Readers recommend best climate fiction

Stephanie Merry

THE WASHINGTON POST – When our science fiction and fantasy columnists, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar, recently tackled the subject of books about “environmental matters gone wildly awry”, commenters responded with a helpful syllabus of other must-reads. There were a few recurring themes: NK Jemisin is a genius; Paolo Bacigalupi’s stories and books, particularly The Windup Girl, are hard to shake; and Kim Stanley Robinson, whom our columnists also name-checked, has put out enough excellent books to keep readers busy for a long time.

Here’s a sampling of other helpful feedback.

“One book I found moving on so many levels is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus,” wrote TerriSTX. “A complex layering of characters focussing on a very damaged world, who sacrifice everything to repair not only the ravages of climate change, but (the) historical brutality of slavery and genocide.”

Sheila Addison wrote: “Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins, is the ecological disaster novel that haunts my waking hours right now. It seems far, far too plausible to envision a western United States (US) taken over by endless, encroaching sand dunes.”

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is probably the most terrifying depiction of what the world could look like after climate catastrophe I’ve ever read,” wrote eriksf. The commenter added, “I must admit my taste for apocalyptic fiction has basically ended now that climate change disasters are occurring in real time while a third of the country denies the reality of said events and retreats into a fantasy land of wilful ignorance.”

AlanBristolUK wasn’t the only reader to recommend George R Stewart’s Earth Abides. “A lot of the theme of the book is how the ecology of the world recovers after the near-extinction of the human race,” he wrote. “It also has what I think is one of the best death scenes I have ever read.”

A number of commenters noted how well Indigenous authors have approached climate fiction. “Most recently I’ve read Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich’s… Future Home of the Living God (2017),” wrote Baine. “She does not lie to herself or therefore to us, but she doesn’t despair and because she is such a good writer, she doesn’t melodramatise. (Laguna Pueblo) writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead was a major work… and Australian indigenous writer Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book made a big splash in the US.” Smeagel also added The Marrow Thieves, by Indigenous Canadian writer Cherie Dimaline.

Commenter David W Brown was just one of the readers to recommend John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up from 1972. To “a (very) young and (very) naive man who was devouring science fiction and pretty much anything else that was printed, it was a revelation”, he wrote. “Ecological Disaster? Never heard of it! Not exactly prescient, but it opened my eyes, or more accurately my mind, to the reality that was beginning to overtake us.”

BillthePMP recommended Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy: “Beyond being brilliant storytelling and deeply emotionally moving, Fifth Season uses plot devices (such as ‘threats too long ignored’) to address consequences and adaptation (or failure to).”

“One of the all-time greats from the 1950s is John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, which considers the consequences of a virus that wipes out all forms of grass (including grains such as rice, wheat, oats, corn) and the resulting worldwide famine,” wrote digitopolis. Baine, chiming in again, added: “Amazing to find someone else who’s read this! I read it in the early 70s and haven’t slept well since, though it played a big part in my becoming a serious environmentalist.”

Our columnists praised the 1989 book Grass, by Sheri S Tepper, and many commenters concurred. “Grass is one of my favourite books of all time,” wrote Mary H Scott. “I re-read it frequently and it never gets old. Another good one in a similar vein is The Snow Queen, by Joan D Vinge.”

“Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is, in my opinion, the finest work of science fiction I’ve ever read,” wrote Eddie Valient. “It is not just a series of novels that describe the terraforming of Mars, it’s about a group of scientists who want to create an entirely new and rational humanistic culture, and the conflicts that arise as they learn that they can’t escape from the old, dysfunctional cultures that arrive with each new shipload of immigrants from Earth. In the end, they achieve their goal, so it’s a very uplifting, optimistic vision of what the future could look like… If you get tired of all the depressing, dystopian sci-fi that is so unaccountably popular these days, these books are the cure.”

Adam P Hool noted that some of the best climate fiction also captures other timely themes. “Tepper’s Grass and its quasi-sequel Raising the Stones are both excellent, but they’re even more about gender politics than they are about climate or ecology,” he wrote. “This year, Alison Stine’s debut novel, Road Out of Winter‘ won the Philip K Dick Award, Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven now seems even more prescient during the pandemic, NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy was as much about adapting to climate catastrophe as it was about racial discrimination, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (which may be considered a classic now, because it was published in 1993) likewise used an ecological collapse as background for her epic morality tale.”

Got all that? Well, we’re not quite done. According to Abe would cry, “The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K Le Guin should top this list.”