I love to read good social/political science fiction. It has a special way of exploring big issues that is accessible, personal, and imaginative. The best social science fiction stories are cast in an incredibly detailed vision of a different time and place that is sufficiently similar to our own that we can imagine being in that world.
Recently, I have been searching for social science fiction that addresses issues and possible futures related to climate change. Others, such as the New Yorker, have engaged in this search as well, because cli-fi was difficult to find (even though some really good examples already existed). However, whole lists of cli-fi books now abound:
This blog will discuss two cli-fi books that I have read and recommend. It will not suggest a list of books. It will not include any spoilers about the stories in the books. Instead, it will try to say enough about the books to give you a reason to want to read them. At least it will explain why I think they are worth reading. Based on what I say, you may decide that one or both of them is not right for you.
One thing you need to know about my criteria in selecting books to read is that I want to read books in which the characters care about each other. I am not interested in books filled with evil people. I am not interested in books where people “solve” problems by killing each other. I read the first Game of Thrones book, but that was all I could take. Of course, there may be some killing, but if that is the primary mode of problem resolution, I am not interested. I am also not interested in books that resolve problems with magic. I am not a Harry Potter fan.
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler, is the least uplifting of my two choices. In it, climate change has led to a desperate economic situation in which some people are living within walled communities to try to protect themselves from those who are even more desperate. Policing is a business, not a public service; and most people do not trust the police anyway.
The protagonist is a black young woman, Lauren Oya Olamina, who has a special ability called “hyperempathy” (she feels others’ pain, literally) which has both advantages and disadvantages in a world filled with cruelty. She is focused on preparing for the hard, new future. She learns to use guns, studies how to live off the land, collects maps, etc. She also develops her own religion, which she calls Earthseed.
When the hoards from outside her walled southern California community come over the walls and the safety that life afforded her is lost, she begins a journey northward toward another place and another future. Along the way, she encounters both new friends and enemies. I will not ruin the story by recounting it further. You should also know that this is the first book of an intended series (the Parable, or Earthseed Series). There is a second installment in the series (the Nebula Award winning Parable of the Talents), but the third was never finished.
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson, has a more optimistic view of our ability to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Robinson was cited as a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine in 2008. In this book, New York has been inundated by the rising waters, but it is still full of people living in tall buildings on the floors above the water line. People get around town in boats of various sizes and capabilities. Buildings have also collapsed or been knocked down by the rising waters and extreme weather events, but people cleverly adapt to each new challenge.
The people in this novel also show a lot of caring for each other, whether it is in their decisions about how to share space in high rise condominiums or what they do to help others survive specific impacts of climate change. People still fall in love, make fools of themselves, search for treasures, and make life-changing career decisions. All within the context of a radically changed New York City.
There is no great arc of development in this story, but each character undergoes his or her own arc of change. As I read the book (a 600 plus page tome), I found that I cared for almost every character and accepted their weaknesses as well as their abilities.
Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a rather grim but realistic story about the impacts of climate change. Robinson’s New York 2140 is more enjoyable, but you have to accept its rather optimistic premises to stay on the ride. Both are well worth your time and attention.