Recently, I've read quite a bit of climate fiction, which I think is generally best described as near-future sci-fi. Authors imagine the human and environmental impact of catastrophic climate events that smack eerily of present-day headlines, only
more extreme. As a reader, these are often disturbing because the disasters are easily imaginable in the real world. Droughts abound the world over. The mercury keeps creeping higher every summer. Biodiversity is under threat with insects as the canaries in the coal mine.
Science fiction is often called the literature of ideas. Do clifi authors offer remedies to climate change? Yes. But more importantly, they offer hope that maybe, just maybe if humanity comes together on a global scale, the impacts of climate change can be mitigated. Perhaps their greatest contribution is reminding us that if we do nothing, everyone will suffer as temperatures soar.
American War by Omar El Akkad is a downright depressing book. At least, I found it so. It's not for the faint of heart. Fifty years in the future, oil is outlawed in the United States, but that hasn't stopped everyone from burning it. Climate change causes economic and social turmoil leading to a second civil war.
The story follows Sarat from her childhood in Louisiana to her indoctrination in a refugee camp to her finally living out her days as a broken woman, haunted by what has been done to her and what she's done to others. I don't recall how old Sarat is by the end of the novel, but I don't think it's much over thirty.
El Akkad doesn't dwell on the causes of climate change or offer solutions. He mercilessly points out that when people lose hope, they can be steered to extremes with horrific consequences. In American War, a changing climate is the backdrop and foundation for tragedy.
In contrast, Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson does proffer a solution—geoengineering. The only issue, manipulating the climate has global consequences. What might be good for South Texas could prove devastating for Punjab, the breadbasket of India. As you might imagine, everyone is running climate models, and not everyone is pleased with the results.
The solution or shot in the dark, depending on your perspective, to battle climate change in Termination Shock is dispersing sulfur dioxide in the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays into space. This idea has been around for years and is considered cheap (as in relatively inexpensive compared to other mitigation schemes). It's so affordable even a billionaire could finance it. Is it safe in the long run? Maybe, maybe not. Stephenson doesn't offer certainties or easy answers. What he does offer is the hope a solution might be out there. It won't be a perfect solution. It won't end all suffering or bring back the animals that have gone extinct. But if we dare to pursue a solution, we might save ourselves.
In The Ministry for The Future, Kim Stanley Robinson reminds us that the future generations and the poor will suffer the most from climate disasters. This novel is perhaps the most horrifying and hopeful of the bunch. Robinson doesn't pull any punches with frightening events in this novel: heatwaves kill tens of millions in a matter of days, and terrorists bring an end to air travel by using swarms of drones to take down jumbo jets worldwide. But it's also a hopeful book in the end, perhaps naïvely so. Climate change is such a huge problem only global cooperation can tackle it. By the end of this novel, the world is finally coming together as one to combat climate change. Pipe dream? Time will tell. I can tell you this. If you're going to read one clifi novel, it should be this one.
Kim Stanley Robinson imagines New York City inundated with water in New York 2140. Robinson identifies how money is invested as paramount to tackling climate change. Instead of rewarding investors for economic growth, he proposes a scheme for rewarding investments that have a measurable positive impact on the planet. It's an interesting idea and only one facet of this fascinating novel.
If you want to dip your toes into climate fiction with a read that isn't too depressing, New York 2140 is a fantastic choice. Much of the novel is concerned with the practicalities of living in a perpetually flooded city bombarded by enormous storms. Yes, there are disasters and other nastiness, but these aren't dwelled on. Characters are more concerned about the happenings in their neighborhoods than they are about the existential threat of climate change.