The new year’s finally here! You may have already celebrated with some of your favorite New Year’s Eve traditions: counting down to midnight, drinking champaign, making resolutions for the new year. Now that 2019 is in full swing, I invite you to join me in one of my favorite year-end traditions: looking back at the best examples of the past year of climate fiction.
Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is a literary genre that includes any work of fiction that addresses human-caused climate change. The stereotypical approach to this genre involves telling heavy-handed disaster stories with climate change as the main culprit. If done well, those types stories can still be interesting and meaningful cautionary tales about climate realities (and social realities) that may very well await us in the near future. However some of the most compelling tales take the theme of climate change in an entirely different direction.
What does climate change look like on the small scale, in the daily life of someone whose experience of it you may not have considered? What’s an unexpected turn that it might take? What do some of the solutions look like? What happens when you throw in elements of sci-fi and fantasy such as aliens, zombies, robots, and time travel?
The answers to these and other questions can make for a delightful, thought-provoking, inspiring, and at times terrifying reading experience. This holds true whether the reader is a cli-fi enthusiast or simply enjoys a good story.
The following is my list of the top eight climate fiction books for 2018. Technically, one was published in 2017, and another in January 2019. But both of those titles had enough to contribute to the genre that I included them in my end-of-year round-up for 2018.
No matter what your preferences are as a reader, there’s a story here for almost everyone. Some are down-to-earth works of present-day literary fiction like Heart Spring Mountain that would fit well on any general interest literature reading list. Others like Blackfish City are futuristic tales with dramatic speculative elements that artfully draw out the theme of climate and the potential impacts of climate catastrophe on human society. Most are somewhere in between. Whatever your taste in tone and genre, there are works of climate fiction out there that can entertain and captivate you while also engaging you with what may well be the the most far-reaching social and environmental issue of our time. I hope you enjoy the works that I’ve selected as the best of the year.
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller is a remarkably creative and compelling story about a floating city in the ocean at the top of the world that survives a global collapse caused by climate change. Colorful characters, a riveting plot, and a surreal-yet-believable setting come together to tell the tale of a strange, alienating, and at times terrifying new world born in the wake of the collapse of society as we know it.
This novel is a fascinating example of a story that takes the climate crisis very seriously in terms of its influence on the setting, but doesn’t emphasize climate change as a driving element of the plot. In other words, it’s a story about a world already upended by climate change, not a story about characters responding to or stopping climate change.
By the time the story starts, global society as we know it has already collapsed decades ago. The damage is done, and new ways of organizing societies have emerged from the wreckage. Therefore, none of the characters are specifically responding to or trying to avert new climate catastrophes. They’re just responding to other characters and the dystopian nature of the setting.
And what a remarkable setting! As the cities of the old world were consumed by climate catastrophes (and the associated human conflicts), wealthy shareholders built an entirely new floating city in the middle of the ocean in the distant north. This “Blackfish City” of Qaanaaq is now filled with refugees from every nation, every economic stratum, and every other identity imaginable. They live together amidst stark economic stratification, governed by secretive shareholders and automated systems without much input from the majority of people. Into this seething stew of inequality and alienation, an almost mythic stranger appears with two animal companions, along with a series of stories that seem to be telling the story of the city itself.
Heart Spring Mountain
Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur is one of the most “conventional” works of fiction on this list. In other words, it doesn’t contain speculative elements like a futuristic setting, fictional climate catastrophes, advanced technology, and so on. Instead, much like Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, it weaves the theme of climate change into the story of a woman, her family, and their encounter with an event that may have ties to climate change.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this novel is that the present-day action is set in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. The main character, Vale, travels from New Orelans to Vermont in search of her mother who turned up missing during the storm. I’ve heard at least one commentator say that they’ve never read any climate fiction that told the story of a fictional character’s experience of a real-life storm or similar climate-related event. Now, we have at least one prominent example of such a tale.
Heart Spring Mountain is a well-written novel, and seems to be well-received by those who have read it. Hopefully more readers will take notice of this excellent work of climate fiction, and hopefully it will inspire other authors (and publishers) to try their luck with similar tales.
Everything Change, Volume II
Everything Change, Volume II is easily one of the best climate fiction anthologies I’ve ever read. This volume follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, Everything Change, by providing the reader with a selection of some of the finest stories by emerging authors carefully chosen out of a field of hundreds of submissions.
Each reader will surely have their own favorites in this volume, but every story is a well-written page-turner that explores some intriguing premise related to climate change. The two introductions do an excellent job of framing the anthology and highlighting some interesting commonalities that emerged during the selection of these diverse but interconnected tales of a world changed by the climate crisis.
Perhaps most importantly, Everything Change, Volume II demonstrates that this contest-based approach to putting together an excellent collection of climate fiction stories is repeatable. The organizers at the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative hold a climate fiction contest, receive hundreds of entries from around the world, choose ten finalists, and publish their stories in an anthology that’s available for free online in a variety of formats. The result is a showcase of up-and-coming climate fiction writers as well as a remarkable free resource for anyone interested in climate fiction, from the casual reader to the many academics and members of the literary community whose work is related directly or indirectly to climate change.
Warmer is a climate fiction collection published by Amazon Publishing as a part of their “Amazon Original Stories” publishing imprint. This collection features seven short cli-fi stories that can be read for free by Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimted subscribers or purchased on Amazon as individual stories or a full collection. They also all come with Audible editions, making it easier for people to choose (or alternate) between reading and listening.
I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a climate fiction collection published by Amazon Publishing. Much of the cli-fi that I’ve read is published by smaller indie publishers or self-publishing authors. This collection is yet another sign that climate fiction is making inroads into the mainstream commercial publishing market.
When I read the Warmer collection, I was impressed by the quality of the writing and the degree to which each story engaged with the theme of climate change. These are characters, plots, and settings that a broad audience can appreciate regardless of their interest in the overarching theme of climate change. And yet they do each in their own way bring climate change to the forefront and call the reader to consider some aspect of its potential and actual impacts. Given the publisher, I wasn’t expecting these to be as hard-hitting as they were in terms of commentary on human-caused climate change. But they definitely didn’t pull any punches. The result is a collection of stories that will appeal to both general readers and readers with a specific interest in climate fiction.
I’ll probably write a more detailed review of this collection eventually. In the meantime, this article about the Warmer collection offers more insight into the individual stories and the background of the collection’s creation.
Cli-Fi Plus by Treesong is my own climate fiction anthology. Each story takes place at the intersection between climate change and another theme or genre, hence the “plus” in the title.
These tales offer a glimpse of the wide variety of stories that are possible under a broad “climate change” theme. They range from realistic to speculative, gloomy to upbeat, hopeless to hopeful. Whatever approach they take, the end result is a compelling story that leaves the reader reflecting on some aspect of climate change.
Whether you prefer “normal” literary fiction, or far-out tales of aliens, robots, zombies, time travel, and so on, there’s something in Cli-Fi Plus for you. The stories are even divided into three different sections for the convenience of readers who already know their preference in terms of tone and genre. Check out Cli-Fi Plus today and let me know what types of stories you’d like to see in my next cli-fi anthology.
Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change
I almost didn’t include Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change in this list. It was technically published in 2017, and there was one odd story in it that I didn’t even finish reading. But I read it in 2018, and there are some compelling and intriguing tales in the rest of the anthology, so I decided to add it to my 2018 cli-fi list.
The first aspect of this anthology that I found intriguing is right there in the subtitle. These are all Canadian tales of climate change. I’m not a Canadian myself, but I enjoyed seeing the influence of a sense of place on this collection of stories from my neighbors to the north. Canada’s an expansive and diverse land, both ecologically and socially, so there’s not one monolithic “Canadian response” to the climate crisis, nor should there be. But the stories in this anthology explore a variety of takes on how climate change might impact different areas of Canada and the world generally.
All but one of these tales made for interesting reading and meaningful explorations of the theme. Several were particularly well-crafted and thought-provoking explorations of some aspect of climate change. Really, which stories in an anthology stand out depends to an extent on the reader’s preferences. But there are enough good stories in here that most readers should find at least a few that really grab them.
As with many anthologies, there’s a broad range of styles and tones represented. The stories that I found compelling may be different than the ones that draw you in. My advice to you is to give them all a try, but feel free to skip one or two that don’t draw you in. It’ll be worth it for the gems you find and the reflection they provoke on the theme of climate change.
A North Pole Tale
A North Pole Tale is a wonderful book for children and adults about Santa Claus and climate change. In this quirky folk tale, Santa becomes aware of the environmental impacts of his annual gift-giving spree. He goes on a journey to learn about these impacts and discover what he can do to respond to climate change and other environmental concerns.
The book includes a note for parents and teachers with an excellent set of suggested discussion questions for several age groups (including adults) and supplemental resources for learning and doing more related to climate change, the rights of humans and other beings, and other environmental and social topics addressed in the story. This supplemental material is a great opportunity for parents and teachers to help readers get more out of the book by engaging critically with the content and themes rather than just passively listening.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the story for me was the prominent inclusion of Inuit characters and culture. Santa’s relationship with his Inuit half-brother seemed to be symbolic of the intersection between Inuit and European cultures. Santa has a great deal to learn from his Inuit kin as he comes to terms with his environmental impacts and how he can reduce them while still fulfilling his beloved role as a gift-giver.
The idea of a serious book about Santa going green may sound a bit silly to some readers. I’ll admit that I was initially somewhat skeptical of the premise myself. But the actual story has a mythic quality to it that makes it into a compelling modern folk tale rather than just a simplistic “Green Santa” story. The beautiful artwork also sets a good atmosphere for the tale. Between the artwork and the storytelling, I found myself suspending disbelief and going along with Santa for the ride.
Cool For You: A Picture Book of Climate Change Science
Cool For You: A Picture Book of Climate Change Science is an excellent children’s book about the basics of climate change science. I got my copy by pledging to the Kickstarter campaign, and I’m glad to see that it turned out so well.
I was impressed by how well this book explains the basics of the science. It’s simple and beautiful enough to keep children engaged, but thorough enough to include references to CO2 and an age-appropriate explanation of the greenhouse effect. It strikes an excellent balance between providing educational content about the science and solutions, and providing a good story for young readers.
My daughter likes this book, which is always the greatest tests of a children’s book. Do kids actually like it? Do they approach it with curiosity and excitement? Do they want to read it again? If they’re not captivated by it, they won’t learn as much from it. The beautiful art, simple but informative text, and overall quality of the story and design surely helped draw her in.
The one down side to this book in my mind is that its portrayal of solutions is limited to personal lifestyle choices. The solutions involve planting a tree, flying less, eating less meat, and so on. I would’ve liked to see at least some reference to the subset of political actions that even small children can participate it: writing a letter (with help as needed), attending a climate march or vigil, and so on. But planting a tree and reflecting on lifestyle choices is a good start for a small child. Tree-planting in particular is also an approach that’s underemphasized in most adult solutions. A comprehensive approach to climate action must include a focus on reforestation, afforestation, ecological agriculture that includes trees, and so on. Planting a single tree as a child can be a first step in that direction.
Maybe the sequel can explore some of the more political themes and solutions! In the meantime, the existing story is definitely worth sharing with the children in your lives and community. It’s a short, simple, effective, and engaging introduction to climate science and climate action.
If you like Cool for You, you might also like this list: Children’s Books About Climate Change. This article published by Yale Climate Connections includes one of my other favorites for kids, Tantrum That Saved The World, along with other titles for a broad range of ages.
Your Favorite Climate Fiction
Are there any other cli-fi books published in 2018 that should have made this list? Let me know. I always love finding and reading new climate fiction. If I really like your suggestion, I’ll even add it to this post!