The best climate fiction books to explore climate change through story

The Books I Picked & Why

Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler

Book cover of Parable of the Sower

Why this book?

Parable of the Sower, written way back in 1993, is set in a 2024 California ravaged by fires, authoritarianism, gun violence, and other fallout from a rapidly changing planet. This novel pulls it all together, connecting the dots of climate change, social injustice, and race and gender disparities. Butler, a black female writer, and the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship, was eerily prescient, predicting not just the worldwide rise of fascism, but even our high-tech world, where virtual reality is used as recreational escapism. Her female protagonist wrestles with how to create a safer and more equitable future, which might not be possible on this planet. After you read this, read the sequel, Parable of the Talents.

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By Ian McEwan

Book cover of Solar

Why this book?

I like a good satire and I love Ian McEwan. Set in academia, Professor Beard, with his Nobel prize in physics clutched to his chest, is offended by the idea that art might be as good a tool for curing a sick planet as his analytical facts. For all his scientific knowledge, he fails to understand that art has power. His younger colleague tries his best, explaining how images created by art bypass the modern cerebral cortex and go straight to our ancient limbic brain which controls memory and emotion, the part of the brain where we process value judgments, judgments that exert a strong influence on our behavior. This book makes the case for climate change as an important subject in literature, art, and music, because we need to touch hearts before we can create change. And it’s pretty funny on top of it.

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The Rings of Saturn

By W.G. Sebald, Michael Hulse

Book cover of The Rings of Saturn

Why this book?

Every “best of” list should have at least one book in translation, so I give you The Rings of Saturn by the German writer W. G. Sebald. This amazing genre-bending book is set in England and is called a novel, but it reads more like a history book, a geography textbook, and a travelogue combined in one walker’s head. It is a moving contemplation on the deep past and inner workings of the planet and the effects of humans on the natural landscape. Go, take the long walk with this brilliant mind and return with an altered and educated perspective, because the more we know about the place of humans in the world, the greater our insight into how we ought to live our lives.

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The Overstory

By Richard Powers

Book cover of The Overstory

Why this book?

I love it when a book of fiction makes an effort to connect us to the inner lives of non-human beings, and in the case of The Overstory, it is trees. We have evolved with them, and as Powers illustrates in this novel, we can’t live without them. They capture the carbon we have ill-advisedly released into the atmosphere. Trees make the air breathable and provide the shade to keep the planet cool enough for human survival, but yet we insist on destroying them in the name of progress. As with most of the natural world, they’d be better off without us, one way or another. As Powers reminds us, Nature always bats last. His characters put their lives on the line in order to save not just the trees, but ourselves. This winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019 is a beautiful call to activism.

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Fire and Water: Stories from the Anthropocene

By Mary Fifield, Kristin Thiel

Book cover of Fire and Water: Stories from the Anthropocene

Why this book?

Not all fiction comes in the form of a novel. The most innovative writing is often found in short fiction, so I’m also going to recommend Fire & Water, an anthology of climate fiction. There are 17 stories from around the world (disclosure: including one of my own) - from a Sámi woman who studies Alaska fish populations to a teenager living through a permanent drought in Australia - all wrestling with what humans have done to the planet and what it means for the survival of our species. These stories do what literature does best, helping us grasp complex topics through use of narrative and image as we teeter on the unknown. After reading this wide range of voices, you will feel a little less alone in a challenging world.

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