10 Great Books on Climate Change Fiction
Cli-fi, or climate fiction, also known as Eco-fiction, is a relatively new genre of literature that sets narratives in an often dystopian world affected by climate change. I love it because fiction can be used to convey complicated climate change messages, by enabling exaggeration, contraction of time, or the creation of hypothetical situations that can better illustrate impacts than dry, scientific facts. It can also reach audiences who do not normally obtain climate change information. I gave it a shot in the mid 1990s by developing a web-based science soap opera, called CO2Lab, which used a superficial story about the social lives of a fictional team of climate scientists as a ‘Trojan horse’ to introduce complicated concepts about climate change and other science (you can still find it online if you search hard enough).
So here’s my top ten cli-fi novels. There are hundreds of others (for example, GoodReads and New York Times ), and universities even offer courses that examine climate in film and books. Hopefully these are cautionary tales to prompt action in the present rather than handbooks for the future.
1. Clade, by James Bradley, was published in 2015. I picked up a signed copy at a Wheeler Centre event featuring the author, and then read it in a week after being gripped by the story of a climate scientist’s family over three generations. It starts in the near future and then progresses forwards into the gloom and doom of a world of extreme climate.
2. Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, by former environment editor at The Conversation, Jane Rawson, won the wonderfully named prize of ‘Most Underrated Book Award‘ in 2014. Set in Melbourne, it is a quirky, character-driven read that is a lot of fun with a serious message.
3. A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright, was probably the first cli-fi novel I read. It follows a bloke who time-travels into the future to find a depopulated world impacted by climate change, which he discovers more and more about as he travels north through England along weed-infested highways. The author described his work at a science communication conference in Canada in about 2000 if you want to get more background.
4. Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick. Okay this was actually the first cli-fi book I read – a children’s book about a girl who travels through flooded East Anglia, which affected me because I was living in the east of England at the time and was introduced to it by the 8-year old daughter of the head of the Tyndall Centre, Mike Hulme.
5. The Lorax, by Dr Seuss. We’ve all read it, but I wanted to include it here as a reminder of the story encouraging children to look after the environment through what I think can be considered a cli-fi story about a world without trees.
6. Solar, by Ian McEwan, has some optimism about technology and renewable energy, and while I found the lead character repugnant (as the author intended) it was enjoyable to read Ian McEwan’s descriptions of detailed science.
7. State of Fear, by Michael Crichton. I have to include a cli-fi novel that will appeal to climate denialists, and this thriller will appeal to anyone. Where it falls down is in the lengthy anti-science passages. A former CSIRO colleague is referenced in a part of the book that masquerades as science, but in true anti-science form the reference is misappropriated. Still, a classic Crichton sci-fi (cli-fi) page-turner.
8. Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Maddaddam. I must admit that this is the next cab off the rank in my list of cli-fi novels to read, but the reviews look great and who can resist a Margaret Atwood story?
9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel by Philip K. Dick was published the year I was born, and the film adaptation, Bladerunner, features one of the best opening shots of any movie, capturing the polluted air, rain-dominated climate, and urbanised environment of a dystopian world impacted by human activities.
10. The Day after Tomorrow. Okay I saw the film and was so unenamoured I couldn’t go back to read the book on which it was based. But I include it here as a word of caution on the use of fiction to convey scientific concepts. Research by Tom Lowe and others found that while awareness increased after watching this climate change blockbuster, knowledge decreased. Audiences surveyed in England, the United States, Germany and Japan were more aware of climate change but more confused about where reality ended and fiction began.
Simon Torok is the co-Founder and Director of Scientell Pty Ltd. He has worked in communication for more than 20 years, as Communication Manager for CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere in Melbourne and at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England, and as Editor of science magazines for young people with CSIRO Education in Canberra.
Simon completed a PhD in climate change science at the University of Melbourne, examining Australia’s historical temperature record, and has a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication from the Australian National University.
He has made numerous appearances on television and radio, and has published more than 150 newspaper, magazine and scientific journal articles. With Scientell’s co-Founder Paul Holper, he has co-authored 18 popular books on science and climate change, published by ABC Books, CSIRO Publishing, Oxford University Press, and Pan Macmillan, several of which have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Hungarian.