Today is Earth Day, an occasion used to highlight environmental awareness and the state of our planet’s health. Climate change has become a major focus in recent decades, and while 120 nations across the world ratified the Paris Agreement a year ago, significant challenges remain in the years and decades to come. Which is to say that to think about climate science is to think seriously and passionately about the future.
Of course one group that keeps a close eye on what the future might hold for civilization are science fiction authors. For decades, they have used the idea of a changing climate in their stories, extrapolating the latest scientific evidence into tale of how humanity is coping (or not) with rising sea levels and temperatures.
We’ve collected eight stories that explore climate science and what the future could hold for us.
The MaddAddam trilogy, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is getting a lot of attention for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its TV adaptation, but it would be a mistake to overlook her MaddAddam novels: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In the critically acclaimed trilogy, Atwood follows the survivors of a biological catastrophe in a post apocalyptic future. The novels tracks several characters as they witness the end of the world, with rising sea levels and environmental degradation a major factor. Over the three books, she addresses how her characters cope with existing in a radically changed world, and the steps they must take to rebuild civilization once again.
The Windup Girl and The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi
Over the course of his career, Paolo Bacigalupi focused on environmental issues, especially in his novels. The Windup Girl is a particularly chilling take on what the future could hold. Set centuries in the future, the oceans have risen and fossil fuels depleted, all while plagues and mutated invasive species cause widespread famine across the world. The book follows several characters in a futuristic Thailand. They struggle to survive in a world defined by genetic engineering and cutthroat businessmen who will stop at nothing to make a profit.
The Water Knife takes place closer to the present, but presents a future that’s no less dire. Climate change has ravaged the American southwest. The novel’s characters seek something even more valuable than gold: the rights to control the region’s water supply. In both novels, Bacigalupi points to economic inequality as a huge contributing factor for the changes that destroyed the climate.
The Drowned World J.G. Ballard
J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel is considered one of the best examples of early climate change fiction. The polar ice caps have melted and submerged much of the Northern hemisphere. As a biologist in London sets off on a mapping expedition, Ballard uses the novel to explore the unconscious impulses of humanity’s survivors. As the world regresses, so to do its inhabitants. The morals that held society together disintegrate, and civilization unravels.
The Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin’s books are some of the most original and eye-opening fantasies being published today, and these books have a particularly vibrant take on survival. Jemisin’s world goes through cycles of catastrophes that upend humanity each time. The stress of the continual shifts leads to an oppressed people known as orogenes — mutated, or maybe just magical — who can use their powers to alter the planet, for better or worse. Jemisin investigates the alienation of her characters, and explores how society reacts when constantly bombarded by trauma.
You can only read the first two books, The Fifth Season and The Oblisk Gate, at the moment: the third installment, The Stone Sky, is due out this summer. Don’t let that stop you from getting a head start.
California, Edan Lepucki
Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California is more of literary take on climate change than some of the other selections on this list, though it shares an interest in the lengths people will go to survive when civilization begins to collapse. Cal and Frida have escaped into the woods following the general destruction of society from a mix of economic and climate upheavals. They etch out a living by themselves. When Frida discovers that she’s pregnant, they seek out shelter with a nearby settlement, only to find that the closed-knit community is rife with paranoia and secrets. Lepucki’s novel looks back at some of the earliest tropes in American literature to show that the communities that people take refuge in can be just as dangerous as the world they offer protection against.
New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson
We reviewed Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel a couple of weeks ago, but New York 2140 is book that likely paints the most realistic climate change scenario. Set over a century in the future, the inhabitants of New York City’s MetLife Tower make their way through life amidst rising tides. While it’s an optimistic and even funny novel, he uses the book to lay out the connections between unfettered capitalism and a warming climate, and warns that unless society-changing fixes are made, we will live with the consequences.
Area X Trilogy, Jeff Vandermeer
If you’re looking for something a bit more horrifying (as if these futures aren’t terrifying enough) look no further than Jeff Vandermeer’s novels Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. The Area X trilogy blends a changing world and climate with otherworldly and outright unexplainable horror. A large portion of the southern coast is abruptly cut off by a barrier, allowing the regions it contains to revert to pristine wilderness. Subsequent expeditions to the territory reveal a strange and hostile world that’s slightly wrong. Vandermeer uses the novels to analyze how we adapt to strange new surroundings.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Like Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, Claire Vaye Watkins sets her novel in an American southwest that’s been ravaged by drought. The region’s remaining inhabitants —Mojavs — are prevented from escaping to better homes by armed vigilantes and an uncaring government. A pair of survivors, Luz and Ray, get by in one of the governmental settlements, and when they discover an abandoned child, they are moved to escape their broken and violent home to find a better home.