In a 2021 piece for the Los Angeles Times, “Climate Crisis Is Here; So Is Climate Fiction. Don’t You Dare Call It a Genre,” novelist Lydia Millet, who often addresses environmental issues in her work, wrote that when it comes to the topic of climate change, “we don’t have the luxury of genrefication, with its thrilling rejections of social reality and its reliance on satisfyingly happy endings. All that’s written about these matters of survival, all that’s imagined and supposed,” she continued, “demands our collective attention.”
Boston College English professor Min Hyoung Song, in Climate Lyricism (Duke Univ., Feb.), proposes that reading literature with an eye toward how such works acknowledge, allude to, or obscure the pervasiveness of the climate crisis “can make it easier to think about climate change without feeling completely powerless. We must learn to read its signs and make sense of its effects on our immediate surroundings.”
Expressing a sentiment in line with Millet’s, Song says, “There’s an argument to be made that all contemporary literature is now climate literature.” The novels discussed here help make the case.
Norwegian children’s author Maja Lunde’s first novel for adults, The History of Bees, was published in the U.S. in 2017 and follows three generations of beekeepers, past, present, and future. It won the Norwegian Bookseller’s Prize, was a major bestseller in Germany, and is the first volume in a planned quartet of similarly themed books. HarperVia published Lunde’s follow-up, The End of the Ocean, in 2020, and this month is releasing The Last Wild Horses, which PW’s starred review called a “standout” that “should win her wider attention in the U.S.”
The novel alternates between 1881, 1992, and 2064, when mass extinction and food shortages are the norm. “It’s interesting when people call Lunde a dystopian writer,” says Tara Parsons, v-p and associate publisher at HarperVia. “She’s taking things that are already happening to the next level. Her writing about horses applies to a lot of animals that have gone through extinction periods.”
Aquariums by J.D. Kurtness (Rare Machines, Apr.), translated from the French by Pablo Strauss, likewise connects the past to the present and future. The story of Émeraude, a marine biologist working to save ocean ecosystems by recreating them in zoos—or, as she narrates, she seeks to “repatriate a few survivors before their world is destroyed”—is interspersed with tales of her ancestors. Kurtness, who lives in Montreal and is a member of the Innu nation, received the Indigenous Voices Award for French Prose in 2018 for her debut novel, Of Vengeance.
Julia Glass set her newest work, Vigil Harbor (Pantheon, May), in an imminent future, in a New England coastal town based on Marblehead, Mass., where she lives. “Fiction writers are imagining environmental catastrophe on a global scale, but that’s not in my wheelhouse,” Glass says. Instead, she focuses on the domestic—family life, affairs, divorce—amid a long pandemic, terrorist attacks, and threats of flooding.
“I wanted to write about a near future in which the volume has been turned up,” she continues. “This is a town where houses are three centuries old and have withstood hurricanes, but geographical or environmental privilege won’t last forever. Those of us who are lucky to live where we do, whose jobs are not terribly influenced directly by climate change, will be vulnerable to forces we don’t even know. That’s where I was coming from. One of the main characters is a marine biologist, trying to protect the liminal zones of the coast and surviving salt marshes—it’s a losing battle. I mentioned to somebody that one of my characters was a depressed marine biologist. What marine biologist wouldn’t be depressed right now?”
With My Volcano (Two Dollar Radio, Mar.), John Elizabeth Stintzi joins the ranks of authors playing with the mythic proportions of the climate crisis through fantastical imaginings. The novel’s 232 micro-chapters cohere to transform “the chaotic present into a fiery, transcendent vision of the future,” PW’s starred review said. “It’s a brilliant achievement.”
After a volcano sprouts in Central Park (“about ten Empire State Buildings tall”), some observers refuse to see the rupture as a real or imminent threat, even as it forces climate refugees to flee no-longer-habitable communities. Others deny its existence altogether: “Perhaps it’s not a volcano, actually. Perhaps it is a landfill,” one character muses. Stintzi says the allegorical, nonlinear novel aims “to show how small the world is, which is really important in thinking about climate change—everyone being under the same volcano.”
Erica Ferencik uses magical realism to comment on the climate crisis in Girl in Ice (Scout, Mar.). Val Chesterfield, a linguist grappling with her twin brother’s suicide, ventures to the Arctic on a mission to communicate with a girl thawed alive from a glacier. “Trenchant details about catastrophic climate change bolster a creative plot featuring authentic characters, particularly the anxious, flawed Val,” PW’s starred review said, concluding that “Ferencik outdoes Michael Crichton in the convincing way she mixes emotion and science.”
Set in the 2030s, Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman (Soho, July) forecasts a compromised future of floating cities and toxic wastelands. After a mining company destroys the habitat of the world’s most intelligent fish—the venomous lumpsucker—environmental impact coordinator Mark Halyard enters the orbit of extinction industry scientist Karin Resaint, who uses DNA sequencing to bring back species. Mark Doten, executive editor and v-p at Soho Press, says the “darkly humorous novel” shows where we’re headed “if runaway capitalism continues unchecked, and if we continue to respond to climate change and other forms of global destruction with largely ineffectual market-based solutions.”
In One Potato by Tyler McMahon (Keylight, Apr.), GMO spuds grown in a fictional South American country are blamed for the bizarre and absurd genetic anomalies showing up in children. The book critiques genetic modification, monoculture, and the ways in which environmental factors contribute to sociopolitical collapse, especially in developing nations. “This singular, monolithic food system was built for the 20th century, not the 21st, and isn’t very flexible,” McMahon says. “It’s directly involved in climate change.”
The political climate
While many factors contribute to climate change, says Jon Raymond, author of Denial (S&S, Aug.), it’s not necessarily a case of good guys vs. bad. “The simple moral lines of the last few years have gotten really exhausting,” he says. “Climate change is not something that allows for easy feelings of virtue or judgment.”
His novel begins in 2052, 20 years after the Upheavals—a movement that led to the end of fossil fuels—and the Toronto Trials, in which powerful oil executives and lobbyists were imprisoned for the environmental damage they caused. Journalist John Henry hears that a fugitive of these “crimes against life” trials, Robert Cave, has been spotted in Guadalajara, Mexico. Henry’s trip to Guadalajara to expose Cave, who’s wanted for a host of environmentally destructive business interests, instead leads to a surprising connection.
Canadian farmer and environmental activist Aric McBay’s first novel, Kraken Calling (Seven Stories, June), is a speculative look at how climate change might lead to violence. In 2051, the environment is ruined to the point where, McBay writes, a “haze of charcoal smoke” hanging in the air constitutes a “beautiful morning.” (Or, as one character wonders, “How the hell did we let things get this bad?”)
Seven Stories Press founder and publisher Dan Simon, who edited the novel, says McBay has captured “a North American country where the deteriorating climate situation stresses the government and the government terrorizes its own citizens to keep things under control.” Story lines bounce between the 2020s and the early 2050s, so that “a generation of revolutionaries in the first part can look back at themselves from the second part and see what it was that made them stop short of transforming their society when they had the chance.”
The five interlinked novelettes of Our Shared Storm (Fordham Univ., Mar.) by Andrew Dana Hudson, a sustainability researcher and fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, are “part science communication, part futurist call to action,” PW’s review said. Though some may find that the “swaths of technical exposition and an academic introduction and afterword explaining the real climate modeling behind the fiction integrate awkwardly,” the review concluded that Hudson “skillfully grounds the poignant iterating structure with thoughtful worldbuilding, well-balanced prose, and a keen sense of human motivation.”
Rituals of Hope
Before writing Here Lies (Grove, Mar.), says Oliva Clare Friedman, who grew up in Baton Rouge and teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, “I was thinking a lot about storm surges and more frequent hurricanes.” The novel envisions 2042 Louisiana: the state’s graveyards are closed, burials banned, and cremations mandated. “Mechanical arms ushered bodies through the ovens,” narrates protagonist Alma, who is seeking her mother’s ashes. “When our cemeteries were taken, we lost the ritual of loving our dead.”
Friedman focuses on people rather than on the environmental disaster itself. “This novel is about grief and mourning,” she says. “I think about it as being cathartic and hopeful.” PW’s review noted that the author is light on the dystopian details, “a gamble that pays off by leaving room to show how her characters cling to an old-time sense of ‘kicking and living,’ as Alma puts it, in the face of catastrophic changes.”
Erin Swan’s Walk the Vanished Earth (Viking, June) spans seven generations, beginning on the Kansas prairie in 1873 where Samson hunts buffalo, brimming with hope for what bounty the land will bring. Two hundred years later, in a colony on Mars, Samson’s half-human, half-alien descendant Moon is distantly aware of Earth, now entirely underwater, and considering whether to become a mother and help the human race populate a new planet. Told in diaries and histories in addition to straightforward narrative, the novel’s patchwork depicts planetary collapse and humankind’s interconnectedness over centuries.
In Eleutheria by Allegra Hyde (Vintage, Mar.), Willa Marks deems herself “too wise for cynicism” and flees her conspiracy theorist parents in Boston for the island of Eleutheria. There, the inhabitants of utopian Camp Hope are “modern pilgrims,” Hyde writes—“environmental devotees who’d heard the call for revolution” and view climate change as “enemy number one.” PW’s review praised the novel’s “exquisite prose and keen insights into the limits of idealism and activism,” calling it “a worthy entry into the growing field of environmental fiction.”
Hyde says she was interested in possibilities of “how people might try to come together, and what it takes to have society mobilized on a mass scale to take on this crisis.” She, like other authors and editors we spoke with, hopes readers emerge with a sense of understanding that “even if it’s not your city being flooded, we are all in this together—past, present, and future.”
Below, more on climate change:
'The Raw Data of Someone Else's Life': PW Talks with Amy Brady and Tajja Isen
The coeditors of the anthology 'The World as We Knew It' (Catapult, June) discuss their collaboration.
Environmental Studies: New Books on Climate Change
Narrative nonfiction, memoirs, and essay collections lend perspective on understanding and mitigating the climate crisis.
Into the Woods: New Books on Climate Change
Forthcoming books explore the overt and subtle links between trees and the climate crisis.