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The History and Future of Climate Change Novels

  • By Mary Woodbury
  • 31st January 2017
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For the launch of Realistic Utopias – a collection of new writing on our rapidly changing world – we asked Mary Woodbury to take us through the history (and future) of books exploring our environment and climate change.

It really goes back to the earliest cave drawings that depicted animals and other scenes from the wild.

The history of fiction genres and authors dealing with climate change is diverse. To understand the evolution of such novels, it is helpful to learn a little about the roots of eco-fiction overall. Eco-fiction covers nature (non-human) and environmental (human impact) novels and, though the field became popular in the 1970s, it really goes back to the earliest cave drawings that depicted animals and other scenes from the wild. From there, early oral and illustrative (and later written) fiction, with nature or the environment central to the story, has joined the ranks, including a wide range of styles and genres, from classical literature to science fiction.

In the Beginning

Climate change themes in science fiction have a varied background, beginning in the 18th century with weather-control fiction, and evolving through modern times – including a period of disaster and cautionary fiction, which is usually presented in science fiction and fantasy. This earlier speculative literature was based on “what could be” not “what is”. But classical and literary fiction has also included nature as a dominant character or integral backdrop and has warned about or illustrated humanity’s disruption of the wild or its connection to the wild.

Most novels dealing with global warming are based on what scientists tell us about climate change and explore the subject through the scope of imagination.

Novels that explore human-caused climate change (as we now understand it) seem to have begun in the 1970s, along with scientific consensus of global warming as “chief climate risk in next century”. This coincides with one of the first climate novels, Heat, by prolific author Arthur Herzog. I talked with his widow Leslie three years ago, who said that her husband had conferred with many climate scientists while writing the book.

Michael Creighton’s State of Fear (2004), however, debunked climate science as a hoax and was a popular novel to boot. The Union of Concerned Scientists tried to help clear up science fact from Creighton’s misleading claims. Since then, however, most novels dealing with global warming are based on what scientists tell us about climate change and explore the subject through the scope of imagination. The approaches range in style from realism to metaphor and from modern day to futuristic. Some of the major authors in this field are Kim Stanley Robinson, Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, Barbara Kingsolver, and Nathaniel Rich.

Rising and Falling Trends

As curator of Eco-fiction.com, I have built a database of novels that include climate change and related environmental issues as central parts of their stories. These subjects range from thriller to romance to mystery, and many other types of novels. Though this database is far from exhaustive, I have tried to include the most notable novels in the field. In counting books in the database, I ignored the few notable nonfiction and poetry books. Between 1970 and 1999 there were approximately 25 novels related to modern day climate science and its upstream/downstream effects. From 2000-2010 about twice as many. During the next three years, the number doubled itself from the previous decade. In 2014 alone, 85 notable novels were published, but then I found a slight decreasing trend in in 2015 and 2016.

A combination of a powerful novel and film adaption might mark an iconic turn in our history. Can that set the stage for climate deniers to really start thinking differently? Can such a novel make its mark?

While no scientific study has pinpointed the rise, fall, or trend of novels about climate change, my data seems to reveal that these novels began in earnest with scientific convergence on global warming and rose with public acceptance after a big denial period (circa Creighton’s State of Fear, along with fossil fuel industry narratives that climate change is not real or not caused by humans). But also are other factors, including the stark rise of Kickstarters and e-books, allowing many more self-published novels than ever before.

As for the decreasing number of climate novels in the past couple years, it could be that a glut of dystopian/apocalyptic novels made the futuristic warning novel a little overdone or that mainstream marketers and publishers are still somewhat on the fence about accepting environmental novels. Still, with a database of nearly 500 novels, most of which delve into climate change at some level, that’s not a bad go and we never know what the future will bring. I think, however, that a combination of a powerful novel and film adaption might mark an iconic turn in our history. Can that set the stage for climate deniers to really start thinking differently? Can such a novel make its mark? Already, the authors mentioned above, and many others, are turning heads.

Impact and Intent

As the popularity of addressing climate change in fiction has risen, so have different ways of describing it. Science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction are the most popular traditional genres that deal with this fiction. Newer descriptions have come about in the last few years, including climate fiction (very general), Anthropocene fiction (related to the newest geological era), and solarpunk (envisioning the world in a let’s-fix-it narrative). Even weird fiction is one lens through which an author can style an environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, when it comes to the narrative in the media about climate change in fiction, it is usually hogged by genre classifications, not the stories themselves. I think it’s more important to concentrate on the novels and authors and what their stories mean to us.

More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself.

One of the key things I’ve learned about exploring ecological crises in fiction is that impact is bigger than intent. The author may intend to write cautionary fiction to warn readers about our degraded environment, but follow-through is iffy if the tale is too didactic or preachy. The impact of a great story is key, which means the author has to be a brilliant storyteller to begin with. Pulitzer Prize and Grammy–winning composer John Luther Adams said it best: “As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself.”

The same is true of fiction.


Read now

You can read our new collection of stories and poetry Realistic Utopias: Writing for Change. Five writers take a personal look at our rapidly changing world. Commissioned by TippingPoint, Free Word and Durham University, all five pieces of writing are inspired by discussions that took part during our Weatherfronts event, and aim to spark further change.


eco-fiction.com is run by British Columbia’s Moon Willow Press, an independent publisher that helps to sustain forests while celebrating the written word. Eco-Fiction maintains a growing list of fictional novels, short stories, anthologies, and prose that are climate or environmental in nature, including science fiction, literary fiction, speculative fiction, and other genres. The site also catalogs a few non-fiction works (notable essays and graphic novels), has a section on media and other arts that deal with climate change, hosts several interviews with climate authors, has a YA/teen bookshelf, maintains a large searchable and sortable database of works at the site, and runs a friendly and public community discussion group at Google+ on eco-themes in literature and the arts.

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