Try some cli-fi with these novels about a changing planet
Track environmental change and its impact with novels, graphic comics, poems, short stories, even satire.Updated: Dec 14, 2019 21:09 IST
* The classic, re-discovered
When JG Ballard wrote it in 1962, The Drowned World was an out-and-out science fiction novel. Ballard imagined a future in which polar ice had melted and sea levels had risen – something even scientists hadn’t worked out yet. Ballard’s novel was dismissed as a genre staple, but is now being hailed as one of the grandfathers of climate fiction.
* Shining examples
In Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver, a swarm of monarch butterflies appears, numbering in the millions, for no apparent reason, in a rural Tennessee town. Locals see it as a miracle. Businessmen want to make money off it. TV reporters sensationalise it. A scientist blames climate change. But for one woman, perhaps they just mean freedom?
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is more of a thriller. Heat and water shortages cause drought in the American southwest, corporates control water supply. And spies, or ‘water knives’, sabotage and cut flow. Then a new source is discovered. One spy teams up with two shrewd women to investigate and stay alive.
What happens when the world’s foremost disaster forecaster predicts that Manhattan will drown, and proves to be right? He becomes a media sensation. Nathaniel Rich’s novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, despite its exhaustive research, is light on its feet.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, the title marks where and when. In a submerged Manhattan, every street is a canal, every skyscraper an island. The book marks the connection between capitalism and rising sea levels. Eight chapters take you through how life changes, and yet, optimistically, remains the same.
* The ones with a sense of humour
A climate catastrophe has changed everything. Borders are sealed. Beaches have disappeared. Britain’s coast is guarded by The Wall, manned by conscripted civilians keeping an eye out for migrants. It’s cold, dull work. But John Lanchester’s novel, sharp and funny, is anything but grim.
Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station sees an artist dispatched to Antarctica to live with researchers, and paint. The social dynamics are already off, when a climate denier joins to do his research, which he hopes will prove all the rest of them wrong. Worse still, the artist ends up helping him.
In Solar, Ian McEwan’s satirical take on climate fears, a jaded, womanising Nobel Prize-winning physicist — a sceptic who has more confidence than good sense or social skills — tries to save the world and find fame. His idea of stealing a better solar energy model ends up implicating him in a murder case, and that’s not even the worst of it.
* The short stories
Warmer is a collection of seven stories set in a believable future of a planet heating up through climate change. In one story, The Way the World Ends, by Jess Walter, a hydrogeologist wonders if it still makes sense to freeze one’s eggs when “one hundred percent of legitimate climate scientists believe the world to be on the verge of irreversible collapse”.
On a more positive note, Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, collects 17 stories that imagine more collaborative futures in which we fight and survive changing climate.
Olivia Clare’s Disasters in the First World looks at how global environmental change affects individuals and their inner worlds. In a story set in a future Las Vegas, drugs are cheaper than drinking water.
* The work from India
Tanushree and Ajoy Podder’s Decoding the Feronia Files is a thriller that imagines what might happen if governments weaponised weather. There are artificial storms, earthquakes and temperature changes based on actual climate-manipulation research.
Poet Urvashi Bahuguna’s collection, Terrarium, doesn’t seem like ‘cli’ or ‘fi’ at first. But her poems about mangoes, the Indian monsoon, growing up and examining one’s mind are inseparable from the changing physical world she inhabits.
In Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh travels across space and time, history and mythology, as he usually does. But this time, themes of displacement, migration and survival on a warming planet are added to the story of a rare-books dealer in search a gun-merchant’s shrine.