian McEwan, who has just written Solar, a novel about climate change (let’s hope it’s better than Saturday) actually saying recently that he was surprised there weren’t more novels about climate change, given what a good subject it made.

McEwan should just wander over to a different section of the bookstore. Even leaving aside most of the post-apocalyptic novels premised on some sort of global warming catastrophe, there have been a whole spate of science fiction novels and stories over the decades about climate change, and what its possible impacts will be.

The following are pretty good examples of what the genre has been producing, in no particular order:

JG Ballard–The Drowned World (1962); The Burning World (1964) (Reissued as The Drought)
The first one is a classic. Ballard is one of the great writers of post-war Britain, and this is one of his finest books. I admit I haven’t read The Burning World, but apparently it’s a similar thype of book. Ballard is best-known for Crash and Empire of the Sun–he covered a lot of ground.

Kim Stanley Robinson—Forty Signs of Rain (2005), Fifty Degrees Below (2007), Sixty Days and Counting (2007)
An engaging and entirely too plausible chronicle of near-term events surrounding the efforts of scientists and some politicians to salvage something from a catastrophe. Robinson is prolific, as readers of his Mars series know. Great airplane reading–it will pass the time admirably while also making you feel guilty for flying.

Bruce Sterling—Heavy Weather (1994)
Scary as hell. Take the notion of tornado hunters and translate into an extreme weather nightmare.

Jonathan Barnes—Mother of Storms (1995)
Methane clouds from under the arctic disrupt global weather catastrophically when released by a nuclear explosion. While you’re reading it, you can then think about the large methane bubble lying underneath the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and what that might produce if released.

Nancy Kress—Nothing Human (2003)
Global warming and its impacts as the backdrop for some changes to humanity—in a drastically changed world, what form will humanity take in order to survive? An astonishingly good book on any number of levels, not least in its description of a dissolving United States from the impact of warming.

Peter F. Hamilton—Mindstar Rising (1993)
England in the early 21st century tries to recover from global warming. This is the novel that introduced psychic detective Greg Mandel. There’s a whole Mandel series. Great fun with some serious themes.

Arthur Herzog—Heat (1976)
The title sums it up. Herzog was talking about CO2 and global warming decades ago. Herzog has written a number of what one could only call intelligent potboilers, including The Swarm and Orca, both of which were made into passable B movies.

Paolo Bacigalupi—a number of short stories about climate change impacts, collected in Pump Six (2008). Bacigalupi also just wrote the startling The Windup Girl. Most of Bacgalupi’s work concerns bioengineering in a world where fossil fuel shortages and climate change impacts are the ever-present background.

Philip K. Dick—
The master. Wrote several novels in which the background environment is one ravaged by global warming. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the best known, as the basis for the film Blade Runner.

Crooks turns out to be surprisingly receptive to and good-natured about unsolicited haranguing emails. He also mentions two by John Brunner—Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. Neither is specifically about climate change, but they’re both pretty superb post-apocalyptic novels that have held up well.

Any I’ve missed?

4 replies »

  1. I completely agree with you. I think it’s either an indication of how far from the literary circle science fiction seems to have strayed over the last two decades, or an indication of how very close the future seems to be these days. In the past, science fiction helped explain projections of current fears and axieties – with the idea being that we would end up somewhere bad in the ‘future’.

    Nowadays the ‘future’ is so close in on us. The far off future detailed in great science fiction comes around every couple of years. It may be a hackneyed phrase, but “the future is now”. I think that people find it very hard to read too far into the future, when their anxieties are rooted so firmly in the present.

    We’re not afraid of anymore what might happen 50 or even 20 years from now, we’re afraid of tomorrow. I think that’s why authors like McEwan exclaim that there are few people writing about climate change. He means writing about climate change today, not in 30 years.

  2. Yes, we live in a science fiction world now. That’s pretty clear. And it’s accelerating. But McEwan is wrong, sadly–there are lots of writers dealing with the impacts both today and the next couple of decades. He’s just not paying attention.

    Of course, this is the hardest stuff to write about. It’s easy to write about the world after the apocalypse–it’s what happens during the process that’s hard. That’s why the Robinson and Kress books work so well.