Where There’s a Worry, There’s a Novel: The Rise of Climate Change Fiction.
“You chose to go litter picking on your lunch break?!” an incredulous friend asks me on the phone this week.
“Well yes”, I explain. “But it’s not exactly akin to picking up suspicious looking rubbish off the manky streets of London in a drizzly winter. We were wading through the warm lagoon water, in the afternoon sun, picking up washed up bits of plastic from the reefs around the island. All the while spotting sting rays and schools of fish.”
“Ah. Yes, that does sound quite nice actually.”
Plastic is a problem. Here in the Maldives and everywhere around the world. Over 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year, a number which is expected to triple by 2040. More than 90% of all seabirds have pieces of plastic in their stomach and in August this year it was announced that the waters around the Maldives have one of the highest rates of microplastic pollution in the world, posing a severe threat to the marine life in the area and the livelihoods of island communities.
Of course, we all know that plastic is one of the huge self-inflicted problems that humanity is facing. Forest destruction, rising sea levels and climate disaster are also big worries. And where there’s a worry, there’s a novel.
Over the last few years there has been a huge rise in what’s been dubbed ‘cli-fi’ novels, as in climate change fiction. Packed with exciting plots, incredible characters and some home truths about the precarious world we live in, I’ve chosen some of my favourites to share.
1. The Overstory by Richard Powers.
This powerful, anxious and important book quite rightly won the Pulizter Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker in 2019. The novel follows the lives of 9 strangers from all walks of life whose plots mesh and intertwine as they each become involved in the fight against deforestation. It is definitely educational (there are 17 types of trees named on the first page alone) but it is far from dull. There are storylines to make you well up as well as tense and thriller-like moments. Having met the author, I would call this book a labour of love, he really does know everything about living, breathing trees and he most definitely knows how to centre a novel around them.
2. When The Lights Go Out by Carys Bray.
Bray’s brilliantly satirical writing tells the story of a woman whose husband is residing in a pit of despair and worry over rising sea levels and has taken to stock piling food, buying up medicines and making declarations in the street warning passer-by’s of impending doom. It’s a story that describes how the delicate balance of the world can affect the precarious nature of family. 'This is a powerful and truthful story about hope and how to find it.’ The Times.
3. Florida by Lauren Groff.
This is a collection of short stories that span storms, sink holes and snakes, with climate and apocalypse being central themes throughout. In the last story, Yport, Groff writes of the protagonist, “She can’t stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans. Her sons have known only luck so far, though suffering will surely come for them. She feels it nearing the midnight of humanity. Their world is so full of beauty. The last terrible flash of beauty before the long darkness.” This is a book of climate fiction written in a delicious prose.
4. Weather by Jenny Offill.
Weather is another story of climate anxiety creeping up on an everyday family. Lizzie narrates with witty and dry observations. She takes on the role of fielding emails for a former academic-turned-environmental-futurist and gets pulled in to the deep waters of being a climate worrier. She preps for the worst, learns survival skills and the rest, but life carries on as normal alongside. There is an extramarital love interest, a problematic brother and a son to be anxious about. As the New Scientist commented, “The book is most powerful in its articulation of ordinary anxieties.”
5. Margaret Atwood. I have to mention the trilogy by Margaret Atwood published from 2003 – 2013, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam.
The premise is a dystopian world where "social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event.” As ever, Atwood’s storytelling is expert and she is a passionate activist in the ever-present struggle against climate emergency, and has said that climate disasters will hit women the hardest.
If you are overwhelmed by facts and figures, then choose one of these brilliant books which often highlight what the little people can do in the fight against climate emergency, knowing that keeping the conversation going is one of the most important things we can do.