Our stories about environmental catastrophe used to be set in distant futures: the desolate endlessness of The Road, or the hopeless, cutthroat scrounging in the Parable of the Sower. But that kind of far-off storytelling feels like it was made for a time when the repercussions of changing climate and the inequity of natural-resource use were, in fact, far off. Must have been nice.
Ecological disaster and long-term fallout are no longer rare or surprising, and they’re not limited to specific parts of the planet. One-third of Americans said they were affected by extreme weather events in the past two years, and 2022 has already brought fire and floods. Those are climate change’s most obvious consequences, but its daily effects are subtle, creeping into our everyday lives. They’re showing up as rising food prices and rampant spring windstorms. Our changing planet is stressing our relationships and limiting our choices in the short and long term.
And that’s showing up in fiction. An increasing number of writers are weaving climate change into their domestic dramas or their comedies of errors as an unavoidable part of life today or in the very near future. Environmental degradation isn’t the main thrust of these novels, like it may have been in classic climate fiction.
In some ways, this shift represents our growing distaste for preachy stories about inevitable climatic doom. It’s also just an example of fiction reflecting our reality. But this new breed of environmental novel can make the stakes of future choices, and their effects on ordinary individuals and scenarios, seem clear: When survival is on the line, books can drill into the core human question of how we take care of one another and ourselves.
The books below aren’t about climate change—they’re about immigration, corporate malfeasance, and tourism; they focus on families, neighbors, and friends. But in each, the anxieties of our warming age force their way in, simmering quietly in the background or erupting across the page.
Vigil Harbor, by Julia Glass
Ten-ish years from now, in a stifling New England town fixated on its own past, an ecoterrorist attack forces members of the community—including recent divorcées and immigrants whose status is threatened—to confront how unstable their lives are. Glass has called Vigil Harbor, which follows a wide cast through the lead-up to and aftereffects of the incident, “a near future in which the volume has been turned up.” Using the attack as a prism, she shows how small-scale domestic issues, such as unhappy boomerang kids and the fate of immigrant-run landscaping companies, could be even more pressurized in that loud future. Trees fail to grow, tides overtake nearby neighborhoods, and Glass lets the hum of a collapsing ecosystem underline each strand of the plot, to show how it can make stressful situations worse, and how the threat of a rocky future can make insular people desperate and selfish.
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
Flight Behavior, Kingsolver’s book explicitly about the collapse of butterfly migration, might seem like a more obvious choice for a climate novel, but Prodigal Summer came first. It’s more subtle, telling three interwoven stories about a rural Appalachian town where disorder is seeping into nature: Poachers are moving in on coyote pups, neighbors are battling over pesticides, and a young widow is trying to hold on to her in-laws’ family farm. Kingsolver, who was a biologist before she was a novelist, has a knack for highlighting how humans become deeply rooted to place. In outlining those small, itchy issues that can divide communities or pull them close, she puts the signal before the noise, and points out the way people who pay attention to the natural world notice it changing before they know what to do about it.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Water Knife follows Angel Velasquez, a petty thug turned political assassin, as he tries to track down a valuable water source in the Southwest. It might feel a bit too much like traditional, far-future cli-fi if it weren’t for the current, rapidly aridifying conditions across the world and the ways western states are locked in political and logistical battles over water as the country’s biggest reservoirs shrink. It’s a feat to make natural-resource laws interesting, much less thrilling, but Bacigalupi cleverly lets wonky water policy, and particularly 1922’s Colorado River Compact, become the main drama of the story. When water is a rare commodity, it quickly delineates who lives and who dies. The tension is about money and power, too: As Velasquez goes deeper into a violent battle over water rights, and the compact, the one thing keeping everyone civil, falls apart, the novel shows how the laws and practices we consider fixed don’t hold up in a world that’s getting hotter and drier.
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
It’s hard to show climate disaster on a personal scale, because those kinds of catastrophes tend to happen either very fast or very slowly. In Salvage the Bones, Ward drills into one family’s story to outline the broad, unequal consequences of long-term environmental injustice, and the short-term trauma of destructive winds and water. Her tight narrative follows the Batiste family through the 12 days before and after Hurricane Katrina. Ward lived through the storm herself, and her visceral details of disaster, like the sound of rain on the roof and the way animals go silent before a storm, outline both the fear and the fierceness the Batistes feel as they try to protect their homes and themselves. As they prepare for landfall and then ride it out, Ward demonstrates that human drama doesn’t stop for weather—the main character, teenage Esch, is hiding a new pregnancy—but it bends to it.
How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue
You can probably guess how well things turn out when Pexton, a foreign-oil company, comes to the fictional West African village of Kosawa and promises the residents “civilization” and “prosperity” for use of the oil under their land. By the beginning of How Beautiful We Were, the local river is already poisoned and children are dying. But that’s just the start: Mbue takes a too-familiar story about the degradation of energy extraction, corrupt government, and vulnerable communities and stretches it out over four decades, watching the characters change as the crisis drags on. Instead of a simple David and Goliath fight, the novel illustrates how different people respond to the circumstances they grew up in, who stays and who goes, and the tension between protecting yourself and fighting for what’s right.
Fall Back Down When I Die, by Joe Wilkins
In eastern Montana, at the start of the first legal wolf hunt in more than three decades, the ranch hand Wendell Newman gets sucked into a manhunt when an anti-government fringe group takes over the event. Climate issues are appearing in divisive fights about the ways we use over-tapped public land and manage fragile populations of wild animals. Charismatic fauna, like wolves, often inflame those battles because they’re seen as both livestock-killing villains and vital parts of the ecosystem. That conflict turns violent in the book, in a way that echoes other recent standoffs over public acres, and Wilkins subtly uses that battle to point out how climate intertwines with identity politics. Wendell, who has complicated sympathies for both the rebels and the regulators, has to face up to his family’s history of abuse as he picks a side.
10:04, by Ben Lerner
How do you create a future you want? How much power might you have over what’s to come, anyway? Those are questions at the core of 10:04, Lerner’s autofictional novel, which takes place in New York, bracketed by Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. The narrator is an author struggling to figure out his second book. He’s wrestling with a potentially fatal medical diagnosis; deciding whether to be a sperm donor for his best friend; and wondering whether any of that is worth thinking about as the city is inundated by storms. Lerner’s writing spirals back on itself, retracing its own plotlines and perseverating on the same points. At turns sarcastic and overly earnest, his knotty storytelling style mimics the feeling of trying to make decisions when there’s no clear answer and you’re not sure how the coming years—or the Earth—will turn out. It feels a lot like living right now.
How Strange a Season, by Megan Mayhew Bergman
The short stories in Bergman’s collection each create their own kind of weather, like the swampy South Carolina plantation of “Indigo Run” and the stifling chill of a human-scale New York terrarium in “Workhorse.” Nearly all of the interludes touch on climate as they follow women trying to make their way through systems in which they’re complicit but not completely in charge. In “A Taste for Lionfish,” Lily is sent to stormy coastal North Carolina to persuade the locals to start eating invasive species as part of a job for a conservation nonprofit. “You’re trying to tell these poor folks how to fix a rich folks’ problem,” one of the locals tells Lily, as Bergman confronts an ugly truism of environmentalism: Some earnest outsider probably isn’t going to come in and serve up the easy solution, and those most affected are usually the least to blame.
Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam
We’re not quite sure what the apocalypse is in Leave the World Behind, but we know something has happened to the world of Amanda and Clay, a couple of uptight Brooklynites on vacation with their kids. They’ve been cut off from all kinds of communication, and things become even weirder when their Airbnb hosts turn up, forcing them to cope with the crisis together. Of all the creepy, unknown feelings Alam accesses, the most unsettling one is uselessness. When it becomes clear that they’re in some kind of crisis, the characters, essentially, do nothing. They putter and bicker and talk behind one another’s backs, seeding suspicions and distrust. Alam shows how one crisis could quickly upend life as we know it, and how fragile the social norms that hold us together might be when that happens.
Here Comes the Sun, by Nicole Dennis-Benn
In Here Comes the Sun, Dolores and her two daughters, a hotel worker named Margot and a teenage artist named Thandi, are stuck on the edge of a resort community in drought-stricken Jamaica, trying to work their way out of the extractive tourism industry. As the white hotel magnate Margot works for threatens to displace their home with a new resort, their ability to find other options is limited. Dolores sold Margot into sex work as a teenager, and she’s trapped in that work as she tries to pay for Thandi to go to school; meanwhile the oppressive drought is making other ways of earning a living, such as farming and fishing, unstable. Dennis-Benn doesn’t let anyone off easy or tie the story up neatly, and she uses the unbearable conditions as a narrative metaphor for increasing pressure. She forces the reader to consider the choices people make when resources are scarce, and the only commodity they might be able to trade is themselves.
The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea
As his body shuts down with cancer, Big Angel, the titular character of Urrea’s sprawling family story, calls a final birthday party for himself, to hash out his family’s regrets and try to bestow some wisdom. Nothing goes as planned. Urrea’s language is rhythmic and lively, and his details make a tale of impending death, gang violence, and family trauma charming and hilarious. He switches easily between gallows humor and sparks of heartfelt humanity. Drought pulses under everything, as a fact of life in Southern California and a metaphor for fighting the elements. Big Angel often flashes back to his childhood in La Paz, Baja California Sur, contrasting the vivid landscape there, where his family fished and raised animals, with the dried-out shopping malls of San Diego. But as Big Angel tries to make amends with his sparring relatives, he shows them that you can still be happy around destruction, and joyful in the face of death.
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