As I write this many parts of Alberta are burning up from wildfires. Powerful cyclones have hit parts of the Bangladesh and Myanmar coastline destroying the world’s largest refugee camp. And it’s only mid-May.
Since we’ve first started talking about climate change, many of the worst predictions already have the faint ring of nostalgia. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have set new records, floodwaters are higher, storms stronger. Drought claims farmland, more species have passed into extinction.
And yet, we drag our feet.
If recent history holds, more and more writers of fiction will confront our climate emergency and the future it will bring.
Cli-fi is an extremely varied genre, encompassing books that take place five minutes from now or centuries into the future. Some admit nothing more than the premise that climate change will alter our planet while others imagine full on apocalyptic futures full of unrecognizable flora and fauna, fantastic technologies, and vastly different cultures.
I’m a big fan of the genre in any story form. (Fun fact: My guilty pleasure is a good end-of-the-world movie with people going helter-skelter hoping to outrun the meteor/earthquake/monster morphed into a killing machine. I know, weird huh?)
However, I prefer a more nuanced approach in books. I want good writing with a mix of the fantastic and the everyday, the familiar and the alien. What makes good cli-fi is their setting in a future littered with evidence of our own lives, things the reader is likely to recognize. Such a mix, when telling these stories, is that they remove the reader’s fears from the realm of abstraction and anchor them instead in a tangible and emotionally contemporary place – an important factor to wake us up to the reality of climate change.
These are some of the best cli-fi novels out there:
Margaret Atwood’s trilogy – Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam
Published between 2003 and 2013, the trilogy represents the first commercially and critically important Canadian works in the field. Atwood envisions a chilling future that is both beyond our imagining and all too familiar: a world devastated by uncontrolled genetic engineering and a widespread plague, with only a few remaining humans fighting for survival.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
In a parched southern California, two people who refused to be moved to an encampment in the east, hole up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion, subsisting on rationed cola and water, and whatever they can loot, scavenge, and improvise. Their fragile love soon deepens into a thirst for a better future.
World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler
Set in the fictional town of Union Grove, New York, the novel follows a cast of characters as they navigate a world stripped of its modern comforts, ravaged by terrorism, epidemics, and the economic upheaval of peak oil, all of which are exacerbated by global warming. Narrated by a local carpenter who has lost his wife and son, the novel focuses on four separate "cultures" that represent the directions society could go after a breakdown of modern social norms.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Listed as one of the five best cli-fi novels by The Guardian, many people know it as a film by the same name. The story details the grueling journey of a father and his young son over a period of several months across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed industrial civilization and almost all life.
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
After a northern First Nations town suddenly loses their connection to the south – internet, TV and power – the residents suspect they are on their own, spurring a culture war. Some who have been living traditionally with hunting and trapping, are pitted against those who have become reliant on the white man to bring them supplies. When an aggressive white man appears, the community is thrown into chaos. Blending action and allegory, Moon of the Crusted Snow upends our expectations. Out of catastrophe comes resilience. And as one society collapses, another is reborn.
Greenwood by Michael Christie
Competing on Canada Reads, Greenwood is an ambitious story, rich with description as it reveals the layers of a family through the generations. Recovering from an ecological catastrophe leading to the destruction of trees, the story follows various members of the Greenwood clan as they grapple with their legacy as timber barons. Moving back and forth in time, the book is emotionally captivating and a hopeful, yet damning indictment, of corporate capitalism.
Migrations by Charlotte McConnaghy
Franny Stone leaves everything but her research gear, to arrive in Greenland with a singular purpose: to follow the last Arctic terns in the world on what might be their final migration to Antarctica. Epic and intimate, heartbreaking and galvanizing, it is is an ode to a disappearing world and a breathtaking page-turner about the possibility of hope against all odds.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is slowly wasting away, consumed by the smog and pollution of the overdeveloped metropolis that most of the population now calls home. If they stay in the city, Agnes will die. There is only one alternative: the Wilderness State, the last swath of untouched, protected land, where people have always been forbidden. Until now. Bea, Agnes, and 18 others volunteer to live in the Wilderness State, guinea pigs in an experiment to see if humans can exist in nature without destroying it. Living as nomadic hunter-gatherers, they slowly and painfully learn to survive in an unpredictable, dangerous land, bickering and battling for power and control as they betray and save one another.
American War by Omar El Akkad
A second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle, this story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself. Told through the eyes of a girl in the U.S. south after a new world map is redrawn. A very dark tale.
Although these novels portray a disturbing future, the overarching project of cli-fi is to serve as warnings, as elegies, as parables, to draw our attention to our planet’s emergency while offering creative and vividly imagined responses to it.
Stay hopeful my friends.
And in the meantime, happy reading!