Uh-oh, here comes the apocalypse. What should we do? That question, a classic of science fiction, has become especially fraught in the face of climate change, a disaster that’s been unfurling before us for decades and has spawned its own literary genre: climate fiction, a.k.a. cli-fi. Set in a fictionalized future (some in the very near future), these cli-fi novels explore how climate change is poised to forever impact our civilization while offering a revelatory look at how collective and individual action can save us from the impending disaster.
1. Dune // Frank Herbert (1965)
Dune’s setting of the desolate, resource-drained planet of Arrakis has become a standard feature of the cli-fi genre and has influenced countless books and movies in the decades since. But when Herbert wrote the book, the devastating potential of climate change and resource scarcity wasn't even fully understood yet. Still, the thought of this type of ecological disaster did preoccupy the prescient author, who once said in an interview, "I refuse to be put in the position of having to tell my grandchildren, 'I'm sorry there's no more world for you we used it all up.'"
Other environmentally focused science fiction writers of the period shared Herbert's views, including John Brunner, who published the pollution-disaster novel The Sheep Look Up in 1972, and the environmental dystopian novels of J.G Ballard. Though Herbert’s Dune predated the proper launch of cli-fi by decades, it remains the forerunner of the genre and is more relevant in popular culture than ever, thanks in part to the recent 2021 film adaptation starring Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet.
Buy it: Amazon
2. and 3. Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) // Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler’s Parable books were among the first truly cli-fi novels, written at a time when more people were beginning to understand how human behavior was inexorably changing the planet. The first novel, Parable of the Sower, begins in Los Angeles in 2024, and centers on a teenage girl named Lauren who lives with her family in a subdivision built as a safe haven. The social order of the U.S. has come apart in the face of climate disaster, crumbling along the same faultlines of inequality we're seeing during the ongoing COVID epidemic (which perhaps accounts for the resurgence of the novels’ popularity in 2020). Eventually, the gates of Lauren’s home are breached and none of her family makes it out alive. She walks north with some surviving neighbors and builds a community in Northern California.
In the second book, Parable of the Talents, the group endures deep traumas—including enslavement and sexual assault—but through it all, Lauren continues to develop Earthseed, a new religion designed to keep hope alive for the group and eventually for all of humanity. Earthseed is about a precept instead of a deity and holds that “God is change”—an eerily relatable concept in 2022, as the world rocks from one crisis to the next.
Butler was pessimistic about our will to respond to climate change in the 1990s, which is part of what prompted her to write the series. "I think it’s going to stay questionable until we can’t ignore or deny it any longer, because nobody really wants to do the kinds of things we would have to do to live with it," she once said in a 1995 interview.
4. Flight Behavior // Barbara Kingsolver (2012)
A landslide at a monarch butterfly sanctuary in Jalisco, Mexico (which actually happened in 2010), propels the events of Flight Behavior when displaced monarchs wind up on land slated for logging in Tennessee (an entirely fictional event). When biologists show up to study the colony of butterflies, the stage is set for a series of subtle, complicated confrontations between conservationists and the farmers who live in the small Appalachian town.
Flight Behavior is told from the point of view of Dellarobia, a young mother of two and wife of a farmer. The butterflies land on her husband’s family farm, and Dellarobia is eventually hired by the researchers to help collect data on the monarch colony. This setup allows the novel to ask how culture clashes stand in the way of much-needed changes in the relationship between people and the natural world. In a hopeful twist, it also highlights the common ground that exists between opposing sides of the cultural divide.
Buy it: Amazon
5. Orleans // Sherri Smith (2013)
In this near-future YA novel, New Orleans has been hit by a devastating series of hurricanes, starting with Katrina in 2005 and ending with the fictional Jesus in 2019. Attempts to save the city stop in the aftermath of Jesus, when a deadly virus follows the flood. All evacuations end and the coastal South is walled off from the rest of the U.S. and left to die. When a young scientist breaches the wall as part of his search for a cure, he meets a teenage girl fighting to save the life of a newborn child. Their quest leaves him to question his own "safe" side of the wall, where modern life goes on, but so does the social unrest and inequality that plagues our real world.
Buy it: Amazon
6. Clade // James Bradley (2017)
Clade is an unusual cli-fi novel in that the world and most social structures remain intact despite the parade of environmental disasters that shape the book. That’s perhaps because the novel, set in the near future, tracks one family for a generation, which is not quite enough time for the world to dissolve. But there are still more than enough disasters to suffer through in this story, from a flood that ravages England to a virus that sends people around the world fleeing into isolation.
After finishing Clade, Bradley noted one of the unfortunate realities of writing about climate change: "[One] of the things I find most disturbing about writing in the climate space is the sense that reality keeps outpacing your predictions. The final chapter of Clade depends upon something that was pure science fiction at the time I wrote it, but has since begun to happen."
Buy it: Amazon
7. American War // Omar El Akkad (2017)
Following a series of environmental disasters, the U.S. government finally bans fossil fuels in the late 21st century, sparking a second Civil War in the U.S., with Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina seceding from the Union. Other states are simply lost: Florida is underwater while Texas is among several states reclaimed by Mexico.
Climate change is just one facet of the story, which is the way it should be, author Omar El Akkad said: "I think the term ‘climate change fiction,’ as a descriptor of genre, will eventually fall out of use—much the same way we don’t tend to use the phrases ‘love fiction’ or ‘loss fiction’ to describe stories about foundational components of the human experience. The role of fiction in society is to wrestle with what it means to be human, and climate change is a deeply human thing."
Buy it: Amazon
8. Trail of Lightning // Rebecca Roanhorse (2018)
When the world as we know it ends by flood, both the coasts of the U.S. are lost. But the traditional Navajo lands are saved, and the resulting territory, named Dinétah, is protected by a mystical wall that keeps the worst of the lawless humanity of the outside world at bay. Dinétah has its own problems, though, as troubling-making gods and monsters are flourishing in the new world. Luckily, the novel’s heroine, Maggie, is a monster-hunter, bestowed with supernatural powers that make her a skilled killer.
Trail of Lightning is an interesting twist on the question of whether or not an apocalypse is also a chance to build a better world. The Navajo’s land is restored, but suffering, trauma, and conflict don’t end with righting that grave injustice. Pain may be a permanent part of the human condition, but the love story at the heart of the novel suggests that joy might be, too.
Buy it: Amazon
9. Blackfish City // Sam J. Miller (2018)
Sam J. Miller’s work poses a classic question of apocalyptic science fiction: When the world as we know it ends and our governments fail, what new system rushes in to fill the void? In Blackfish City, it’s unvarnished capitalism, which continues to thrive in Qaanaaq, a city built on a platform over the Arctic Ocean. The great cities of the world have drowned and Qaanaaq, a sustainably built haven for the ultra-rich, also becomes a magnet for refugees. Corruption thrives, resulting in stark inequality. Then a woman riding an orca and towing an angry polar bear shows up in the city. With her arrival, the social structure of Qaanaaq mysteriously starts to unravel and just might be replaced by a better system.
Showing change in action is a crucial aspect of Miller's cli-fi, and he says he wants his work to "galvanize and energize people who already know that something is wrong, but might not feel like they have the power to do anything about it."
Buy it: Amazon
10. The Resisters // Gish Jen (2020)
A feature of cli-fi novels is that when the world ends, it’s difficult to blame a single cause—instead, a series of social faultlines come together to create disaster. Climate change, while the flashiest disaster of them all, barely edges out social inequality as a fatal game-changer for humanity in many cli-fi works. In The Resisters, for instance, the world is divided into two groups: the surplus and the netted. In the near-future setting of the novel, work has been almost completely automated. Only the netted are entitled to careers and education, while the surplus are given a basic minimum income and live under the threat of being “cast off,” left to survive as best as they can on boats as the world’s waters rise.
Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, is offered the chance to switch from surplus to netted because she is a baseball prodigy. Baseball is also a handy metaphor, one that lets the novel ask what we’ll do when faced with the world’s decline. Will we give up and walk off the field, or stand up and play like our lives depend on it?
Buy it: Amazon
11. The Ministry for the Future // Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)
Barack Obama selected Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel as one of his favorite books of 2020. It’s easy to see why the book, deeply grounded in climate science and the frustrating complications of legislating change, would appeal to the former president. Much of the work of preventing the loss of a habitable planet is set in Zurich at the Ministry for the Future, a fictional bureaucracy. But Robinson views the threats of climate change from a global perspective. The novel’s opening scene is of a wet-bulb event in India, a climate phenomenon where high heat and high humidity combine to a point that sweat no longer evaporates, limiting the body's ability to cool itself.
An international aid worker somehow survives several days outside in wet-bulb weather, as the population of an entire town dies around him, their organs slowly cooking in the heat. The event that haunts the book is also haunting to readers who know that wet-bulb weather, which has already claimed lives in India and elsewhere, will only become more frequent as temperatures continue to rise. We have reason to despair, Robinson said in an interview with TIME, but despair isn’t an action. "We are right on the verge of starting to mess with a mass extinction event that we can’t undo," he said. "So I think a sense of urgency is justified, and does not replace hope. You need to use hope like a club to beat your opponent."
Buy it: Amazon