Unlike climate change itself, the propensity for writers to gravitate to the subject is natural. Among the seemingly endless range of problems the world must address, it is the one that towers over all others, the one that will, barring dramatic changes in how the world operates, render all others insignificant in the face of rising seas, prolific wet-bulb temperatures (a combination of temperature and humidity that renders the body unable to cool down and therefore unable to not die), mass extinction, food chain collapse, etc.
It’s easy to understand why so many writers are compelled to address the subject, but perhaps it’s not as intuitive why a reader would want to read fiction about it. Perhaps reading such novels will inspire action, and perhaps those actions will help. But also, most of us read fiction for pleasure, and these books, while often horrifying, are also massively entertaining. If something’s going to render massive swaths of our planet uninhabitable, the least it could do is inspire some entertaining fiction.
Think of the children! Lydia Millet has, in “A Children’s Bible.” Prior to a calamitous storm, the novel is an exquisitely written comedy about several families sharing a vacation home. After the storm, it is a terrifying thriller about evading resource-starved murderers. Before things get scary, one child becomes enamored with a bible meant for children. His takeaway: God is nature, poetry (or art) is the holy spirit, and Jesus is science. As in, if we believe in science, we can be saved.
Another writer that thought a lot about children and wrote a beautiful book is Richard Powers. In “Bewilderment” a neurodivergent child, deeply grieving the loss of his mother, is offered an experimental therapy that might provide him relief by allowing him to train his mind to mirror his mother’s mind at an exact moment of happiness. The procedure works, and the child channels his brilliant and unusual mind into doing what he can to save the animals being driven to extinction. Then funding for the therapy is cut, and the novel builds to a devastating conclusion.
If you’d prefer to spend time with a slightly older but also emotionally devastated crowd, Charlotte McConaghy’s “Migrations” is highly recommended. Our narrator is singularly driven to follow the last birds in the world on their migration to Antarctica. What inspires her devotion isn’t fully revealed until near the novel’s end, and the way the book parcels out its mysteries is one of the many delights that make its myriad heartbreaks endurable.
A second civil war rages in Omar El Akkad’s “American War.” This one is fought because the south refuses to abandon the use of fossil fuels even as huge portions of their lands are lost to the ocean. The reader watches as a wonderful child transforms over a few decades into a monstrous terrorist. Her journey breaks your heart, but her destination remains no less despicable.
Climate change will create millions of refugees, and John Lanchester’s chilling “The Wall” demonstrates one plausible response to the crisis: the construction of a wall that encircles England. All young adults must spend two years on the wall killing those that would try to breach it. If they fail, the “defenders” are deposited into the sea from which the “others” came, hence are now “others” themselves. In this novel, like in life, much of your lot depends on where you were born and where you’re allowed to stay.
There are many words one could use to describe the world’s response to climate change’s looming calamities. Two of them, given the stakes, are absurd and surreal. Enter “Harrow” by Joy Williams. In this novel, following an ecological apocalypse and the closure of her bizarre boarding school, a child tries to track down her mother and finds a resort full of elderly would-be eco-terrorists harboring largely unfulfilled and always ineffectual aims of punishing those that have rendered the world a poisoned place. It’s funny!
If you’re looking for a novel that lays out how we might avoid reaping the worst of what humanity has sowed, I know of none more thorough than the epic, “The Ministry for the Future.” Beginning with a wet-bulb event that kills 20 million people in a single day, and following one aid worker traumatized by the disaster and one head of an organization charged with avoiding as much of climate change’s impact as possible, Kim Stanley Robinson explains the litany of methods that must be used to keep our planet largely habitable.