Part II. Around the World in 80 Books: A Further Look at Climate Change and Ecologically Oriented Fiction
In 2018 I began a world eco-fiction series at Dragonfly.eco, and a year later I wrote my first Around the World in 80 Books article, which looked at fiction from every continent that diversely explores climate and ecological changes and landscapes. Because lists are limited and can exclude important works, I’ve decided to continue this series every so often. In the stories presented today, you’ll find fungi, aliens, rivers, augmented worlds, hurricanes, whales, wild fires, and so much more.
These stories are ecologically oriented but also fall into every genre: political, science fiction, romance, adventure, crime, horror, fantasy, mystery, literary, magical realism, humor — the list is long, and it seems that genres are blurring more than they used to. Maybe that’s a result of our weirder and weirder world. When the bush fires broke out in Australia late last year, the New York Times posted: “The bookstore in the fire-ravaged village of Cobargo, New South Wales, has a new sign outside: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs.” And it’s so true. Science fiction becomes the present, a cautionary tale for realities that already exist.
These stories are eclectic and come from unique voices, perspectives, and places. Tropes include harsh survival, advocacy, veneration of the world around us, the slow apocalypse, the storms, the haunted, the weird, and the psychological. These books reflect cultural diaspora, horror, and loss. For instance, colonialism, alluded to in many novels, has always had, and still has, dreadful effects on environment and culture. 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 into the regions and continents where the stories are imagined, with a few at the end that have no map point.
One thing is clear: fiction captures our imagination. It has the power to move us in ways that data cannot, even though we need science to understand what’s happening in our post-truth world. Climate and ecological ruin are often denied outright; even when people realize it’s happening intellectually, they often brush it under the rug because it seems like it’s a problem for another day. Fiction is bringing these stories to the forefront, to our hearts, so that we might begin to take our world more seriously. I’m excited by the ways authors are wildly exploring storytelling that infuses literature with the natural world, rather than leaving out that crucial connection.
Previous listings: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Efuru by Flora Nwapa, Fever by Deon Meyer, The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma, The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, Oil on Water by Helon Habila, Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Starbook by Ben Okri, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, and Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.
The Deep Blue Between, by Ayesha Harruna Attah, moves between the Gold Coast of Africa and Brazil. Twin sisters Hassana and Husseina (Vitória) are torn apart after a slave-raid on their home, and they end up divided by the sea as they evolve into their adult lives. This young adult novel is eye-opening and imaginative, and it contextualizes slavery and post-colonialism (it’s set in the 19th century). The dream-like story is told poetically as historical fiction, with elements of magical realism. The sisters stay connected through shared dreams of water as they try to find their way back to one another.
Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor, is a beautiful Nigerian tale set near the coast of Lagos. I want to bring up Okorafor because this past year she has explained the difference between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism (and also talks about Africanjujuism), and I think it’s helpful to be aware of these categories of fiction. Lagoon isn’t her newest novel, but the story includes the nearby sea and marine life, which are so much more important than just a background setting. The environment is wrapped around Nigerian mythology, language, and culture — and shape-shifting aliens landing in the sea, which a marine biologist, rapper, and soldier investigate.
The Deep, by Rivers Solomon (featuring Daveed Diggs), takes place where pregnant African slave women were dumped overboard into the Atlantic Ocean on their way to America. The novella was inspired by the song “The Deep” by clipping — which talks about fish going belly-up and crumbling coral. The women become water-dwelling creatures called wajinru and give birth to their children in the sea. They don’t remember their past tragedies, so their life is idyllic. The only one who remembers is Yetu, the historian. The weight of what she remembers is so deep it pains her, and she must share these memories with the wajinru in order for them to regain their identity.
Zakes Mda’s The Whale Caller was published in the early 21st century and is set in Hermanus, on the coast of Western Cape province, South Africa. It tells the story of a whale caller who is infatuated with a southern right whale he names Sharisha. He calls her with a kelp horn, a horn he protects dearly. When the whale migrates away, he tries to forget Sharisha and make it work with the town drunk, Saluni, instead. Wikipedia discussed the complexities of love for nature evident in this novel and states, “This is a complicated relationship because when one loves nature (something such as a forest) one does not think that it can love us back, but in this case, Sharisha seems to respond to the Whale Caller’s affection.”
Author and American journalist Jim Dwyer, who wrote Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction, said that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o “May be Africa’s most environmentally oriented novelist. Resisting the Mau Mau call for liberation at any cost, he believed that the land and animals must be preserved and restored to reduce the cost of liberation and to prevent the replacement of one form of oppression and degradation with another.” Of four books, written under the pen name James T. Ngũgĩ, The River Between (1965) is just one that evokes Kenyan spiritual and ecological values. It’s the story of Christian missionaries trying to outlaw female circumcision, which divides two Kikuyu communities set apart from one another, with a river between them. Note that Dwyer’s field guide is now a decade old, and in the past ten years, stories relevant to eco-fiction have come out in spades.
When Rain Clouds Gather, by Bessie Head, takes place in the heart of rural Botswana. First published in 1965, it was repackaged with Head’s novel Maru in 2010. It’s the story of Makhaya, a political refugee who gets involved with an English farmer who tries to modernize traditional farming done in the Golema Mmidi community. The local chief doesn’t like the idea, and the harsh climate also presents obstacles. Within the story, however, is hope for the future.
In the short story Eclipse our Sins, by Tlotlo Tsamaase, a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and architectural articles, two children observe their family’s illnesses as “Mother Earth, Mama Earth, Mmê Earth,” ravaged by climate change, acts as a vengeful spirit against the sins of humanity. The complex and haunting story is online at Clarksworld, and an audio version is available here. The deeply moving story is full of stark imagery (my breath is smog; the sun is menstruating; and we held our unborn and lay open beneath the cirrus veils of sky, catching sunlit stars).
Dr. Wangari Maathai Plants a Forest comes from the world of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls— just out this year — and though based upon the life of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Wangari Maathi, it’s described as a historical, feminist, and children’s novel. The story shows how, as a child, Wangari lived in a fertile, magical valley in Kenya, with clear streams and an imagination that ran wild. After growing up and going off to school, her childhood home changed. The soil was no longer good for crops, and people went hungry. Wangari’s solution was to come back and plant trees. Wangari Muta Maathai was the first African woman to win a Nobel prize, and she founded the Green Belt Movement.
Shadow Flicker, by Melissa A. Volker, dishes up a budding romance, with surfing and ocean culture at its heart. This is a well-told story that tries to find both sides of an environmental issue: whether or not wind farms should be built near St Francis Bay in Eastern Cape province, South Africa. It’s the second environmental novel by Volker, the first being A Fractured Land. I spoke with the author here, who said: “The beach has eroded so much over the years due to the development of the town, a golf course, a man-made canal system, the introduction of alien vegetation, and other factors. The Sand River (a literal river of sand) used to deposit sand on the beaches and into the ocean. Sand covered the rocks and created banks, but this no longer happens. Bruce’s might have always been a fickle wave, but it is even more fickle now and only breaks like it did in the Endless Summer when a perfect set of circumstances, swell, wind, and tide come together simultaneously.”
Tade Thompson’s The Wormwood Trilogy, which won 2017’s African Speculative Fiction Society inaugural Nommo Award for Best Novel, includes three books: Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection, and the Rosewater Redemption. As the LA Review of Books stated, when comparing the trilogy to its namesake, the wormwood plant, “When a story engages the planetary disaster of the Anthropocene and histories of colonization, perhaps readers shouldn’t be able to shrug off a sense of bitterness.” The trilogy goes through past, present, and future, contrasting colonialism with a type of alien invasion. The alien Wormwood, in Nigeria, seeds the planet and prepares to terraform it. Though science fiction, the Rosewater books reflect the realities of our late-stage capitalistic society and our connection to others in it. The world in an alien transformation is stunningly depicted in this trilogy and involves our biological surroundings.
Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift takes place in Zambia, previously Northern Rhodesia. Like many African novels, the theme of post-colonialism is relevant and present, crossing several generations of families, making this epic novel part historical fiction and part Black speculative fiction, looking forward. The Old Drift spans the globe and is a long novel, but completely worth it. Serpell nails down the voices of various narrators, including a Scotsman and a Greek-like chorus of mites. The Zambezi River runs through it, a testament of Serpell’s clever and unique approach to crossing landscape with human stories.
Previously listed: AGAM by multiple artists, Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha, The Butterfly Effect by Rajat Chaudhuri, The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, The Green Gold of Borneo by Emin Madi, The Man with Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, Siberia by Ann Halam, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, Waste Tide by Chen Quifan, and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Taiyo Fujii’s Gene Mapper takes place in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as well as in Cambodia. It’s the mid-2030s, and narrator Mamoru Hayashida, a designer gene mapper, programs the DNA of rice crops to help curb world hunger. The sci-fi story provides an interesting view of a world augmented by GMO crops. The novel reflects Japanese science fiction, which, according to Japan Times, “stretch[es] back as far as the eighth-century tale of time traveler Urashima Taro or 10th-century story of moon-princess Kaguya-hime…Over the decades since, Japanese sci-fi has foreshadowed changes in society, predicted wars and anticipated the emergence of new technologies.”
Katy Yokom’s manuscript for Three Ways to Disappear won the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, and then the novel was published in 2019. Though the novel takes place partly in Louisville, Kentucky, it also travels to a Bengal tiger preserve in India. The novel is about coming to terms with one’s past and revisiting place and memory to resolve tough issues. But the story also centers around wildlife preservation in the Aravali forests. I talked with Katy about her novel, and she was inspired to write it mostly because of her own visits to Ranthambore, Rajasthan, and the Sundarbans. Three Ways to Disappear is an unforgettable novel about saving all that is precious, from endangered species to the indelible bonds among family.
Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes of Longing spans much of India, traveling from the Andaman Sea — bounded by the coasts of Myanmar and Thailand — to the Irrawaddy Delta to Nepal and to the glaciers of Karakorams. The landscapes within these places, in all their beauty and danger, inspire four connected lyrical stories full of interesting people: a tree scientist, a clairvoyant who talks to trees, a lord, a glacier scientist, a dictator, a mother, a yeti, a turtle, a ghost, and more. It’s such an interesting cast of characters, all exploring their visions of life. While the plot is grand in an epic sense, and the story itself is dream-like, the detailed character development brings it home.
The Last Wave, by Pankaj Sekhsaria, takes us to the Andaman Islands, home of the indigenous Andamanese and part of an ancient trade route between India and Myanmar. A drifter named Harish and a local woman Seema, who was born on the islands but did not live there for years and returns to learn more about her family origins, join a few others, including the director of the Institute for Island Ecology, to explore the island and the native Jarawa community. You might come away thinking, however, that in this look at such a delicate place where ecological balance is needed to sustain local culture — yet is always threatened by outsiders — that sometimes the most interesting characters are the rainforests, sea turtles, crocodiles, and more.
A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, takes place in the English countryside, where a woman named Etsuko is hurting over her eldest daughter’s suicide. As she observes the goings-on of her remaining daughter and her husband (a carefree spirit), she also reflects back on her life. Flashbacks take her back to Nagasaki, Japan, where she and her friends lived after World War II. In that sense, it’s a ghost story as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunt the present. Where this turns ecological is the wilderness surrounding a cottage that Etsuko rented after the war — a place that had not been rebuilt or tended to. Physical landscape that has been ruined (industrial waste pools, a dirty river) mirror the suffering of one’s psyche when internal wars happen.
Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist takes place in South Korea and on a fictional island off the coast of Vietnam. I have an interview with the author at Dragonfly.eco later this year. Tourist takes a rare approach to climate and ecological disaster found within fiction. We often read about catastrophic events in which people need to fix things, such as after a hurricane or wild fire. But in this novel, a dark tourism company sells trips to disaster hotspots, which visitors flock to. Lamentations of Zeno’s author Ilija Trojanow told me once: “We have had an enormous amount of dystopian narratives in recent years, not only in literature but also in the movies, on the TV screen. We lean back, munch popcorn and delight in the apocalypse. That’s pathological.” Yun Ko-eun cleverly satirizes this concept, and it works.
Though On Such a Full Sea, by author Chang Rae Lee, takes place in the future, in the United States, it is the story of Chinese immigrants, and thusly culture, who newly colonize America and make up its new labor class and have come over as refugees due to China’s environmentally ruined landscape. The labor settlements serve the upper class elite and have generic names, like B-Mor (which used to be Baltimore). The novel follows Fan, a diver who tends to fish and who lives in B-Mor but leaves the settlement to find her love, Reg. The novel is saturated by an ecologically ruined world, whether that is the result from climate change, as in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, or something else, as in McCarthy’s The Road, and the environment informs everything else: love, politics, class struggles, and life itself.
The Turtle of Oman, by Naomi Shihab Nye, is a children’s story about a young boy, Aref, living in Oman, whose parents want to go to grad school in Michigan. But he doesn’t want to leave home, and he goes on adventures with his grandfather Siddi, in order to see things one more time and make memories to take with him — most of them involving the wonder of the natural world, such as camping in the desert and watching stars, fishing in the Gulf, and visiting the nature reserve to view sea turtles. It’s an example of remembering the great fascination of the natural world that we learned as children, and how that can carry with us to adults. While Dragonfly.eco mostly focuses on adult fiction, a newer section called Turning the Tide: The Youngest Generation is geared toward children’s and teen/young adult fiction themed around the environment. The Turtle of Oman is aimed toward a middle-school audience, but many of these stories will be enjoyed by adults as well.
Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth is set in the Kamchatka peninsula in northeastern Russia. I chatted with the author here, and she shared some thoughts about writing natural landscape into the story. “Kamchatka is an incredibly compelling setting… I am so interested in writing about how Kamchatka’s unique history shapes its residents, and how, more generally, the places we all exist in shape us, informing how we perceive ourselves, each other, and the world.” Connecting to the physical environment and bringing it to the story is central in Disappearing Earth. The novel is structured polyphonically and begins with the kidnapping of a child, and then fans out to include other women’s voices and events on the peninsula. Phillips told me, “I wrote Disappearing Earth to run the range of violence in contemporary womanhood, because I’m fascinated by how those hurts echo each other, overlap, and connect us.”
Cities of Salt, by Abdul Rahman Munif — three books translated to English by Peter Theroux — is a quintet of historical novels set in the Persian Gulf in 1930s. It was first published in Lebanon in 1984 and later translated. The author explained the title, “Cities that offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive.” This political fiction was banned in several oil-producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, and it became the first in a trilogy. Colonization, oil, and political handshakes ruined the original landscapes and culture of this fictional gulf kingdom, and this novel tells all.
Ecofiction by Lebanese Students is a bit of a departure from the rest of the entries in this article, but when I first read about it, my heart warmed. Students aged 10–14 contributed illustrated stories in a contest envisioned by Lucy Akl-Khoury, a Lebanese American professor. Thanks to a grant from the Netherlands Organization for International Development, the booklet became a reality. The book consists of stories by ten selected children, eight written in Arabic, one in English, and one in French. The booklet can still be downloaded in PDF form from Greenline. One of the stories begins, “On a Sunday morning, I decided to take a walk in the mountains of Lebanon. On my way, I saw a few trees, some of them crying….”
Previously listed: Beneath the Mother Tree by D.M. Cameron, Clade by James Bradley, Closing Down by Sally Abbott, The Flooded Earth by Mardi McConnochie, The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Woods, The Orchardist’s Daughter by Karen Viggers, Potiki by Patricia Grace, The Swan Book by Alexis Wright, Te Kaihau: The Windeater by Keri Hulme, Where Oceans Hide their Dead by John Yunker, and The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau.
As Stars Fall, by Christie Nieman, is a young adult novel set in Australia. It starts with a bush stone-curlew watching a bush fire rage through the forest after losing its mate; the bird also witnesses the death of a woman. Robin just moved to the city from the country in Murramunda, where the same bush fire ruined her home and killed all the birds. She’s not happy to be in the concrete city, with a lack of the diversity of birds she’s used to studying. Told from the perspective of Robin, a girl named Delia, whom she meets at her new school in the city, and Delia’s brother Seth, it’s a story of teenagers suffering from loss due to the fire that spread through their county. But not all is lost as the three become tied together by their love for birds. It’s a beautiful and moving lament over the growing number of wild fires happening each summer in Australia, a coming-of-age story of friendship and personal growth, and an environmental lesson.
Tara June Winch’s The Yield is an award-winning novel about Albert “Poppy” Gondiwindi, who knows he is about to die but wants to preserve his life spent at Prosperous House on the Murrumby River near the Plains Massacre, and so he writes a journal. The Yield is about language, which derives from what surrounds us — rivers, people, vistas, natural resources. Great Escape Books said of the word yield: “Yield in English is the reaping, the things that man can take from the land. In the language of the Wiradjuri yield is the things you give to, the movement, the space between things — baayanha, baayanma.” With dignity for the Australian Aboriginal Wiradjuri, the story switches from Poppy’s journal to his granddaughter, August’s, homecoming to the river, when she learns more about her kin as well as has to deal with the news that her grandfather’s lifelong home is about to be repossessed by a mining company.
Ghost Species, by James Bradley, is set mostly in Tasmania and depicts a planet devastated by climate catastrophe, something that is becoming deeply familiar to eastern Australia as wild fires ravished them last summer. Kate Larkin is a scientist who hopes to re-engineer the planet to combat climate change. In doing so, she and her partner Jay use genetic engineering to bring back a Neanderthal. Doing so brings further ethical questions into our humanity, however, which Kate realizes heavily after the fact, wanting to release the Neanderthal, Eve, from the laboratory. Bradley has been writing climate/ecological fiction and nonfiction for quite a while now, and I’m particularly drawn to his work, including essays. His other fiction exploring these themes includes Clade and The Silent Invasion, also covered at Dragonfly.eco.
Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide takes us to Tasmania as river guide Aljaz Cosina realizes he’s drowning, trapped under a waterfall. His life begins to come back to him in flashes, which provides the narrative structure of the novel. He sees his own life piece together before him, from his birth in Italy to his partner Couta and the death of their child Jemma — also to a river incident. He learned from his grandmother that his relatives were convicts, not just regular European settlers in Tasmania — and, he understands with sorrow, that many Aboriginal people have been displaced or vanished. The natural world is not lost on Alijaz, as he recalls a beautiful rainforest and a blooming tree in winter, along with other flora and fauna — in that journey that takes him home.
Daughter of Bad Times, by Rohan Wilson, offers a vision of the future when climate change has destroyed islands, leaving behind many climate refugees. These refugees are promised a better life but first must spend one year at a facility where they have to work, which equates to manufacturing trivial junk, such as cheap toys. The story centers on Rin, grieving the death of her lover Yamaan, and whose mother runs one of these corrupt labor centers also known as immigration centres. This political thriller isn’t far off from our world, as injustice leads to protests and riots.
Dyschronia, by Jennifer Mills, is set in Australia in a coastal village called Clapstone, where the locals wake up one morning to find that the sea around them has vanished — leaving behind a waterless basin. It’s a nightmare that main character Sam has been envisioning for years, the visions always accompanied by migraines. This novel focuses on resource depletion and climate change as the community finds a squid washed up on shore and wonders if they can use the species to cure the fossil fuel problem. The narrative structure flips between three timelines and has been described as a circular tale with a strong sense of place.
The Sea and the Summer, by George Turner, published as The Drowning Towers in the U.S., is an example of an early work (late 1980s) about modern climate change and ecological disasters. Taking place in Australia, this speculative tale imagined the 2040s as a dystopian time, when to stay safe from rising seas, it would be best to live in high-rise towers. It’s a story about many things, told from the lens of the “swill” — the term applied to the underclass, rather than the “sweet,” who still have jobs and some stability. It’s interesting to look back to a few decades ago, since there were few speculative fiction novels about human-caused global warming, even after climate scientists first confirmed global warming in the 1970s. Arthur Herzog’s novel Heat, published in the late 1970s, was probably the first. I had an interesting discussion with Herzog’s widow Leslie (now passed away) about her husband’s work, which I think probably typifies how earlier science fiction authors — similar to today’s — research the plausibility of climate change’s future impact on the world.
The Glad Shout, by Alice Robinson, takes a look at motherhood in times of apocalyptic events — a focus other authors, such as Kassandra Montag (After the Flood) and Jeff VanderMeer (Borne), have taken on when building stories that explore parental type relationships in worlds ravaged by climate change. Isobel must flee to higher ground with her husband and daughter after a storm ruins Melbourne. Note that in these stories, motherhood isn’t always biological, and impulses to protect, of course, are there for fathers as well. There may be symbolism in such fiction about mothers, in the tune of Mother Earth, but I do find it interesting, as a mother, to read stories that echo loss and love in the form of parenthood. I have recurring dreams that a huge storm has wrecked my life, and in these dreams, my children are always babies or toddlers and I’m doing everything possible to save them. I think it’s from instinct that all guardians of children will understand the nature of protection, and climate change novels offer a perfect example of this heart-rendering, age-old story. Now, if we could just try to save them before the storms get even worse.
On the Beach, by Nevil Shute, is an older novel published in 1957. It was an imagining of what nuclear war would do the world, where deadly radiation fall-out reaches Australia last. A haunting novel, it has been reprinted multiple times and is still popular. The novel is so impactful because of its strong sense of place — the ocean, the beaches, the vacationers. It’s a story of everyday people whose sudden fate of absolute death hits them squarely, where everything on the Earth will die. It is an end-times story, a cautionary tale, and an example of how fiction can create awareness of issues that people do not always take to heart.
The Island will Sink, by Briohny Doyle, is another story about climate change events changing lives, and really the world, forever. But there’s something else going on here too, edging on slip-stream, a man who cannot remember his life due to memories being outsourced. This makes the novel surreal and weird, as the main character Max, a disaster film-maker, decides to make a new blockbuster movie about the real-time sinking of the Pitcairn Islands. There’s a lot going on here, not the least of which is the concept of marketing climate change events for entertainment value, down to mascots, logos, and catchy slogans, which is evident today. As if the seriousness of climate change isn’t already overlooked, sometimes satire can clue us into how audiences peek in to something real, and dangerous, but with the popcorn syndrome, seeking entertainment and escape instead.
The Octopus and I, by Erin Hortle, is set on the Tasmanian Coast. It’s a story of Lucy and her husband Jem, living near Eaglehawk Neck. Lucy is recovering from major surgery due to breast cancer and is surrounded by not just wild landscape and a growing interest in the octopi she starts to observe but also by people who make the sea their way of life and study, such as Flo, who teaches Lucy some things about octopi and Jem, who is an abalone diver. Some animal cruelty exists in the story, so be forewarned. The wildlife-focused narratives make this a good read for those who like stories centered on our relationships with animals, and ones that come after personal crises, such as Lucy’s cancer and disfigurement.
Central and South America
Previously listed: Compass Rose by Anna Burke, Dr. Franklin’s Island by Ann Halam, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, Journey to the Heart of the World by John Lundin, The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, Solarpunk–Histórias Ecológicas e Fantásticas em um Mundo Sustentável by Gerson Lodi-Riberio, Undergrowth by Nancy Burke, Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton, and Wondering, the Way Is Made by Luke F.D. Marsen.
La Loca de Gandoca, by Anacristina Rossi, is an autobiographical novel about Rossi’s attempt to save the Gandoca-Manzanilla Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica’s Limón province, when it was found that private investors and government officials had a secret plot to develop the area. The refuge is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, and allegedly protected by the Costa Rican constitution. Even today, this area is endangered by oil interests, tourism, and unregulated development. It’s also a love story, as her marriage is an arc throughout.
El Taller de las Mariposas, by Giocanda Belli, is a children’s picture novel set in Nicaragua. The book is illustrated by German artist Wolf Erlbruch. On the surface it’s a fable about the origin of the butterfly, and a boy named Odaer who wants to cross a bird with a flower despite “The Designers of All Things” laughing at him for trying. The story enforces persistence, hope, imagination, and creativity. Ann González, at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, argues also that the story represents a revolutionary artist searching for an “idealized, utopian beauty,” and that there’s a polyphonic discourse formed as well as subtexts in the story: “Odaer’s effort to keep his dream alive, therefore, can be read as a simplified parallel to the decade’s long Sandinista struggle. The existential implications of his persistence mirror the philosophy of commitment shared by Nicaragua’s idealistic revolutionaries.”
The Seed Thief, by Jacqui L’Ange, takes place in Brazil and South Africa, as a botanist named Maddy, who works at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, travels to South America to collect seeds from a rare tree that’s now extinct in Africa; the seeds could help cure cancer. From Goodreads, “Entrancing and richly imagined, The Seed Thief is a modern love story with an ancient history, a tale that moves from flora of Table Mountain to the heart of Afro-Brazilian spiritualism.” Mixed into the story are the beautiful jungles of Brazil, a romance, and a look at the Candomblé communities in the country.
Accidentals comes from the same author of Carbon Dreams. Three years ago, I talked with author Susan M. Gaines and enjoyed our discussion and her genuine concern for the natural world. If you like stories about the environment and birding, this one’s for you. When Gabriel’s immigrant mother decides to move back to Uruguay, he, bored with his job, decides to go with her. There, he falls for Alejandra, a biologist. This novel is many things: a coming-of-age story, a love story, and a significant look at Uruguayan politics and culture — but it’s also an environmental story, which, like Gaines’ other writings, closes the gap between science and fiction, while also telling an illuminating story.
Hurricane, by Terry Trueman, is a middle-grade fiction novel based upon category 5 Hurricane Mitch’s devastation of Honduras in 1998. José, his family, and the community endure hours of darkness, cold, and the sounds of the hurricane surrounding their homes. When it’s all over, his town, Rupa, is destroyed, and people in the village begin to search for survivors. Dead bodies, open sewers, a lack of water, and sickness overcome the small town. José’s dad and older brother are missing. A survivalist story, wrought with emotion, it is an eye-opening cautionary tale based upon realities that already exist, but which we do not see every day.
Published in 2000, Tierra del Fuego, by Sylvia Iparraguirre, portrays the tragedy of the “Noble Salvage” concept and European arrogance in capturing natives — based upon the true story of Orundellico, later named Jemmy Button, a Yaghan native from the island of Tierra del Fuego, off the extreme southern coasts of Chile and Argentina, who was abducted by Captain Robert Fitzroy. Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle partially documented this event. Both a suspenseful seafaring tale and a psychological thriller, it won the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Award for the best work of fiction written by a woman and The Best Book of the Year Award at the Buenos Aires Book Fair. The story is an example of how colonialism takes over cultures and ecologies, ruining things that worked better in the first place. Today the island’s main economies are oil, natural gas, sheep, and ecotourism.
Mad Maria, by Márcio Souza, translated by Thomas Colchie, is an anti-capitalistic novel based upon the strange cast of characters involved in bringing to life the Madiera-Mamoré Railroad in Brazil, which was supposed to bring Bolivian rubber to the rest of the world, albeit the project didn’t last long once built and was considered a failure. Souza writes with concern for the environment surrounding the railroad, which seems to be a repeating issue throughout history: Natural resources are found, foreign investors slash their way in, uninvited, and poor laborers are hired cheaply to construct something that will take advantage of the resource, the locals, the land, and the culture while a profit is hoped for.
Dark Constellations, by Pola Oloixarac, is a slim science fiction novel set mostly in Argentina that has its feet in biological exploration and and its eyes in the future — to hacking and DNA research. Dark, mysterious, and surreal, the story has three main characters whose works connect with each other over the course of 150 years; vivid images of the jungle also fill the story. One Goodreads reviewer described it: “The three timelines revolve around researchers of different types, in the modern and near future narratives on computer scientists and geneticists, the past on botanists. The novel gives a hyperbolic version of the promises of some of these fields; the perceived potential for imminent significant insight by increased computational power, or an increased volume of genetic data, which struggles to be realised.”
100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, is probably my favorite novel of all times, if I could list one favorite, that is. Is it eco-fiction, one might ask? I’m still working on a piece discussing that now. I think it can be categorized as such, since the natural landscape enters the story so meaningfully. The Buendía family settles in a fictional place called Macondo after its patriarch, José Arcadio, conceives of the settlement as a city of mirrors that reflects everything around it. Of course, these mirrors are also a product of his own perceptions, which get crazier throughout the years. But they also represent a microcosm of the politics and technology of Columbia, which comes to the isolated settlement by nomadic travelers. It’s a comical story of seven generations of family, and the weird stuff humans do, like selling snake oils. It’s also a city reflecting the river, the wild jungles around it — a utopian island of sorts, which José believes is surrounded by water. Lawrence Buell, who was a pioneer in eco-critical readings, published “An eco-critical reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude,” noting in the summary his discussion of background canonical literary texts for an understanding of nature and technology in the novel as well as eco-critical readings of other novels by Márquez.
City of the Beasts, by Isabel Allende, starts in the United States, but ends up in the Amazon rainforest, where 15 year-old Alexander Cold is sent to stay with his grandmother, a reporter for International Geographic Magazine. Together, he and his grandmother join an expedition into the forest; others in the team include a doctor, anthropologist, a Brazilian guide, and the guide’s daughter. Alex finds his totem animal in a caged black jaguar. Their journey to the Eye of the World is wrought with disaster: a soldier shot by a poisoned dart, the photographer’s assistant nearly killed by an anaconda, etc. Once reaching the village, they meet the People of the Mist, and Alex goes through a rite of passage into manhood. He turns into a jaguar eventually. This young children’s story might be interesting for adults, and for any readers who enjoy reading stories set in the wilderness of the rainforest.
Previously listed: All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew, Lost Objects by Marian Womack, Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, The Old Axolotl: Hardware Dreams by Jacek Dukaj, Rokit by Loranne Vella, Sleeping in the Forest by Sait Faik, The Story Collector by Evie Gaughan, Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari, and The Willows by Algernon Blackwood.
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a collection of six stories about Holly Skyes’ life, beginning when she’s 15 in 1984 and concluding in 2043. In the time period that the book takes place, 59 years, most of us get it: a person can change. A lot. And so can the planet. For instance, in the last portion of the novel — far from the folly of youth in the first part — the Endarkment has taken place, a time when climate change has depleted natural resources and government rations force many people to return to living off the land and fending for themselves. The story of Holly, which mostly takes place in Ireland, is intricate and stunning. The layer of planetary change dropping into Holly’s world brings about one of The Washington Post’s conclusions about The Bone Clocks: “Mitchell’s book is long and complex, but it might just become the 1984 of the climate change movement. It dramatizes the consequences of our improvident modern economy in the way George Orwell’s novel awakened people to the ‘Big Brother’ mentality of Soviet communism.”
When the Lights Go Out, by Carys Bray, is the story of a couple of parents, Emma and Chris, struggling through what I think can best be described as eco-grief, a real thing that has been reported in media. Defined in Nature and Climate Change: “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.” Solastalgia is another related term. Bray’s story focuses on this phenomenon. Of the couple, Emma is the more positive and pragmatic of the two; Chris is drowning in dread due to the modern world’s harsh realities: namely, global warming. Taking place during Christmastime in northern England, the marriage in crisis parallels a climate in crisis, and something’s gotta give.
“Brita’s Holiday Village” is a short story in the collection by Karen Tidback called Jagannath. I think it’s important to continue to investigate how some weird fiction has strong ecological elements, and Tidback is no stranger to this concept. She is a Swedish author whose weird fiction is inspired by folklore and her social anthropology background. She writes into her stories a strong sense of Swedish landscape. “Brita’s Holiday Village” is about a young woman writer who escapes to her Aunt Brita’s resort to finish writing a novel. She scraps her old pieces and begins a fiction based on her life. She gets out into the village for walks and swims and notices pupae hanging all over the place; then it hatches. What follows is a series of dreams about the villagers, whom she finds are distantly related. It’s an example of the new weird, much like the other stories in Jagannath.
Elena Maffioletti’s Il Principio Della Terra (in English, Where the Earth Begins — in Search of the Aral Sea) is a novel based upon the true story of diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers between the 1960s through 1980s to support irrigation for intensive cotton farming and continued destruction of the Aral Sea area. As Maffioletti explained to me, “In the same period, an island in the middle of the Aral Sea named Vozrozdenye (Rebirth Island) was used by the Soviets as a bioweapons testing range. Relics of laboratory complex now lie in the dust, just as rusty fishing vessels lie on the dry soil where a large part of the Aral Sea used to be, both on Kazakh and Uzbek sides. The landscape is dramatic and beautiful, a sort of primordial world, but pollution from pesticides and desiccation have had a terrible impact on the local ecosystem and population over the last 50 years. I traveled through Uzbekistan some years ago, and I was fascinated by the contrast between the richness of culture and tradition of the country and the dusty scenery of Lake Aral.” The novel was born as a collection of short stories that created a tapestry, joined together in a bigger story.
As William Blake said, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and drive, over the bones of the dead. The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk, is set in a rural Polish village and the woods surrounding it. Its main character Janina is seen as curmudgeonly by those in her community. She has some hobbies: translating William Blake’s poetry, studying astrology, and preferring animals for company rather than people. When her neighbor, whom she had nicknamed Big Foot, turns up dead, others follow, and Janina begins to investigate the deaths herself. In her life and investigations, Janina observes nature and understands the the importance of ecosystems and species that rely upon each other.
Three Moments of an Explosion, by China Miéville, is a collection of twenty eight stories, some older, most new, influenced by the strangeness of our world, including ecological weirdness induced by human recklessness and folly. Often falling apart (in a good way) at well-written imagery, I particularly liked the haunting story “Polynia,” where icebergs appear in the sky above London. Also is “Covehithe,” where sunken oil rigs walk out of the sea and onto land, taking on animal instincts and harboring empathy. Tor.com said of the story, “As with many of Miéville’s other stories, this parable — of climate change, corruption, urbanisation, alienation of nature, you name it — is less about the central conceit than the human response.”
The Swimmers, by Marian Womack, comes out in 2021 and recently had a cover reveal by Den of Geek. Already a fan of Womack, whose doctorate studies explored the intersection of the weird and eco-fiction, I am eager to get into the story, which is partially set in a futuristic hot and lush landscape of Andalusia, Spain, and partially in a new Upper Settlement, a ring on the edge of the planet’s atmosphere. The surface dwellers and Upper Settlement each have class divisions and social inequality, but when the Delivery Act declares all surface dwellers equal, the protagonist Pearl navigates the complexity of the new world. According to Goodreads, the novel has deep jungles, strange animals, and new taxonomies — and an ever-changing landscape.
The Forbidden Place, by Susanne Jansson, takes place in Sweden’s wetlands at a fictional village called Mossmarken on the edge of a mire. A biologist named Nathalie comes to this remote place to study peat bogs, most particularly “How the Greenhouse Effect Influences the Process of Decomposition in the Wetlands.” As with many isolated places that haven’t lost their natural landscape, this one is dripping with fog, rain, mist, storms…and secrets, deaths, and mysteries. This story can be described as Scandi-Noir, a type of crime fiction set in Scandinavian countries.
In Summerwater, a novella by Sarah Moss, it’s the longest day of the summer and a dozen folks are stuck inside their cabins as a heavy rain pours down. Moss’s descriptions deftly bring the weather and all that’s happening outside inward, to enhance or disturb the people in the story. Each is dealing with their own lives, their own issues, but a surrogate type of community is born, especially when it comes to banding together against the “others” camping nearby. For readers who like landscape and mood stories, Summerwater does the trick. Set in a Scottish Highlands resort, this stream-of-consciousness tale is infused with constant rain, inside and out.
Natural Histories: Stories is a collection of stories by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein; the short stories are mostly set in Paris. Mexican author Nettel’s writings about fish, fungus, snakes, cockroaches, and more in this compelling throng of tales mostly concentrate on natural and human cohabitation, reproduction, and connection. These masterfully poignant stories twist the mundane into the extraordinary, equating animal and people instincts as peculiarly similar. While some stories venture into the absurd, most are grounded in reality.
Previously listed: American War by Omar El Akkad, Beasts of the Southern Wild by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, California by Edan Lepucki, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, Hawk by Jennifer Dance, The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, The Overstory by Richard Powers, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Protectors of the Wood by Jon KixMiller and team, Tentacle by Rita Indiana, The Troika by Stephan Chapman, and Walkaway by Cory Doctorow.
Andrew Krivak’s The Bear is the story of the last two people on Earth, a sort of antipodal story to Adam and Eve’s in the beginning. Inspired by the author’s time growing up in the rural forests of the northeastern US, it’s a story of a girl and her father surviving on the side of a mountain. The prose is simple but complex, delicate but strong. Stunning descriptions of landscape and wildlife, survival wisdom, love, sadness, and joy splash page after page. It’s a lyrical fable for humankind, with elements of magical realism. You can read more about The Bear in my chat with Krivak.
The Veins of the Ocean, by Patricia Engel, takes place in the coastal and Caribbean communities of Miami, the Florida Keys, and Cuba, as well as Cartagena, Columbia. Reina Castillo’s brother is serving a death sentence. After he’s gone, she meets Nesto Cadena, from Cuba, who is waiting for the arrival of his children. Their companionship, and suffering, is soothed by the healing powers of nature, most particularly the ocean surrounding them. It’s an example of how natural entities, such as the sea, can become a focused character and protagonist in fiction.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, has been cited in media as being a novel about anthropogenic climate change, which strikes me as weird because there’s nothing in the novel stating what causes the burning world in which the story takes place; it seems more likely that a cataclysmic extinction event of some kind happened, a sudden event leaving people dead in their tracks. Taking place somewhere in North America, this famous story is a bout a man and his son trekking through a wasteland, grieving the death of the man’s wife. It is one of the most impactful novels I’ve ever read, up there with Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, about the utter destruction of the environment on our planet.
Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World Series is based upon the premise that environmental collapse causes The Big Flood, drowning the planet or pretty much everything that is below a mountainous elevation. The fantasy series, two books so far (Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts), with two more planned, is set in Dinétah — the traditional home of the Navajo in the United States. Roanhorse is a Nebula, Hugo, and Locus award-winning author. In the series, Maggie Hoskin is a monsterslayer, and her trials and adventures bring back native beliefs, customs, and magic to a world ruined by climate change and fracking. Make no mistake — these novels don’t shy away from the sexual and physical violence against Indigenous women, realities that are tough to read about. Maggie is a strong woman who learns to survive in such an apocalyptic world, and isn’t that how heroes are created?
T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts was published in 2016 and takes place in Arizona, in a small, desert town 40 miles from Tuscon. The Terranauts, which are made up of eight scientists, are selected to test out life under glass, in an attempt to see if that kind of living would be plausible in the future, possibly outside of Earth. This experiment is the result of trying to find another existence, since life on the planet is threatened by climate change. It’s interesting that the eco-sphere has different biomes: rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean, and marsh. This isn’t Boyle’s first novel dealing with climate. He also wrote the well-known A Friend of the Earth, originally published in 2000.
Jessica Cory, editor of the anthology Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Writing in the Anthropocene, chatted with me last fall about her newly published collection of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, which has stories from nearly fifty writers from across Appalachia, including Indigenous authors. Having spent a lot of time in the eastern Kentucky Appalachian region, I was thrilled to read this anthology whose authors give insights on the human-nature relationship in an era of rapid environmental change. It seemed I was part of their stories, from my own early childhood experiences to the concerns of today. The contributors write about experiences from northern Georgia to upstate New York, invite parallels between a watershed in West Virginia and one in North Carolina, and often emphasize connections between Appalachia and more distant locations. In the pages of Mountains Piled upon Mountains are celebration, mourning, confusion, loneliness, admiration, and other emotions and experiences rooted in place but transcending Appalachia’s boundaries. And while I’m at it, if you’re reading this, you might pronounce Appalachia as apple-ay-sha. That’s not the correct pronunciation, and I’m going to throw an apple-at-cha if you don’t get it right!
John Atcheson’s A Being Darkly Wise impacted me quite a bit when I read it seven years ago. The novel is set in the Boreal forest of British Columbia, with strong influence from the Dunne-za (the real people). In Being, a group of K-street and environmentalist-activist types from Washington D.C. travel on a wilderness survival trek to one of the most isolated areas of northern BC with a mysterious man named Jake. The novel is set in the present day. Unlike some climate change novels, where the literary characters need to adapt to climate change in the future, Atcheson’s novel gathers people to adapt to the idea of where we’re at and very closely heading now. It’s also rich with descriptions of the wilderness–the place beyond that I (we) so want to reconnect with. In my talk with John, back in 2013, he even told me a bear story. John and I kept in touch throughout the years, about writing, politics, and environment. I’m sad to report that he died in January 2020 in a tragic car accident.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones tells the growing familiar story of a hurricane heading toward land, in this case the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. We all remember Katrina, and climate scientists tell us that there will be more like it and worse. Obviously, this is a fictionalization of what happened, but fiction is a creative art form that allows us to get outside ourselves and peer deeply into situations that happen around us all the time, which raises empathy and can establish an emotional connection with others. In the story, a teenage pregnant girl named Esch lives with her alcoholic father and three brothers. Influenced by the myth of Jason and Medea, she gets by with imagination and love for her family and community. It’s a story in which hope rises above tragedy.
Fungoid, by William Meikle, takes place on the east coast of Canada and is an example of fungoid fiction, which obviously involves fungi (a little sub-genre all on its own) and may also overlap with eco-horror. It’s an example of how stories found within the field of eco-fiction do not always have to be human-caused, as in global warming. Sometimes in weird fiction, nature attacks. Or sometimes nature doesn’t attack, it just happens for whatever reason. Nevertheless, it’s another scenario that can imbalance ecosystems and threaten survival. This apocalyptic novel looks at the smaller things that can devastate, in this case something that escapes from a lab.
Limbo, by Esther Figueroa, has the director (Flora Smith) of an environmental organization struggling to keep her NGO afloat while trying to create awareness of Jamaica’s fragile ecosystems. Part love story, part murder-mystery, the novel delves into the dark sides of exploitative industries taking advantage of native peoples as well as ruining Jamaica’s natural landscapes. It’s an advocacy novel with seasonings of humor, romance, and struggle. It’s also a beautiful story about place and vistas that will capture readers’ imaginations.
Aya de León’s Side Chick Nation is book 4 of her contemporary urban series whose protagonists are women of color being systematically marginalized by capitalistic ventures and personally abused by the ones they think love them. These women are vulnerable but ultimately strong and powerful as they fight for themselves, their families, and communities. Side Chick Nation explores the same themes as the previous three novels but centers around climate change and Hurricane Maria, which devastated Dominica, St Croix, and Puerto Rico in 2017. I talked with de León about her novel, and we touched some on heist fiction, about which she said, “Heist–at least the Robin Hood heist trope–is about economic justice. When the have-nots steal from the haves and redistribute the wealth. It’s the genre that portrays the revenge of the 99%.” This novel is an example of how elastic the literary journey is that dives into climate and ecological themes in fiction.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird Salamander is not out yet, but I’m really intrigued by it since I’ve immensely enjoyed his other novels in the past decade or so. He’s one of my favorite authors who brings ecology into fiction, and in such fresh ways. This novel takes place in the Pacific Northwest, and I think I remember him saying that it’s set somewhere in British Columbia, but that may not be correct, so don’t quote me on it. It’s about a woman named Jane who opens the door to a storage unit and finds a taxidermied hummingbird and salamander. Where it goes from there will be wild, weird, and wonderful, I’m sure. It takes place “10 seconds into the future,” according to Verge.
Previously listed: The North Water by Ian McGuire, Arctic Drift by Clive Cussler, The Ice Child by Elizabeth McGregor, and Far North by Marcel Theroux.
Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, is a new novel out in the summer of 2020. Franny Stone, from Galway, Ireland, is a wanderer and lover of oceans and birds, has experienced a lot of loss in her life. As wildlife accelerates toward extinction everywhere, she can’t bear the thought of further losses. With the help of Ennis Malone, captain of the ship Sahgani, she travels to Greenland to find the last flock of Arctic terns. It’s the story of vanishing: of wildlife and one’s own self. One word of caution, it’s a tearjerker.
Sila, by playright Chantal Bilodeau, takes place in Nunavit, Canada and is the Inuktitut word for air, climate, or breath. The play examines the competing interests shaping the future of the Canadian Arctic and local Inuit population. Set on Baffin Island, it follows seven characters, including a climate scientist, an Inuit activist, two Coast Guard officers, and a polar bear, as they see their values challenged and their lives become intricately intertwined. Equal parts Inuit myth and contemporary Arctic policy, Sila uses puppetry, spoken word poetry and three different languages (English, French and Inuktitut). The play was inspired by a three-week trip to Baffin Island. You can read more about Bilodeau’s plays in my chat with her. Of interest, Bilodeau also runs the wonderful site Artists & Climate Change.
Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller, tells the tale of Qaanaaq, a floating city in the Arctic Circle — at first an engineering and social refuge, complete with renewable energy, built after the Climate Wars, which had devastated the Earth with floods and fires. But enter the seeds of corruption — and poverty, crime, and nanotech plague break out. An orcamancer arrives (a woman riding an orca) with a polar bear, to help save the city and teach its residents how to resist corruption and look after themselves. As reviewer Zachary Houle said, “Science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present.” He likened the artificial city to Donald Trump’s circle of crime and ruthless politicians.
Split Tooth, by Canadian Inuk throat singer Tanya Taqaq, is a story of a girl growing up in Nunavut in the 1970s, who becomes pregnant and tries to navigate the world of violence, abuse, drugs, alcoholism, and family troubles. But the healing begins with the wilderness and nature around her, the myths and spirit world of her ancestors. A lyrical and poetic story, broken down by beautiful vignettes and Taqaq’s memories of growing up in that culture and place, it’s a visceral tale that will stick with the reader for a long time.
The Word for Woman Is Wilderness, by Abi Andrews, is about Erin, age 19, who leaves her home in England and sets out to journey through the U.S. and the Arctic Circle. Wilderness is not a mere backdrop to Erin’s trek; it’s the main thoroughfare and landscape to learning more about one’s world and self. Breaking the male archetype of discoverers and survivalists, Erin ends up in a lonely cabin in the wilds of Denali, hoping to make do better than Christopher McCandless did in his final Alaskan adventure, and begins to document her surroundings and the people she comes across. Drawing upon Inuit beliefs, she is worried about the natural environment of the place she’s traveled, the community and wilds into which she seemed destined to arrive. She narrates in the story, “If running into the wild is so often a wounded retreat from societal constraints and oppressions, then shouldn’t anyone but straight white men be doing it more?”
After the Flood, by Kassandra Montag, is another envisioning of our future after climate change has caused floods and rising seas, where mountains are our new homes, and they are surrounded by a horizon of sea. Myra and her daughter Pearl lived in Nebraska when a deluge ruined their home and her oldest daughter Row was kidnapped by her father. When Myra finds out that Row might be alive in Alaska, she and Pearl embark on a northward journey to find Row. A “raw and atmospheric” story, it strongly connects readers to the emotional response to what may be our future world — while at the same time providing a thrilling ride.
Previously listed: My Last Continent by Midge Raymond, Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson, “Sur” by Ursula K. Le Guin, Chasing the Light by Jesse Blackadder, and Lamentations of Zeno by Ilija Trojanow.
Icequake, by Crawford Killan, was written in the 1980s. Killan wrote an article at The Tyee (an independent journal I enjoyed back when I lived in British Columbia). The gist: “My Old Sci-Fi Novel Is Coming True.” He said, “It was a strange sensation to check Google News on a lovely spring morning and find a new headline: Irreversible collapse. The collapse is of a major part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet under the steady erosion of warming sea water. Pretty dramatic, no doubt.” In the novel, a team of 27 scientists resides in the Shackleton Station, studying seismic activity of the region, when a nearby volcano erupts and sends icequakes through the area.
Shackleton’s Man Goes South, by Tony White, switches between historical past and climate-changed future — its name taken from Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who was an Irish Antarctic explorer. White wrote the story as a writer in residence at the Science Museum in London. He had been thinking of Antarctica, which had been represented in literature and film over a century ago, but also about how it was a crucible in which to tell a story of climate change and a continent at risk. It was the first novel published by the museum. He explained to me, “On the one hand, the novel tells the story of Emily and Jenny who are fleeing to the safety of Antarctica and who wash up in a camp on the island of South Georgia deep in the south Atlantic. They are boat people, refugees, who are known in their post-melt world as ‘mangoes’, a corruption of the saying ‘man go south’. Alongside this, I tell the story of George Clarke Simpson writing about climate change in 1911, and of my conversations with contemporary climate scientists.”
South Pole Station, by Ashley Shelby, is a refreshing story with a woman’s viewpoint, as the main character, Cooper Gosling, gets a chance to enter an Antarctic Artists & Writer’s Program, which happens at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where -50 degrees and colder is the norm. Cooper grew up fascinated by polar expeditions, particularly by Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Robert Scott’s misadventurous journey, and the chance to go to the station is a godsend after the death of her brother. She joins others there, in a somewhat comical story, where discussions of politics surrounding climate change is central around the numerous other loners at the station.
Fragment, by Craig Russel, has a wildlife-killing shockwave dislodging a massive sheet of ice in the Antarctic, a captain of an atomic submarine heading to the rescue with his teams, and survivors of the polar research team panicking. Meanwhile, it’s all over the world news, which is exactly how this story would happen, with the world taking notice. This may sound like a specualtive sort of event we face in the future, due to global warming, but it’s more of a cautionary tale — it’s not if but when. Beneath the water is a blue whale, also fighting for the survival of its species.
Is it on a Map?
Previously listed: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer, Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, The Other Side of the Mountain by Michael Bernanos, The Sandcastle Empire by Kayla Olson, and Wilder Girls by Rory Power [post-publication correction, Wilder Girls is set on an island off Maine].
Sisyphean, by Dempow Torishima, is an interesting look into the future of genetic engineering. Falling into the genres of fantasy, science fiction, biopunk, and the new weird, Sisyphean is a mosaic of four story fragments — Plunder, Jewel, Genesis, and Exile — that together hint at the truth behind the Great Dust Plague. Torishima also illustrates the story, making it more visually awesome. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, found in Homer’s Iliad, was known for his cunning and trickery, and he was forced to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity as punishment in the underworld — sisyphean means “of a task such that it can never be completed.” A novel with complex and dense ideas on every page, ultimately it challenges our perspectives from every day things to life itself.
The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin, is book 5 in her Hainish Cycle series. The entire series is more than worth it to read for good storytelling as well as ecological connections. In Forest, a novella, Terrans colonize Athshe (the former translating to dirt and the latter to trees), and in doing so they tear down trees, mine the mountains, and enslave the local natives, whereas the Indigenous folks have no history of this terrifying way of life, so they have not had to rebel before. Le Guin proves that fantasy and science fiction are valid ways to provide storytelling about our own Earth’s environmental issues, for speculative world-building often mirrors our own, providing symbolism, which is a literary tool that attaches meaning to something we already know, giving it more depth and a newer perspective, which sometimes helps us to see something more clearly that has become normalized in our own lives.
The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, takes place around the globe. He’s one of the most prolific environmental science fiction authors around — and his new novel coming is coming out next month, so get ready! It’s a near-future tale that has multiple eyewitnesses giving their perceptions of climate change effects happening in their part of the world, whether it’s a massive heat wave in India, the African Union taking back mines, a flood in Los Angeles, and so on. The novel also has two main characters, Mary, who is the head of the Ministry for the Future (an advocacy group to protect all living creatures) and Frank, the sole survivor of the heat wave in Lucknow. Robinson generally writes with positivity, despite the harsh reality of global warming — such as his novel New York 2140 — one which, to me, seems like an excellent example of solarpunk.
Dune, by Frank Herbert, is classic eco/science fiction. Herbert used fiction to relay some complex relationships among humans, ecology, ideology, and technology. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction called Dune the “first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale”. I blogged more about that here a few years ago after seeing a documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision for filming the movie. I would have loved to see his vision of Dune, but it never came to fruition. As much as I love David Lynch, I never thought his film, the original one in 1984, was as deep as the book. Now a new version is coming out this December, by Denis Villeneuve. The trailer looks pretty good, but I’m reserving judgment until I see it!
About the Author
Mary Woodbury (pen, Clara Hume) was born in Kentucky and now lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and cats. She and her husband enjoy puttering around their big meadow, where they planted 28 trees in 2020 and are growing gardens. Mary’s other hobbies are curating the site Dragonfly.eco, reading, writing, interviewing authors, and spending time on the trail hiking or running. While she hasn’t been able to run lately, due torn ligaments in her left ankle, she dreams of being able to again. She enjoys being in the ocean, having bonfires in the summer, and planning a return to Ireland, if only in her dreams.
With degrees in English literature and anthropology from Purdue University, Mary has worked in writing and publishing for years. Her novel Back to the Garden, first published in 2013 (Moon Willow Press), was printed as a 2nd edition in 2018 and was discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press, 2016), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge, 2014). It was recommended reading by Sierra Club, Queensland University, and LitHub. The second part of the duology, The Stolen Child, is expected out in 2022. Mary is also writing Up the River, a story about an oil spill threatening an aquifer in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains, coming in 2021. Her young adult novella Bird Song, which combines a Greek myth with a climate catastrophe parable, is due out November 4, 2020. Mary is a guest author at Artists and Climate Change and Climate Cultures. In the past she has written for Fjord’s Review, SFF World, and Free Word Centre. She was a contributing writer to Tales from the River: An Anthology of River Literature (Stormbird Press, 2018), winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing; she wrote about her experiences rafting on the Atnarko River, near Bella Coola, BC, in search of grizzly bears hunting salmon. Her work has been translated into Italian for Zest Letteratura Sostenibile and into Chinese for Science Creation Magazine.