Science fiction has always dealt with worst-case scenarios when imagining our possible futures, and the climate has often formed the backdrop of the human struggles.
Some of the biggest names writing in the genre have tackled the climate crisis and its apocalyptic or dystopian consequences – Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather.
But a new generation of writers now believes it is impossible to write “near future” sci-fi without putting the climate emergency at the forefront of their speculative fiction. For many, this is because they are living through the crisis and can imagine all too easily what may happen if real-life behaviour doesn’t change.
“My writing has always been drawn from my own worries and fears, so it was perhaps inevitable that I would choose to write about the climate emergency,” says Rachelle Atalla, a Glasgow-based Scottish-Egyptian author whose second novel, Thirsty Animals, came out this year.
“I have long been interested in water – all life [is] dependent upon it, yet we are also happy to exploit it as a commodity. Particularly in the UK, we behave with the assumption that there will always be an abundance of drinking water.”
Atalla’s book follows a young woman and her mother living on a farm in the Scottish borders during a devastating drought. Enticed by visions of almost bottomless lochs of cool water in Scotland, there is a flood of immigrants from England – until the Scottish government closes the border, huge refugee camps build up and desperate English families who cross are shot.
Atalla says: “Writing Thirsty Animals was an opportunity to bring the realities of climate change and its displacement closer to home. I wanted to really interrogate human behaviour and ask: as our natural resources begin to dwindle, do we take a community-based approach in pursuit of active change? Or do we turn inwards and focus on our individualistic desire to survive?”
Climate change is becoming so prevalent in fiction that there have been attempts to label it – not entirely successfully – with its own sub-genre classification – cli-fi. But just as Atwood said of her MaddAddam trilogy, “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”, so many of the current crop of science fiction authors feel you can’t actually write about the future without mentioning the threat to the planet.
“I think it would be hard to write near future SF that feels plausible without acknowledging climate breakdown in some way, even if it’s implicit rather than explicit in how it touches people’s lives,” says EJ Swift.
Her novel The Coral Bones, published last year, centres on the Great Barrier Reef in a David Mitchell-esque narrative split between three women – one in the 19th century, one in the present day and one in a future ravaged by global warming.
“Seeing images of corals bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, I kept thinking about how it would feel to be on the frontline, having to witness the devastation to these extraordinary ecosystems,” she says. “I wanted to write about how our relationship with the more-than-human world has led us to this crisis, and how we might change.
“Climate breakdown is escalating so rapidly that events which 10 years ago might have seemed like the distant future are happening now. Everything is filtered through that lens – even when it’s not the main focus, climate anxiety is there in the periphery.”
Other recent books dealing with the devastation to the climate include Kate Sawyer’s The Stranding, which begins with the striking image of two strangers sheltering in the mouth of a dead, beached whale as a calamitous extinction event hits the world, Susannah Wise’s This Fragile Earth, in which the complete failure of all technology brings into focus our uneasy relationship with nature, and Sarah K Jackson’s Not Alone, about a mother and son surviving in the aftermath of a microplastics storm that has decimated the population.
The science fiction writer Adrian Tchaikovsky, known for his huge, widescreen space opera novels set in distant galaxies, is turning his attention to the climate crisis next year with a horror novella called Saturation Point.
“With the very real science and facts of climate change becoming ever more present and felt in our here and now, is it any wonder that more science fiction writers are using their stories to write cautionary tales of a future where humanity will be forced to adapt and change in order to survive?” says Julie Crisp, a literary agent working mainly with science fiction and fantasy.
Science fiction has always sounded a warning about human behaviour and its possible consequences, she adds. “It deals with a futuristic imagining based on the scientific, moral and social principles of the ‘now’ – and the author taking them a step further, into the ‘then’.
“Whether it’s the imaginings of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and a dystopian future cowed by mass surveillance and regimentation of its people or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with its patriarchal and white supremacist control over women’s bodies – science fiction has shown readers what can happen should the worst actions of society follow an upward trajectory and become a dystopian style-future.”
She cites Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future and Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were as examples of authors using climate change “to paint a grim picture of where, should the inertia of humanity to change their destructive actions continue, it will lead to a future that none of us want”.