Spoiler alert — no happy endings in cli-fi’s foreboding futures
The emerging genre dwells on the catastrophic effects of climate crises
The summer of 2023 was the northern hemisphere’s hottest since global records began in 1880, according to Nasa.
Exceptional heat swept across much of the world, resulting in deadly wildfires in Canada and Hawaii, and searing heatwaves in South America, Japan, Europe, and the US. This record warmth was fuelled in part by high sea surface temperatures and continues a long-term trend of warming.
As we enter the dog days of summer on this side of the planet, now is a good time to catch up on some of the best recent cli-fi. Spoiler alert: there are no happy endings in climate fiction.
In the not-so-distant future, in a world grappling with the impending catastrophe of climate change, Stephen Markley’s The Deluge weaves a compelling tale that takes us on a journey through time, from the days of the Obama administration to a bleak and turbulent 2040s.
At its heart is a group of individuals whose lives have been irrevocably shaped by the spectre of climate-related chaos. There’s a brilliant and visionary researcher, a charismatic political figure and her partner who share an unwavering commitment to the climate cause, an eco-terrorist and provocateur, a former OxyContin addict on the path to recovery, a marketing expert who finds herself navigating a world transformed, a Hollywood actor turned religious zealot, and a neurodivergent, gay mathematician who brings his unique perspective to the unfolding drama.
The scenario is chilling and all-too-plausible: a catastrophic six-degree spike in global temperatures has led humanity to the brink of disaster. The intertwined fates and personal struggles of Markley’s large cast bring to life the reality of a planet in peril. In his realistic, thought-provoking and nuanced dystopia, he explores humanity’s desperate struggle for survival, painting a vivid and harrowing picture of a future where supertyphoons and climate-related challenges are the new norm.
Scientific American says: “Markley’s dark depiction of the near future is filled with vivid descriptions of climate catastrophes, but his intricate network of complex characters balances precision with pathos, offering a kaleidoscopic view of humanity’s fraught relationship with its changing planet.”
• In the wake of a world altered by natural disasters and government abandonment, Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel The Light Pirate is set in the fictional town of Rudder, in the once-sunshine state of Florida, where relentless hurricanes and flooding have left residents grappling with the harsh reality of survival.
Divided into four parts — power, water, light and time — the narrative unfolds over the course of a decade. Central to the story is Wanda, a child born in a hurricane, whose destiny is intimately entwined with the changing world around her. She has a mystical ability to manipulate light, and a connection with the bodies of water that have so profoundly reshaped the world.
Wanda and her neighbour are self-sufficient, but when intruders breach their sanctuary, they construct a towering treehouse as their fortress. The story takes an unforeseen turn when Wanda stumbles upon a peaceful and thriving community.
Hinting at the possibility of hope in the face of desolation, The Light Pirate posits the potential for a more communal future amid the remnants of a world marked by uncertainty and despair.
Associated Press describes it as “a reverent observation of nature’s power”. “The novel rewards readers with peace and solace after persevering through a series of tragedies that feel too close to home. The Light Pirate is a symphony of beauty and heartbreak, survival and loneliness. Combined, it’s a haunting melody of nature.”
• In the summer of 2017, a woman named Signe, aged 70, embarked on a perilous voyage across the ocean in a sailboat named Aurora, her mission to reunite with the love of her life.
In a future world in turmoil, David and his young daughter, Lou, find themselves fleeing the scorched and war-ravaged landscapes of southern Europe. Their journey, like Signe’s, is a quest for family in a world torn apart by droughts, wildfires, and resource scarcity.
Amid this desolation, David and Lou stumble upon a curious sight — an abandoned sailboat in a parched French garden, bearing the name Aurora. The discovery sets in motion a tale that weaves together the indomitable human spirit and the forces of nature.
Through the interlinked stories of these three protagonists, Norwegian author Maja Lunde’s The End of the Ocean draws upon the perspectives of Signe, David, and Lou to explore environmental challenges — from the gradual disappearance of glaciers to the harsh realities of drought and food shortages.
The novel is a poignant, profound call to action to protect and preserve the Earth, the only home we have.
• Blackfish City by Sam J Miller is set against the post-climate war backdrop of an artificial city floating in the Arctic Circle.
Populated by the refugees from nations destroyed by social upheaval and environmental disasters, it was once an extraordinary feat of mechanical and social engineering, but is now besieged by corruption and crime, and simmering with unrest.
Eerie and disconcerting, it has thematic echoes of dystopian classics like Blade Runner. The city is as complex as it is unique: a sexually transmitted affliction, known as the Breaks, fatally afflicts its carriers with the memories of the previously infected, while the transformative technology of nano-bonding enables humans to bond with animals and vice versa. The fun starts with the arrival of a woman riding an orca beside their polar bear companion.
•Once more to the icy expanse of the Arctic Circle, in How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, Dr Cliff Miyashiro carries on his late daughter’s groundbreaking research.
Little does he know that his journey into the frozen depths will lead to the discovery of a previously unknown virus, hidden for centuries beneath the melting permafrost. A devastating plague is unleashed, reshaping life on Earth for generations to come.
Among the survivors is an aspiring comedian who finds solace in making terminally ill children laugh at a unique theme park. In another corner of this transformed world, a scientist, haunted by his inability to save his son, bonds with his test subject, a pig that acquires the gift of speech.
The narrative unfolds across centuries, featuring a diverse cast of characters whose stories explore the depths of human resilience, the enduring power of love, and our innate capacity for reinvention.
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