Around the World in 80 Books: A Guide to Ecological and Climate Themes in Fiction
A year ago, I began a world eco-fiction series at Dragonfly.eco. This article is an extension of that project. “Around the World in 80 Books” is a sampling of novels and short stories that explore our planet’s climate and ecological changes. Eco-fiction has humans, nature, and literature mingling together, with topics ranging from plastic islands to fossil fuels to food security to wildlife and landscape preservation to outdoor adventure. These stories have other focuses as well, combining the environmental with the human experience: politics, science, romance, adventure, crime, horror, fantasy, mystery, magical realism, humor — the list is long. So, the genres and subjects found here are eclectic and diverse. Themes include harsh survival, advocacy, veneration of the world around us, the slow apocalypse, the haunted, the weird, and the psychological.
These books reflect cultural diaspora, horror, and loss. The stories take place in the past, present, and future, sometimes all three, making for a beautifully fluid reading experience. Most are from the last decade, or are upcoming, but a handful are historical. The list is divided up into the regions and continents where the stories are imagined, with a few at the end that have no map point.
There is always something missing from lists — and there are several other books I wanted to include here and couldn’t due to limitations — but it might be helpful to use this guide to dive into these stories rather than seeing the list as exhaustive. If you have any recs, please feel free to share them with me.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: The setting is somewhere in pre-colonial, mythical, sub-Saharan Africa, and the series is called the African Game of Thrones, which holds a mirror up to our modern world. The first novel in the Dark Star fantasy trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is about a tracker trying to find a mysterious boy. While tracking, he travels through dense forests and deep rivers, so the natural world abounds, presenting both beauty and danger.
Efuru by Flora Nwapa: From 1966, this marks the first novel published by a Nigerian woman. Efuru is a beautiful young woman who has terrible luck with men. In her sorrow she turns to goddess Uhamiri of Lake Oguta in southeastern Nigeria. It’s a story of a fiercely independent woman, who loves her children, has a good business sense, and even loves her husbands — though things don’t always work out. It reminds me that no matter the worrisome business of the day, seeking peace and solitude at a lake is always helpful (though the water goddess is more complex than that).
Fever by Deon Meyer: Meyer is a prolific crime writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Poaching is one such crime finding its way into many of his novels, along with Meyer’s rich descriptions of beautiful and dangerous landscapes. Many of his stories deal with endangered species such as black rhinos and white-backed vultures. In Fever, a coming-of-age story, the narrator Nico tells the story of his father, Willem Storm, who died in the Year of the Lion. His father had built an oasis away from the rest of the world suffering from a deadly virus resulting from genetically modified foods. Stephen King even gave the novel kudos. More to be found here, in my conversation with Meyer.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma: It’s a coming-of-age story wherein a father’s temporary absence results in four boys skipping school and deciding to become fishermen. Tragedy unfolds, though no spoilers here. What’s interesting is how the forbidden river, the Omi-Ali, where the boys fish, becomes a strong character as well. One of the passages is: What I want you to be is a group of fishermen who will be fishers of good dreams, who will not relent until they have caught the biggest catch. I want you to be juggernauts, menacing and unstoppable fishermen…Not the kind that fish at a filthy swamp like the Omi-Ala, but fishermen of the mind.
The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber: This manuscript won the inaugural Graywolf Press Africa Prize, a literary prize awarded for a first novel manuscript by an African author primarily residing in Africa. The novel’s publication is expected in 2020. The author often writes of the Hadrami diaspora. According to the publisher, “On the surface this is a limpid tale — a straightforward quest story — of a young Mombasa-born girl seeking her missing fisherman father, but it is eddied and enriched by what lurks beneath the surface of both the sea and the prose.”
Oil on Water by Helon Habila: Set in the Niger Delta, this story has journalists uncovering a kidnapping as well as exposing the two worlds of oil: rich barons taking what they want while contaminating waters, destroying villages, and killing animals and plants vs. those who are on the other side of the equation, living in fear, without clean water and healthy fish and livestock. Arisen from the latter side is an animist cult with a militant leader. Habila’s novel also looks into the capability of journalism to effect change. The author’s descriptions bring the reader into the story. Reading from Canada, I felt I walked into the sad streets of Niger’s Delta region, and my heart broke.
Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o: A detective novel, Petals of Blood takes place in Kenya, following four main characters: Munira, Karega, Wanja, and Abdulla. The title of the novel comes from the poem “The Swamp,” by Derek Walcott, which, according to Wikipedia, suggests that there is a deadly power within nature that must be respected despite attempts to suggest by humans that they live harmoniously with it. The author has written seminal novels about post-colonialism and independence, and this is another wherein capitalistic corruption is evident. Land is an important theme, particularly in the pastoral community of Ilmorog.
Starbook by Ben Okri: Set in a mythical land somewhere in Africa, this fable is also set in a deep, natural world. Yes, there is a prince and there is a maiden, and a golden age. But nothing is perfect, even though a big and mighty river snakes beautifully through the story — a river of consciousness, helping to mold art and beauty. But then comes a strange plague. “A cold white wind and wherever it blew it created vacant spaces … the white wind began to erase hills and valleys, it erased the memories of people, it erased villages and towns.”
War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi: Coming in October 2019, War Girls is set in 2172 Nigeria. Climate change and nuclear disaster have all but ruined everything. Space colonies exist in the sky for those who are fortunate enough to get there. The rest on Earth live in war-torn disaster zones. Two sisters, Onyii and Ify, are known as “war girls” and become the heroes who dream of a better day and do what they can to survive and conquer.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor: A epic novel set in climate-changed, post-apocalyptic Sudan, it is currently being developed for an HBO series, with George R.R. Martin set to produce. Onyesonwu, which means “who fears death,” is a child of an Okeke woman raped by a Nuru man, otherwise known as an Ewu. Onye is an outcast with magical powers and can enter the spirit realm, where she explores the mysteries of her culture, nature, name, tradition, and history. It’s a chilling story, which dabbles in magical realism.
Agam by multiple authors and artists: An absolutely stunning book, with prose, art, calligraphy, and stories of Filipino people experiencing a wake of floods, storms, and disaster from climate change. “Agam reflects the confrontation between climate change and diverse cultures across the Philippines. It combines original new works in prose, verse, and photographs and depicts uncertainty — and tenacity — from the Filipino perspective, minus the crutch of jargon. The title, Agam — an old Filipino word for uncertainty and memory — captures the essence of this groundbreaking work.” — From my talk with publisher Redentor Constantino
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad: A story of different people, different walks of life, and different pasts and memories — all set in Thailand — which the Washington Post’s Ron Charles beautifully describes: “[The novel] recreates the experience of living in Thailand’s aqueous climate so viscerally that you can feel the water rising around your ankles.”
The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha: Another novel set in Thailand, it’s a literary tale strongly capturing place and culture, including deep and detailed descriptions of plant and animal life. Chareey and her sisters, who live in the countryside outside Bangkok, meet a strange orphan name Pran, who leads them to a mysterious fate.
The Butterfly Effect by Rajat Chaudhuri: This detective mystery is a transcultural novel that travels from South and North Korea to China to the UK and begins in dystopian Calcutta, India. I talked with Rajat, who told me, “The book has an eco-dystopian theme centered around the dangers of genetically modified (GM) crops and the inherent threats of this technology. It also has a climate change backdrop in a near-future setting. The double whammy of climate change disaster and a GM experiment gone horribly wrong is what triggers the disastrous circumstances portrayed in the book.” I was struck deeply by the bleak, descriptive novel. Chaudhuri is also the editor of The Best Asian Speculative Fiction.
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh: The Hungry Tide brilliantly captures the Sundarbans — an isolated and large chain of islands in the Bay of Bengal. Among deadly attacks by tigers, crocodile-infested waters, tidal floods, and political unrest, the story is one of romance and a clashing of cultures. If you’re big into natural settings, this book is for you, with beautiful mangrove forests, tidal waters, and lunar rainbows inundating the reading experience.
The Green Gold of Borneo by Emin Madi: When reading this novel, which the author calls docu-fiction, I felt like I had truly entered a place in storytelling that was lost to the rest of the world. The novel introduces a strong-willed journalist who fails to heed a Murut shaman’s advice to conquer the unexplored, saucer-like forested mountain summit that sits in the middle of a 390 km remote nature paradise, better known as Maliau Basin (a.k.a. Sabah’s Lost World), in the Eastern Sabah State of Malaysia Borneo. Before embarking on his quest, the journalist encounters unusual happenings and experiences strange events in unlikely situations. He suspects these weird incidents have something to do with his plan to conquer the summit. He’s also suspicious that the Tingkaayoh have kept many secrets from him and dislikes the idea that anyone is about to reveal it to the world. You can read my talk with Madi here.
The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi: Set in Taiwan, Ming-Yi’s fascinating and superbly written and sometimes humorous novel parallels two worlds: that of a mythical outcast who is sent on a boat to exile and ends up on a plastic island and a professor who is strongly considering suicide after the death of her husband and son. The Independent called the novel “at once [a] fantasy, reality, and dystopian saga.”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy: Taking place across India and Pakistan, this epic tale of our modern world is artistic and lyrical, uncovering death, environmental catastrophe, and political unrest. From the book’s description: “It’s at once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration. It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love — and by hope. For this reason, they are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender. This ravishing, magnificent book reinvents what a novel can do and can be.”
Siberia by Ann Halam: Described as a dystopian tale and a modern fairy tale, Siberia is a genre-bending, little-known but well-reviewed teen novel that takes place in Siberia in the times of a future eternal winter. It’s kind of amazing that the main character, Sloe, who escapes a prison camp, manages to set off on a 1,000 mile journey across Siberia — where landscape makes a beautiful and prominent appearance in the story. A splinter of hope is revealed when Sloe learns that her mother has left her seeds of some missing species.
Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain: A classic from 1905, this story was published in the periodical The Indian Ladies Magazine and is considered the first feminist science fiction book ever written. In this utopian short story, women run everything, including flying cars. The short story is online at Digital Library. The story is abundant with descriptions of local nature.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin: The first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series is on Barack Obama’s reading list and might be made into an Amazon television show. The New Statesman describes it well: “In The Three-Body Problem, the existential threat to humanity is something that will be visited upon another generation. In the novel people cope by assuming that it will somehow be fine, or doubting that the future catastrophe will happen at all. In this way the book appears to talk about climate change without ever mentioning it. The destruction of the natural world, too, is integral to the story. For a number of characters, the alien apocalypse is actually desirable, because it will bring an end to the ‘human tyranny’ over nature.”
Waste Tide by Chen Quifan: Silicon Isle is just off China’s southeastern coast and is where electronic waste from all over the world gets dumped and then is recycled by thousands of people, like Mimi, who toil there day and night. The operations are dictated by a ruthless corporation. While other characters collide on the island, each with their own agendas, a virus is unleashed, which causes a war between the rich and the poor — and, as Goodreads says, between Chinese tradition and American ambition, between humanity’s past and future.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl is a novel in which fossil fuel sources have been depleted. The story takes place in Thailand, where it’s evident the seas are rising. Windup refers to a type of spring, called a kink-spring, used to store energy and which post-dates fuel used in the old combustion engine. Girl refers to a beautiful genetically engineered windup girl Emiko, who works in a strip club. In this future age, non-human people, like Emiko, are genetically engineered to be obedient in order to do slave work for the rich, and natural biodiversity has all but disappeared.
Beneath the Mother Tree by D.M. Cameron: A spine-chilling mystery played out in a wild Australian setting. Wrought with sensuousness, it combines Irish mythology with Indigenous history and is filled with quintessentially Australian characters who will take you on a dark and dreamlike journey into what it means to belong (from my interview with the author). This novel is packed with rich history and contemporary reflections. She’s now writing a novel about climate change.
Clade by James Bradley: I had to read this one, as Bradley is truly my favorite essayist, often writing about ecological loss in the world today. His novel is also wise and important; it follows a multi-generational family dealing with personal relationships and the effects of climate change in near-future Australia. The novel touches upon many ideas, including death and a haunted world, love and marriage, parenthood, and the dreams of youth. I talked with James here.
Closing Down by Sally Abbott: Australia is becoming wildly fractured, thanks to the continent’s resources being sold to the highest bidder. This is the story of how families and lovers and children and everyone, really, adapt and try to belong to someone, to something.
The Flooded Earth by Mardi McConnochie: A YA adventure story involving three sisters, set in Coldwater — a penal colony off the coast of Australia. The Earth is warming, seas are rising, and the girls’ dad, the captain of the island, is dreaming up the perfect prison. Meanwhile, the girls have their own dreams — they want to become writers and be free of the desolate island prison.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Woods: Set in Australia, it’s a story of two women, Yolanda and Verla, who have been imprisoned unfairly. While the novel explores misogyny and sexual crimes, it’s also strong with ecological themes and natural landscapes, something that rural Australians are deeply connected to. One of the women becomes an animal as the story goes along.
The Orchardist’s Daughter by Karen Viggers: From the author of the popular novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife comes this book. Taking place in the old-growth forests and rugged mountains of Tasmania, this novel is about a teenager named Mikaela who has grown up on her family’s isolated apple farm. She’s a child of nature, longing to spend more time in forests, but an unexpected event changes her life.
Potiki by Patricia Grace: Set in New Zealand, this novel’s concerns are how unwanted development destroys a Maori community and its ability to stay connected to ancestral land and culture. Seeped in the politics of fighting land developers, the story stays genuine and interesting as it concentrates on the lives of its characters.
The Swan Book by Alexis Wright: Displaced communities, gang-rape, lawlessness, and floods in an Aboriginal community depict an Australia altered by climate change and corruption. The main character, Oblivia, lives in an old, rusted boat near where thousands of black swans also eke out a living. Her housing situation changes as the story evolves. Punctuated by myths, legends, and fairy tales, the novel is also a beautiful and quirky look at the personalities of survivors.
Te Kaihau: The Windeater by Keri Hulme: Short story collection depicting the Maori culture and its deep ties to their physical environment. Themes of sheep herding, whaling, and family life prevail.
Where Oceans Hide their Dead by John Yunker: A sequel to Yunker’s famous The Tourist Trail, this upcoming novel lands on a desolate beach in Australia with environmentalists from southern Africa, Iowa City, and New Zealand coming together. Phoebe Literary Journal says, “It is at once a romance, an adventure story, an environmental polemic, and a keen study of just how animalistic humans are…It is a reader’s pleasure, due in large part to the meticulous control with which Yunker commands his language.”
The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau: A haunting and brilliant novel, Juchau has written an evocative story first, with the issue of environmental degradation being strong but non-didactic. Her prose is also poignant; we can almost palpably feel the losses and extinctions happening page by page, not just with wildlife but with personal reflection and silence. Juchau’s novel takes place in the Australian rainforest.
All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew: I spoke with her here about this novel, and she stated: “All Rivers Run Free is the story of Ia Pendilly, a young woman who lives a hard life in a caravan on the north coast of Cornwall. In years of living with Bran–her violent cousin and common-law husband–she’s never yet had her own baby. So when she discovers a child washed up on the shore, Ia takes the risk and rescues her. And the girl, in turn, will rescue something in Ia–bringing back a memory she’s lost, giving her the strength to escape, and leading her on a journey downriver to the home she left behind as a child. The story takes her into the fringes of a society collapsed around its own isolation. It will take her through a valley ravaged by floods, into a world not too far from reckoning.”
Lost Objects by Marian Womack: Womack’s studies are pretty cool. She looks at how ecological and weird fictions intersect. I talked with her here. These stories explore place and landscape at different stages of decay, positioning them as fighting grounds for death and renewal. From dystopian Andalusia to Scotland or the Norfolk countryside, they bring together monstrous insects, ghostly lovers, soon-to-be extinct species, unexpected birds, and interstellar explorers, to form a coherent narrative about loss and absence.
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta: Finnish author Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel, Memory of Water, haunted me to no end. (See our interview here.) In this world, China rules Europe, including the Scandinavian Union. The novel focuses on young Noria, her tea master education, a good friendship with a neighbor named Sanja, and the dreams of a Shangri-la type of country that might still exist.
Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky: In this novel, which is part 1 of the Metro series, it is 2033 obviously and the world is crumbling due to radiation. Cities have been destroyed, humanity is nearly extinct, deserts and forests are in ruin, and humanity is hanging on to its last memories of the old world. The novel takes place in an air raid station in Moscow, and though it’s an apocalyptic horror story, within the air raid station lies the best and worst of humanity, presenting a thoughtful exploration.
The Old Axolotl: Hardware Dreams by Jacek Dukaj: A post-apocalyptic tale by Polish author Dukaj, which seems to have sort of a cult following. A mysterious something has killed most of humanity on Earth, and the remaining survivors reproduce by cloning themselves into hardware. The robots take over, basically, which makes humans become overly nostalgic for wondering who they really were or are.
Rokit by Loranne Vella: Watch Dragonfly.eco in early May for my in-depth talk with Loranne. Rokit is set in Malta, currently published only in Maltese — though an English translation is coming — and the book won the National Book Award in Malta in 2018. Set in 2064, in a climate-changing world, Rokit is a story about time, space, photography, roots, geometry, revolution and ultimately hope. The rocket, itself a symbol of hope, is forever present in the background of these events. Loranne tells me, “Climate change is both the backdrop of this story as well as the driving force of the plot — things would have happened very differently had there been no tsunamis and heavy rains ravaging this little island in the middle of the Mediterranean in 2064.”
Sleeping in the Forest by Sait Faik: This anthology contains 22 short stories, a novella excerpt, and 15 poems. The Turkish author wrote passionately about Turkish cities and physical environments, capturing such themes as fishermen, beetles, flowers, birds, the sea, and more. His writings exposed intimate connections with not just local people but with nature.
The Story Collector by Evie Gaughan: Set in Ireland, The Story Collector is written in a dual-timeline, with one foot in the present day and one foot in the past. I don’t think most readers would conflate this romance tale with environmental fiction, but as Evie told me, “For The Story Collector, the rural environment was always going to be a strong character in its own right. Irish culture and tradition are so intricately linked with nature, that it would be impossible to write a story like this and not pay homage to the natural world.” From the sacred Hawthorn trees to the close-to-nature fairy mythology listed in the tale, I think readers will enjoy this story, not to mention it’s a well-paced romance/mystery tale, great to read while curled up next to the fire.
Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari: I have an in-depth chat with Sita in the near future at Dragonfly. Her novel, Where the River Runs Gold, is coming out this summer. Sita is a prolific children’s author, and the new novel is set in a climate-changed world where two children, Shifa and Themba, work on a farm to pollinate crops after all the bees have died. Sita tells me that the novel is set in everyland but was inspired by Greek mythology and the Meteore mountain (meaning Earth and sky).
The Willows by Algernon Blackwood: Yes, I’m going way back with this one, but it’s some weird fiction that is entirely propelled by natural surroundings. Speaking of that, I dislike it when one denigrates great fiction by implying it’s “your grandfather’s fiction.” This read is worthy and relevant! I cuddled up one night in bed, the British Columbia wind and rain howling outside–the perfect setting–with my small bedside lamp and brown fuzzy blanket, and read the book in one setting. In The Willows, two men are on a canoe trip down the Danube, and at one of the islands, in what is now the Dunajské luhy Protected Landscape Area, in Slovakia, they stop to camp. What follows is a preternatural sequence of events that defies logic and hastens through with little explanation.
American War by Omar El Akkad: Set in future Louisiana during a civil war, the story follows Sarat Chestnut, who is frightened by the outlaw country around her. When I talked with Omar, he said, “It was when I was trying to determine what the precipitating factors of a second civil war would be that environmental calamity first became a fundamental part of the story. In the book, the war breaks out because a number of southern states refuse to abide by a federal prohibition on fossil fuels. I had to show what the country might look like toward the second half of this century as a result of climate change caused in large part by the use of those fuels — in the novel, sea levels have risen dramatically, the coastal cities are underwater, and there’s been a massive inland migration that has radically altered the country’s demographics.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin: This wins my pick for fiction that absolutely provokes me the most when thinking about our climate-changing world. Though Beasts is a movie, it’s based off the screen play “Juicy and Delicious,” written by Lucy Alibar. The images in both the script and the movie are stark and symbolic–particularly that of the once great aurochs, frozen in ice sheets, now thundering into life after huge chunks of ice begin melting and falling dramatically into the ocean. The film’s star, Hushpuppy, says: “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me lying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. And when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I’m a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they’re gonna find it all.” Amen, little sister.
California by Edan Lepucki: Lepucki imagines California in the near future. The two main characters, Cal and Frida, live in a shack in the wilderness. When Frida finds out that she’s pregnant, the couple thinks they might feel safer in a nearby guarded settlement, but there they find that people are hard to trust. It’s a story of how climate and ecological changes will change human security. I also talked with Edan about her short story “There’s No Place Like Home.”
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver beautifully explores the conservative culture existing in some pockets of rural southern America, and she underscores the difficulty of a culture in transition. The title Flight Behavior, and the practical metaphor of butterflies in a novel about people resisting, or adjusting to, climate change, is perfect, really. Monarch butterflies in diapause make a 3,000 mile round-trip migration only once. The Monarchs in the novel have lost their usual winter habitat in Mexico due to climate change and flooding and have settled in what appears to some to be a stunning divine miracle in Appalachia. Compare this butterfly journey to that taken by people who have learned information passed on from generation to generation, involving a slow-moving ideology, in a drastically changing world. At some point, they will transition too, and it’s necessary that they do. Kingsolver’s novel explores how while telling a funny, wonderful story.
Hawk by Jennifer Dance: This is one of those novels I found at a used bookstore on a snowy day in 100 Mile, BC. I liked it so much I eventually chatted with Jennifer. I found the book immediately gripping, and the subject matter right up my alley. Hawk, a First Nations teen from northern Alberta, is a cross-country runner who aims to win gold in an upcoming competition between all the schools in Fort McMurray. But when Hawk discovers he has leukemia, his identity as a star athlete is stripped away, along with his muscles and energy. When he finds an osprey, “a fish hawk,” mired in a pond of toxic residue from the oil sands industry, he sees his life-or-death struggle echoed by the young bird. Slipping in and out of consciousness, Hawk has visions of the osprey and other animals that shared his childhood home: woodland caribou, wolves, and wood buffalo. They are all helpless and vulnerable, their forest and muskeg habitat vanishing. Hawk sees in these tragedies parallels with his own fragile life.
The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood: Consisting of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, the speculative trilogy is a story set in the near future, when global warming has drowned Manhattan and environmental degradation, disease, gross food, genetically modified humans, and strange religions have made the world polluted and scary and full of corruption. It’s already starting to happen, or at least is all becoming more and more plausible each day, but Atwood imagines what’ll happen next and paints it brightly.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline: I briefly met Métis writer Cherie Dimaline a couple years ago when she came to speak at a writer’s fest in Vancouver, and her discussion of The Marrow Thieves was most intriguing. The story is set in a future world, in Canada, ravished by climate change. People can no longer dream, and without being able to dream, they start going crazy. However, North America’s Indigenous people can still dream, thanks to their marrow, so they are subject to marrow stealing, which kills them. Teen heroes set out to save the day.
The Overstory by Richard Powers: I know that I’m far from being alone in being thrilled that this environmental novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction recently. Powers is known for writing about science in a way that it is appealing to fiction readers, and his novel The Overstory does just that by putting the science of trees into the main story of an epic cast of characters. The novel crosses time and space, interconnecting past with present, among different places in the United States and abroad.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler: Earthseed contains two novels: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. A third in the series, Parable of the Trickster, was not completed before her death. Butler, considered the Mother of Afrofuturism, helped usher in the genre of YA dystopian fiction. She wrote powerfully, imaginatively, and creatively. The worlds she built were beautiful, harsh, and grim. Her protagonists were stoic and inspiring. Despite tackling multiple issues–politics, environment, segregation, religion, social injustices–her prose was concise. I recently wrote more about her at SFFWorld.com. The Parables are being republished this year with an introduction by N.K. Jemisin. Further, Amazon is also developing a series based on Wild Seed, the fourth book in Butler’s Patternist series. It’s cowritten by Nnedi Okorafor and Rafiki filmmaker and director Wanuri Kahiu.
Protectors of the Wood by Jon KixMiller and team: The novel series is the fully illustrated story of a group of misfit teenagers who try to save the world from climate change. This isn’t just a textual series but consists of a podcast as well as talented artists and musicians, making each book a truly amazing multimedia performance. The plot of the Protectors of the Wood book series begins in a traditional American small town, and over time expands to include the entire globe. My interview with the team is here.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana: Originally published in Spanish as La mucama de Omicunlé, it’s set in Latin America (the author is Dominican) and crosses time, from past to present. Like many other novels listed here, it explores and disparages colonial history as the culprit for the present and frightening future of greed, corruption, gender and racial prejudice, and ecological disaster. But critics applaud this fresh novel’s fluidity and expanse. A young sex worker and maid, Acilde Figueroa, is saving up for gender affirmation surgery and also becomes a part of a voodoo ritual that gives him the power to go back in time and clean up the oceans (which are now sludge) and save humanity.
The Troika by Stepan Chapman: This visionary novel, which takes place in Mexico, is surreal. A woman, an automated Jeep, and a Brontosaurus travel across a desert for centuries. There is never any rain. They aren’t sure why they are there. They can’t remember their lives before now. The desert landscape is harsh, with sandstorms. When the landscape changes, the characters change too and bizarre things happen. One reader called it a “surrealist heart breaker.” Whatever it is, I’d recommend the novel on the pure weirdness of it all and the fractured, ever-changing, beautiful desert.
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow: In this novel are “empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human like.” Yet, unlike many completely hopeless future tales, Doctorow examines the humanity and goodness of people during dark times. His is one of my favorite interviews; I felt I really learned a lot as he summoned up Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which is a closely argued history of disasters. Doctorow spoke at length about this subject. “We have a narrative about how disasters unfold, that when they occur people turn on each other and attack each other and loot and pillage. It’s a widely accepted idea and is something that appears a lot fiction too. It’s often a lazy trope of fiction, that a breakdown in technology or a natural disaster immediately spurs a breakdown in civil order. But as Solnit shows, by examining contemporary first-person accounts from these disasters, by and large, people are incredibly good to one another in times of crisis. And, in fact, that’s how you recover from a crisis.”
Compass Rose by Anna Burke: It’s a high-seas LGBTQ dystopian adventure that examines climate refugees, changing ocean ecosystems, and ways humanity might adapt to rising, warmer oceans — while also following the protagonist as she comes of age in an unforgiving but highly relatable world. This interesting futuristic tale takes place in the West Indies. You can find more about it here, in my discussion with the author.
Dr. Franklin’s Island by Ann Halam: A YA survival story in which 50 young British conservationists crash in the rainforests of Ecuador. They think they’re alone, but do not know about the mad scientist on the island who plans to use them for genetic engineering.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin: This ecological thriller is described as a ghost story for the real world, a love story, and a cautionary tale. From Argentinian author Schweblin, the slim novel was translated from Spanish to English in 2017. It’s not your typical mystery or predictably structured novel. You’ll have to read it to find out where it’s going.
Journey to the Heart of the World by John Lundin: The author wrote this fictional story while actually spending time with the Indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia. This parable has a strong environmental message, which reviewers and readers everywhere have taken to heart.
The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux: A man decides to move his family away from America, as he wants to enjoy a simpler life. They journey to Honduras, where the father figures he can create a utopian settlement. Things aren’t all they imagine as it’s harder to live without some of the material possessions they’re used to, such as ice.
Solarpunk–Histórias Ecológicas e Fantásticas em um Mundo Sustentável by Gerson Lodi-Riberio: Originally published in 2012 by Editora Draco in São Paulo, Brazil, the anthology was eventually translated to English by World Weaver Press. I talked with translator Fábio Fernandes here. We chatted about the solarpunk genre as well as the Portuguese and Brazilian stories within the anthology, which include “a noir murder mystery, several dystopias dealing heavily with politics, utopian tales of future tech and quite a few alt-hist narratives featuring a modern Aztecs and Mayans rule over Latin America, and ecologically correct afro-Brazilian governments… A smorgasbord of stories.”
Undergrowth by Nancy Burke: I’ll feature Undergrowth this June in the global fiction spotlight. Set in the Amazon rainforest in 1960s Brazil, the novel is inspired by the real-life Indigenous tribes’ confrontation with the government over natural resources. The author explained to me, “My novel highlights the reckless and dehumanizing ways in which the ‘Indian problem’ was handled by many during that period, when some who were hired supposedly to protect the tribes exploited them instead because of the monetary value of the natural resources upon which the tribes were sitting. Attitudes toward the tribes and toward the land go hand-in-hand; a failure to respect one amounts to a failure to respect both. Historically, after the double-rape of the tribes and the land by SPI was exposed, awareness was raised to some extent, but I’m sad to say that with the recent election in Brazil, we’re returning to the bad old days and worse.”
Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton: I chatted with the author, who landed on the idea for his award-winning book during a trip to Easter Island, situated 2,300 miles west off the Chilean coast and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. He conducted much of his research for Wide as the Wind on Easter Island itself, though the novel is based on a fictional island in the general area. He explained to me, “Wide as the Wind is above all a story of love and adventure, but it also deals with deforestation and the collapse of a natural habitat on a prehistoric Polynesian island. It could be compared to the Disney film Moana, but there the environmental destruction is attributed to a cartoon monster; people, not monsters, were the real cause.”
Wondering, the Way Is Made by Luke F.D. Marsden: The novel takes place in a world in which “civilization is faltering, with a climate that grows harsher and wilder each passing season.” Joss Douglas and his fiancée Tina, wishing to flee the corporate world, head from Africa to her home country, Brazil. Together they wander around South America, absorbing the natural surroundings and trying to forget the horrors of the world they left while also finding ways to survive with friends and family.
The North Water by Ian McGuire: An older novel, it’s set in the Arctic Circle. Rich with historical descriptions of the whaling industry, I think the factual horrors will make readers wonder about cruelty to animals. From the book: “There is no sin left now, there is only the blood and the water and the ice; there is only life and death and the grey-green spaces in between. He will not die, he tells himself, not now, not ever. When he is thirsty, he will drink his own blood; when he is hungry, he will eat his own flesh. He will grow enormous from the feasting; he will expand to fill the empty sky.”
Arctic Drift by Clive Cussler: Trying to figure out why there are sudden unexplained deaths in British Columbia, and a rash of strange international events, NUMA director Dirk Pitt and his children search for a mineral linked to an old expedition to the Northwest Passage. They think this mineral might hold the key to reversing global warming.
The Ice Child by Elizabeth McGregor: The author leads an epic journey into the heart of the Arctic. A mystery and a romance, the dual-timeline story ventures into the beautiful but dangerous ice floes of the Arctic.
Far North by Marcel Theroux: The novel is set in the future, in the Arctic. Global warming is responsible for reducing the human population, and survivors live as they did in pre-industrial times. A woman named Makepeace guards the town of Evangeline. Several things are going on in this story: she accidentally shoots a Chinese boy and nurses him back to health, she journeys to a work camp, a plane crashes — making her wonder if civilization is returning. The desolation and isolation are overwhelming.
My Last Continent by Midge Raymond: Let’s travel to Antarctica, the “end of the world,” where Deb and Keller spend time each year studying the habits of emperor and Adélie penguins. Antarctica, like their fleeting romance, is tenuous, imperiled by the world to the north. The novel is full of beautiful scenery: glacial mountains, cleaving icebergs, and frigid waters. “We don’t know much about animals’ capacity for hope. We do know that they grieve, that they are joyful and playful and mischievous and clever. We’ve seen animals work together toward a common goal, and we’ve seen them use tools to get what they want. Despite what many believe, they are not so different from us.”
Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson: Robinson has written perhaps more than almost any author about climate change and ecological sabotage. In this tale, Senator Chase sends his aide, Wade, down to Antarctica to investigate environmental crimes in the area. Robinson proves he’s a landscape writer (he did spend time there doing research). Kudos to him for bringing attention to one of the last wild places on Earth.
“Sur” by Ursula K. Le Guin (short story): The short story “Sur” was published in The New Yorker in 1982. A woman from Peru had been inspired by expeditions to Antarctica as a child, so as an adult she plans, with her friends, to hire Captain Pardo and head to the “South” (Sur). Their journey is marked with slow travel across ice, glacier viewing, and a woman in the group named Teresa giving birth to a baby girl named Rosa — Rosa del Sur. Francine Prose wrote that it was “my favorite story by Ursula K. Le Guin… ‘Sur’ typifies what she does best: construct a lightly ironic, playful and more or less fantastic fiction of ideas, with an interest in the different methods by which men and women apprehend and respond to the world.” I guess it’s a perfect time here to point out that Ursula K. Le Guin was also a prolific author who contributed numerous classic ecological stories in her time. I just thought it was kind of cool that she had written a story based in Antarctica.
Chasing the Light by Jesse Blackadder: Another story written by a female author, it’s a fictionalized account based on the real story of the first women to reach the Antarctic during male-dominated whaling excursions. Historical fiction can be interesting and tough to put down, but the intrigue of the open waters, the mighty glaciers, and the isolation (at that time in the 1930s) of what was considered a wild and uncivilized place makes for a mesmerizing read for those who appreciate fiction set in the great outdoors.
Lamentations of Zeno by Ilija Trojanow: Zeno Hintermeier, the main character, works on an Antarctic cruise ship as a tour guide to rather well-off people whose lifestyles of high consumption exemplify how we came about the consequence of climate change. This is in juxtaposition to Zeno’s sadness at the death of glaciers he has studied his whole life and at his marriage falling apart. As the polar ice-caps melt, one man’s existential lamentations mirror our own personal and global crises. Zeno is not even a character we might like very well, but in a way, his collapse is like our planet’s, which reminds us that these dirges are natural. The style of the novel is brilliant, seeping into us like cold meltwater. My conversation with Ilija is here.
Is it on a Map?
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer: Alright, he’s one of my favorite authors, and I love where he’s coming from and what gives impulse to his fiction. I read Borne on the Sunshine Coast a couple years ago, and like the wildlife I was running and hiking in, the story became a part of every experience while there, from trying to run on a big rocky beach to watching the ocean for hours to hiking the coast trail. The novel is set in a future biotech-inspired world, with a ginormous flying bear, a magician, intelligent blobs of life, and gross bugs that people scavenge and eat, but it’s really about life being what we make it as well as a heartwarming story of a mother-child type of relationship as Rachel, the main character, raises the tiny blob named Borne into something bigger. I also talked with VanderMeer here about his Southern Reach Trilogy, which along with other stories, earned him the title “The Weird Thoreau” by the New Yorker.
Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin: This Hugo-award winning trilogy takes place in a continent named Stillness, which is somewhere on our future Earth. By that time, so many storms and apocalyptic events have reshaped the planet, so that between these huge storms, survivors have to hide in communities called Comms to wait it out until safe to try to start rebuilding civilization again. The magic-infused story takes place in three books: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. Jemisin’s writing is intense and complex and wild. Highly recommended.
The Other Side of the Mountain by Michael Bernanos: This novella had a big impact on me. I found it listed in Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. A hungover teenager and an old sailor get shipwrecked in a strange land. Here, the stars are different, and the land is red and hellish. They think that reaching the big mountain in the middle, and seeing what’s on the other side, is their only salvation. Yet, pure horror happens on their trek, including carnal plants, bowing trees, a river that opens up to sink them, small villages and other areas where things and people have vitrified, and so on. The basis of the story seems to be a poetic telling of nature at its very rawest. Seen through the lens of regular people on Earth, the new land defies much logic but simply has its own laws of physics and ecology.
The Sandcastle Empire by Kayla Olson: Set on the mysterious Sanctuary Island, somewhere in the tropics I think, this kind of reminded me of the television show Lost. The world resembles our own in that climate change is happening and things are scary. Eden and her friends must try to survive after a revolution wherein the sinister Wolfpack controls the Earth and its resources. I enjoyed reading this action-packed thriller, which was deliciously filled with flora, fauna, and beautiful scenery.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power: This book isn’t even out yet, so all I know is that it takes place on an island somewhere. [Correction: this takes place on an island near Maine.] I’ve pre-ordered the book due to its wild cover and because of Jeff VanderMeer tweeting “Convinced we’re about to witness the emergence of a major new literary star.” A Tox is spreading among girls at a boarding school, and they are dropping like flies. The book cover has a girl’s face turning into a flower with the face being cut away. The novel is categorized as horror. I’m intrigued!