A Bookseller Recommends: Climate Fiction - Elisa Picks 10 Books for Our Changing World
In this installment of A Bookseller Recommends, Elisa recommends her favorite cli-fi reads. And if you want to know more of Elisa's climate fiction thoughts, her impressive dissertation on the subject -- Domesticating the Apocalypse: Motherhood and the Novel at the End of Time --- is available through the Carolina Digital Repository ...
Butler’s 1993 work of post-apocalyptic science fiction is a seminal work of cli-fi, offering a shape for a genre that is still being formed. Parable of the Sower is a powerful morality tale that follows a young, migrant woman who can feel the pain of others. Tackling climate change, social injustice, and corporate greed, the novel is at once sweeping and incredibly intimate; and it feels more urgent than ever. Though it was set 30 years in Butler’s future, the novel’s 2024 setting is scarily reminiscent of our present.
Set in a distant world which has been torn apart by climate catastrophe, the first book in Jemisin’s sci-fi/fantasy Broken Earth trilogy follows a woman who can harness the earth itself as a weapon as she searches for her kidnapped daughter. I’m picky about fantasy, but I loved this book. Jemisin puts a great deal of time and energy into world-building--but just as much into crafting a thrilling plot and emotionally resonant characters.
Set in a near-future California which has been ravaged by draught, Watkins’ novel follows Luz, an aging child star, and her boyfriend as they kidnap a neglected child and, together, join a community whose “prophet” is able to locate water in the desert. This is Watkins at her best: beautiful prose and a fascination with cults and complicated motherhood.
Not all climate fiction is speculative! (Though this novel is a little bit magical.) Ozeki’s novel is set after the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Canadian novelist, Ruth, finds the diary of a Japanese teenager, Nao, washed up on her shore and becomes obsessed with the girl’s story. She becomes desperate to locate Nao to ensure that she survived the tsunami. Endlessly fascinated by topics as wide-ranging as Zen Buddhism, the Great Garbage Patch, and Japanese maid cafes, Ozeki crafts a story to get lost in. This is easily one of my favorite books!
If you’re more into realist fiction, these next two novels are for you. The Life of the Mind is for readers of Ottessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney. It follows Dorothy, an adjunct English professor who teaches a course on the apocalypse. After she has a miscarriage in the novel’s opening pages, she struggles to find a place in the academy, in her circle of friends who all seem to be mothers, and in a vanishing world.
There is no apocalypse in Offill’s novel, though Lizzie, a university librarian who fields listener questions for a doomsday climate podcast called Hell or High Water, is plagued by apocalyptic anxieties which thrum in the background of her daily life. Written in Offill’s signature fragmentary style, Weather is less driven by plot than by the resonant discomfort of waiting for the world to end.
In this work of literary criticism-meets-memoir, Ghosh explores how Western literature has failed to imagine something as big and chaotic as global warming. The extreme nature climate change, Ghosh argues, makes it resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining. This is particularly true of serious literary fiction: hundred-year storms and freakish tornadoes simply feel too improbable for the novel—and so these events are automatically consigned to other genres like science fiction and fantasy. Ghosh asks: why? How did our collective novelistic imagination fail us? This book is dense but lucid; it totally changed the way I read and think about climate fiction.
In her only work of speculative fiction, Erdrich imagines a future world in which the melting permafrost has released a virus which has caused evolution to go haywire. Her epistolary novel's narrator, Cedar, is an Ojibwe woman who-- because of the evolutionary crisis-- might be pregnant with a nonhuman child. With the help of her white adoptive family and her biological Ojibwe family, she tries to keep herself and her baby safe from an evangelical government which is rounding up pregnant women, forcing them to bear children to save the human race. In our current political climate, this book feels more pressing than ever, particularly in its consideration of how marginalized populations are often the first affected by both climate change and restrictive reproductive policies.
The Wildlands tells the story of the McCloud siblings: Darlene, Tucker, and Cora, whose home is destroyed and parents are killed by a devastating tornado. On the three-year anniversary of the tornado that destroyed the town, a cosmetics factory outside of Mercy, Oklahoma is bombed, and the lab animals trapped within are released. Tucker, the McCloud sibling who disappeared in the wake of their family tragedy, reappears, injured from the blast. He kidnaps his nine-year-old sister Cora and takes her on a cross-country, eco-terrorist adventure. A fast-paced literary thriller, the novel nevertheless delves deep into pressing issues like species extinction and climate change.
Maybe you've already read this one-- but if you haven't you should. I love this novel. Across a barren, postapocalyptic landscape-- an America destroyed by lightning storms and wildfires-- a father and his young son walk toward the coast with nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the raving groups of cannibals who will do anything to stay alive. Full of horror and shock, this novel is slow, tender, and beautifully written. (And it's a perfect read for a cold October night!)