Discover the genre of cli-fi with these 6 books
More and more novels worldwide are set against a backdrop of ecological disaster
In the past year, we noticed how often we came across novels from all over the world set against a backdrop of climate change and ecological disaster — from Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, to The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, to American War by Omar El Akkad.
This obviously reflects a profound concern over the state of the planet that is infiltrating fiction today.
In fact, so pervasive is the genre that it has come to be known as cli-fi. We decided to look closely at five recent books, and one 20th century classic, that delve into the possibilities and dangers of a world that is changing in threatening and alienating ways due to our negligent effects on the environment.
The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard
The Drowned World, written in 1962, is considered one of the founding texts of climate fiction. It was a novel ahead of its time that has influenced many writers since.
It takes place in the year 2145 in a post-apocalyptic London where the city is completely flooded and has turned into a tropical swamp. Everyone has fled the city, but we follow a team of scientists who are studying the new world that is now overrun by wildlife.
One of the most striking images in the book is of the giant lizards that now occupy the new lagoon threatening human life. The scientists work on the top of buildings that peak out over the watery streets.
It is interesting to read a text about global warming from the 1960s that does not have all the facts we do today about the scary outcome we might all face. We read this speculative text very differently in the 21st century and I suggest giving this eerie book a read.
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
This novel follows many characters in New York City who live in an apartment building in Madison Square that is flooded by 50 feet of water. Each skyscraper has become an island with glass walking tubes interconnecting them.
The city has continued to build upwards to create more living spaces, and certain poorer people live illegally on boats that float through the streets below. It is clear from the title that Kim Stanley Robinson, who was named a 'Hero of the Environment' by Time Magazine, is referencing J.G. Ballard's classic The Drowned World.
Both books take place in nearly the same year, 2140, and the major cities near water have flooded. The book's cover copy, in a direct nod to Ballard, states, "New York in the year 2140 is far from a drowned city."
There is a reference to Ballard in the book as well: "Scientists published their papers, and shouted and waved their arms, and a few canny and deeply thoughtful sci-fi writers wrote up lurid accounts of such an eventuality, and the rest of civilization went in torching the planet like a Burning Man pyromasterpiece."
Robinson, however, has a different take Ballard's watery future, and I would venture to say a more realistic one. Robinson paints a vision of the future where New Yorkers have adapted to climate change, and its underwater-ness has become a tourist attraction. Whereas much of climate fiction stays in the realm of science-fiction and the metaphorical, Robinson brings us a very plausible future. As one of his characters puts it, New Yorkers are too stubborn to leave and their living conditions have never been ideal.
Although human life finds a way in this novel, it is profoundly changed.
The Grace Keepers, by Kirsty Logan
When I first heard there was going to be a futuristic book about mermaids, I got very excited. But it turned out to be so much more than that.
In this future almost everyone, except for the rich, lives on boats. The boat the book follows is that of a travelling circus. A young girl, North, has a bear act in the circus. She has never known any other life and has had her bear since it was a cub. They travel from small island to small island to perform. And every time they arrive on shore, the stillness and firm ground upsets North, and she cannot wait to be back on the water.
Whereas most people on her boat dream of one day having enough money to live on land, North wants no part of it. As her connection to the sea grows, she starts to develop webbed feet and has dreams of breathing underwater.
It is foreshadowed that maybe North is part of the next generation of humans who will live under water like mermaids.
This novel is inspired by Scottish myths and fairy tales. But is also creates a future within the climate change narrative without ever pointing at it directly. There is barely any land left and to the reader it is clear why. Logan paints an isolated future where we lose the connection to those around us. Separated on boats, we aimlessly sail the waves, not clear what species we even are anymore.
Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Watkins examines the emotional dearth that will come along with the predicted absence of fresh water.
Gold Fame Citrus is set in a California after a climate change disaster that has caused a national drought. The absence of fresh water has caused all societal structures to fall apart.
Watkins's imagined world is edgy, punk and reminiscent of Mad Max. People live in roving bands as a dune rapidly expands, turning the landscape into a desert.
In this parched backdrop, a couple named Luz and Ray kidnap a baby that is living with an absurd, vicious band of degenerates. They forge a family that is strangely beautiful and intimate, fraught with the dangers of commitment in a world without a future. When a perverse sex cult tries to tear the young family apart, Luz and Ray draw on the forgotten values of their luscious vanished pasts.
Watkins's writing is vivid, striking and somehow filled with tender wonder. The book also includes a bestiary of animals that have evolved into peculiar new species in the dune.
Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice
The climate change in this novel is played as a subtler note, coming to characters in dreams as a form of anxiety.
Moon of the Crusted Snow takes place at the beginning of winter on a Anishinaabe reservation in the North. One night, their power and phone lines go down, and they are disconnected from the North. They no longer have any shipment coming through for food and no one from Hydro has come to see them.
A brother comes home from college to tell everyone that the Western world has fallen into chaos. The community has to learn how to return to their traditional Anishinaabe roots.
Urban refugees start to arrive and the community struggles with the dilemma of allowing them to stay on their land and having to fight for control. The biggest struggle the characters face is the brutal winter ahead of them.
The main character, Evan, has nightmares about a snowfall that is too strong to walk through and a cold that will kill everyone around him. This is a nod to global warming in the North as the winters get longer and stronger.
The book provides a view of the climate change apocalypse through an Indigenous lens. It is another example of the rich explosion of stories that are coming from people of colour in this once exclusionary narrative genre.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This book follows the stories of a varied group of people who were each affected profoundly by a tree in their youths. Their paths meet when they protest the clear cutting of a forest later in life. The main characters of the book, however, are the trees themselves.
Powers explores the interconnectedness of trees and their modes of communication and desires. He captures the importance of trees in human life in both an ecological and spiritual manner.
The book argues that trees are sentient beings with a wisdom and sense of community which has so much to teach humans about happiness and fulfilment and survival.
The language and stories are gorgeously written, which lead to the book winning the Pulitzer Prize.
The trees are heartbreaking and so wonderful that the book makes you rethink the manner in which we treat the planet and the value of considering plants to be our equals here.