The world is on track to be uninhabitable in a matter of decades. Every child born inherits a ticking time bomb. No, I’m not pitching you a trippy sci-fi or fantasy story. I’m talking about the big blue marble, third rock from the sun, our only home: Earth.
Climate crisis is a fact that folks in the U.S., in particular, don’t really seem to have the capacity to comprehend or address — at least not on the large scale. Activists like Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, certainly understand the severity of the situation, but even the nations that understand the realities of climate change aren’t acting fast enough to do anything to mitigate the effects. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is currently occupied with raising a middle finger to the entirety of our planet and future generations.
I’m sorry to say it, folks, but we’re pretty much screwed.
And no one seems to understand the depths of this hellish state quite like feminist sci-fi and fantasy authors. In fact, the work of many of these writers could easily be described as speculative cli-fi, an abbreviation for climate fiction. Cli-fi is any fiction, speculative or otherwise, that deals with the climate crisis and the various dystopias created from climate-based disasters.
Walking in the footsteps of the likes of Octavia E. Butler and Ursula Le Guin, contemporary authors face our bleak future through fictionalized lenses that allow them to address the climate crisis and our hesitancy to do anything about it.
Not only do these six authors take seriously the threat of climate crisis, but they also offer thoughtful, imaginative — even hopeful — solutions to our greatest problem: What do we do when we’ve ruined the only inhabitable planet we know?
Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders addresses the climate crisis in All the Birds in the Sky (2016) and The City in the Middle of the Night (2019). The former novel takes place in San Francisco during a period of intense ecological destabilization. Her main characters are both determined to find a solution to the world’s coming undone, but they have two very different approaches. One is a witch who can talk to birds and perform incredible magic, and the other is a brilliant scientist who creates an independent A.I. Anders breaks the rules about keeping sci-fi and fantasy separate in this surprisingly hilarious exploration of love, magic, science, and the end of the world.
In City in the Middle of the Night, Anders takes us to the fictional planet of January. Humanity relocated to January when the Earth became no longer inhabitable. The planet is cast half in full sun and half in full darkness — and humanity can only survive where the two meet. For some reason, however, the formerly hospitable planet is becoming less and less welcoming to its human residents, and no one could have guessed why. The most chilling — and perhaps prescient — aspect of this novel is how the humans facing ecological destabilization turn to fascism.
Anders on the climate crisis and our future: “I always say that optimism and pessimism about the future really boiled down to optimism and pessimism about human nature. Are we going to destroy ourselves? Or are we going to be able to work together and fix some of the problems that we’ve caused?”
Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series takes place after massive flooding has destroyed much of the former United States. The flooding, caused by a combination of fracking and other human-made climate disasters, has fundamentally changed how the former-U.S. operates. What remains has been divided into new territories, including the anarchist (but not in a cool way) Knifetown where anything goes — organ-harvesting included — and Dinetah, the Navajo people’s land. At first glance, the climate crisis may seem to only play a background role, but as the series continues it becomes more and more clear that global climate catastrophe and the colonization that created it still live inside of and determine the fates of the characters, particularly when it comes to water.
Roanhorse on climate crisis: “I once heard someone say that Indigenous peoples’ lives were a land-based love story. That, in some languages, the way to say ‘I love you’ could be broken down to, ‘I care about you the way I care about the land.’ Climate change feels like watching the inevitable decline of someone you love, and knowing that if we don’t do something quickly, your loved one will die.”
Francesca G. Varela
In Call of the Sun Child, Francesca G. Varela brings to life the Circadia Stable Living Facility, a dome that houses the remnants of civilization without sunlight. For 150 years, people have remained inside, fearing the sun and outsiders, but one girl can’t help but wonder what lies outside the dome’s walls. The pursuit of new information leads the young girl to discover things inside Circadia Stable Living Facility aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
If you like the sound of that, make sure to check out Varela’s Blue Mar, which will be released in 2020. According to Varela, who spoke with SYFY WIRE on Facebook, “The story is set in the near future, where the effects of climate change are accelerating, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been geo-engineered into an actual island. The story focuses on two half-Latina sisters as they visit El Salvador, the land of their ancestors and a place that is highly affected by climate chaos. It's a story about identity, and how we connect with nature and heritage when faced with inevitable loss.”
In the Worldbreaker Saga, Kameron Hurley tells the story of a parallel dimension colonizing another dimension due to their world becoming uninhabitable. What unfolds is a deeply harrowing story of survival at all costs. While the world is ending around them and a formidable invasive force is infiltrating their world, individual civilizations are still at war, pointlessly groping for supremacy. It’s also an engrossing tale of power and betrayal that turns many classic fantasy tropes on their head. The final book in the trilogy, The Broken Heavens, arrives later this year, so brace yourselves for awesome.
Hurley on climate crisis and humanity: “Humanity didn’t survive this long because of its worst impulses. We survived this long because, despite all of that, we learned how to work together. Being grim and nihilistic is boring. Being grim isn’t how you create the future. Being grim means rejecting the idea of a future altogether. I would rather seek to understand why some people choose to do the right thing even when it’s not popular, even when the world is collapsing all around them.”
Lauren C. Teffeau
In Implanted, Lauren C. Teffeau explores what would happen if humanity was forced to live in a dome to survive. Life inside the dome reflects our society, where people live in stratified bands, with the rich having the most access to sunlight and the poor living in perpetual twilight. One city, New Worth, is on the brink of emerging from the dome and reentering life “outside,” but not everyone is game to leave the structure, safety, and control of New Worth — and some are willing to kill to keep their secrets and their power.
Teffeau on the climate crisis in her fiction: “I wanted to explore what happens after the coming climate apocalypse, a time where people have had to retreat from the natural world. The traumatic upheaval would be felt for generations and affect the city’s design and development as living memory fades and approximations and reinterpretations become all that’s leftover.”
Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a breathtaking and devastating tale of survival, genderfluidity, and slavery aboard a generation ship traveling for a hundred years through space. The reason for their exodus is familiar at this point: The planet we resided on is no longer habitable. What is truly unique about Solomon’s work, however, is how they explore the real-world impacts of anti-Black environmental racism in a fictional setting, all the while doing justice to both. If you’re already a fan of An Unkindness of Ghosts, make sure to read Solomon’s “St. Juju,” a short story about fungus, trash-eating, and a kind of hope that reflects human resiliency.
Solomon on climate crisis: “Lately, I’ve been really intrigued by the idea of the end of the world — how it’s never really real, though it may feel like it is to us living in the midst of climate change as we are. Except on the scale of billions of years, according to the kind of timeline where suns birth and die and so on, worlds are quite adaptive creatures. Earth has had five or so ice ages. Dinosaurs have come and gone, many dying, others living on as birds. Mass extinction is par for the planet’s course.
“I talk about this not to downplay the part capitalism and settler colonialism, specifically, have wreaked havoc on ecosystems, disrupted necessary balances, and killed off glorious, wondrous creatures with all the consideration of swatting a fly, but as a way to hold on to a bit of hope. This world is resilient and moldable. It can take myriad shapes, even when it looks like there is nothing beautiful to hold on to.”