As we witness the early stages of climate change, climate fiction (or cli-fi) is becoming an increasingly urgent literary genre. Filled with droughts, floods, pandemics, virtual realities, and small poignant losses (a favorite food out of stock, a familiar species of bird extinct), these novels urge us to reflect on what it means to be human in a world where nature is faltering.
This list of 20 cli-fi books can serve as your roadmap through the growing jungle of novels featuring global warming and climate change. The books on this list span many genres–fantasy, literary fiction, YA, sci-fi–but they all find a home in themes of ecological grief, compassion for human and non-human life, and resilience. All the books on this list have received high ratings on Goodreads, and many of them have won national awards!
Just for grins, we’ve arranged our 20 cli-fi novels by their setting in time. So you can start in the here and now (or recent past) and move forward into an unknown future.
8 Cli-Fi Books Set in the Present and Recent Past
How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue
In the early 1980s, Kosawa is a vibrant African village, home to a community of proud subsistence farmers. The fate of the village is transformed when an American oil company begins drilling nearby. Land is destroyed, and pollution seeps into the water, air, and bodies of the villagers. The villagers are promised reparations for their loss time and time again, until they realize that the oil company only makes empty promises and they decide to take matters into their own hands.
Written by a PEN/Faulkner award winning author, How Beautiful We Were is a deeply believable story about environmental stewardship, colonialism, and courage in the face of oppression. If you want to diversify your reading list, this is an excellent choice!
Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver
In this contemporary setting, Flight Behavior confronts us not with speculative fears for the future but with the all-too familiar challenges of everyday life. The protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, is living an aimless, confined life as a housewife in rural Appalachia when she stumbles upon a swarm of monarch butterflies sheltering in the woods. Soon after the butterflies are discovered, scientists, journalists, and activists from across the nation descend on the small town. Some see the butterflies as a miracle, others see the heralding of climate disaster. Swept up in the commotion, Dellarobia uses the butterflies’ arrival as an opportunity to reshape her own life.
Written by a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Flight Behavior depicts the many ways humans project themselves onto nature, ultimately leading readers to consider how their own identities would be disrupted if the natural order of the world was disrupted.
Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh
With a plot bordering on magical realism, Gun Island weaves together legends of the distant past with problems of the modern world. The protagonist, Deen Data, leaves his comfortable (though reclusive) life in New York to research the “Gun Merchant”, which is a Bengali legend who was persecuted by the Goddess of Snakes. Deen’s search for answers about ancient Indian mythology brings him into close contact with a modern day crisis: the forced emigration of refugees away from areas affected by climate change.
Deen struggles to understand his place among the mythological figures and equally colorful refugees he meets during his travels, ultimately reaching a new understanding about his identity and his relationship with the non-human world.
A genre-blurring novel with elements of fantasy, historical fiction, and of course, cli-fi, Gun Island is perfect for readers who want their books to take them to new places.
Read it for book club and use our Gun Island discussion guide to get the conversation started.
The Overstory, Richard Powers
Mimicking the long, patient lives of trees, The Overstory begins in the mid-eighteenth century, traverses the turbulent sixties and seventies, and comes to rest in present day California, where a group of eco-activists whose lives have all been touched by trees join together to defend an ancient redwood grove. Praised for its lyricism and cultural insight, The Overstory is also filled with nuggets of scientific knowledge that make even those trees we’re most familiar with seem mysterious. We learn about the ways trees communicate, exchange resources, spread and move.
A Pulitzer Prize winner, The Overstory has not only been praised by critics, it is also beloved by casual readers. As one Goodreads reviewer observes, “I think this is perhaps one of Powers’ most accessible novels. It feels to me […] like his most passionate one.”
Weather, Jenny Offill
Set in present day New York, Weather follows the increasingly complicated life of a young librarian named Lizzie. In addition to her ability to close-read book characters, Lizzie has plenty of practice being an empathetic listener and counselor to her religiously zealous mother and drug-addicted brother. Still, her communication skills are put to the test when an old mentor asks her to respond to fan mail for the hit podcast Hell and Highwater, which covers climate change, politics and world events.
Weather reads like a love letter to all the unsung heroes of the world who are trying to maintain balanced, open-hearted lives in a climate where even small personal choices can be polarizing. If you, like Lizzie, feel wearied by the need to explain yourself to strangers and (even harder) to the ones you love, this book is for you.
And if you love librarians as much as we do, be sure to check out our whole list of books about librarians.
Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald
If you’ve read enough cli-fi to spark an interest in the real-world effects of climate change, Vesper Flights is the perfect book to add to your reading list. This isn’t a climate change novel– rather it’s a collection of 40+ short essays in which Macdonald expands our understanding of climate change to include many easily overlooked ways that humans are shaping the landscape of the planet. She weaves deer vehicular collisions, nocturnal migrations, mushroom hunting, the invention of interstates, and much more into a bittersweet tapestry of our time.
Many cli-fi readers will appreciate the change of pace this non-fiction collection has to offer, especially since Macdonald demonstrates a taste for the esoteric, which also draws many readers to speculative fiction. One Goodreads reviewer summarized the collection by saying, “Reading this in small doses allowed me to appreciate this book even more. Helen Macdonald is a one-of-a-kind beautiful human being. Her writing is an extension of her own wonderful soul. She is overflowing with knowledge and love for the world we live.”
Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman
Another book best read in small doses, Birds of a Lesser Paradise carries readers from one captivating short story to the next. The stories cover a wide variety of characters and settings: from a young woman searching South Carolina for her dead mother’s parrot, to a west-coast climate activist retreating to her family estate in New England as she decides whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.
With richly detailed prose, each of the short stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise brings to life a surprising character required to make a familiar decision: what parts of our old life can we justify holding on to as we move forward through our changing landscape?
The History of Bees, Maja Lunde
The History of Bees is, not surprisingly, a story about the history of bees, narrated by a trio of apiarists from 1851, 2007, and 2098. William, the earliest narrator, is an academic whose study of superorganisms leads to him become fascinated by bees. He devotes his life to the development of a bee hive which can support bees while allowing humans to extract honey.
George, the present-day narrator, witnesses the beginning of colony collapse syndrome as he tries to coach his son in the trade of beekeeping. Tao, the last narrator, carries out the back-breaking work of hand pollinating plants after bees have disappeared from the planet. She stays motivated by the idea that she’s building a better life for her son–until one day her son, like the bees, disappears.
The History of Bees is a novel about bees, but it’s also a novel about family and labor: the conflicting desire for your children to have a better life and for your children to preserve the values you lived by. With lyrical sentences and a thread of hope running through the novel, its a great choice for those who want to read cli-fi without ending up depressed.
12 Climate Fiction Books Set in the Future
The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi
Set in the near future of the southwestern United States, The Water Knife is a climate fiction thriller. Angel Velasquez, a “water knife” hired to protect Las Vegas’s share of the Colorado River from encroachment by the city of Phoenix, comes into conflict with Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist determined to keep the secret of a new water resource from falling into the wrong hands. Bodies pile up around the main characters as they fight to control the world’s new most precious resource: water.
Though its not for the faint of heart (many Goodreads reviewers mention being turned off by the casual violence and cruelty in the novel), The Water Knife is certainly a thought-provoking look at the way climate change can deepen class divisions. Just be warned, some of those thoughts might keep you up at night!
Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy
Set in the near future, Migrations is the story of Franny Stone, a troubled young woman who decides to follow the last surviving Arctic terns on their annual migration to Antarctica. In order to follow the terns on their doomed voyage (there’s not enough food to sustain the terns when they reach Antarctica), Franny boards an aging fishing vessel. The crew members lure out fragments of Franny’s past as they make their way across the ocean, but Franny doesn’t tell anyone about her plans for the future: she wishes to leave the planet with the last terns.
A novel that draws on the haunting power of all the “last” moments in our lives, Migrations has received high marks on Goodreads, as well as the 2020 Amazon.com Best Fiction of the Year Award. One reviewer described the book’s attraction by saying, “Unlike most other environmental dystopias, this one is not urgent or panicked. In fact, it’s a quiet novel. A subtle, sad tale of a woman and her grief. And it’s a love story. For a person, and for a planet.”
Clade, James Bradley
Clade starts out in our contemporary time, but as it moves decades into the future, the books explores climate change in ways that are sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, always painful. An assortment of related characters carry the plot forward for three generations. Each character attempts to cope with a changing earth in his or her own way. A woman struggling with infertility takes up beekeeping. A young man who has lost too many of the people he loves tries to resurrect them in a virtual world. Society flounders in the wake of an epidemic.
Many reviewers have admired Clade for its realism, its ability to ground climate change in characters who feel intimately familiar. As one Goodreads reviewer stated, “We have a fully plausible exploration of the next few decades from the perspective of a handful of humans with human problems. Their problems are minor compared to the destruction that rages in the climate and the environments of the world. But even with Earth crashing, humans live their small lives and face their small problems.”
Bradly is an Australian author who has won many local awards for this book. If you are keen to read more from down under, check out our list of 60 books set in Australia.
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller
A few years ago, The Dog Stars might have felt like a story from the distant future. Having experienced COVID, the story feels much closer to home. Hig, a forty-year-old man who has lost his family to a rampant pandemic, finds a hideaway in the mountains with his dog, Jasper, and Bagley, his trigger-happy neighbor. In the mountains, Hig has a small plane, a library of poetry, clean rivers to fish in, and a garden full of vegetables. But when Hig picks up a radio broadcast that hints of some remaining people in a distant location, he decides to risk everything to be part of humanity’s rebirth.
If COVID hasn’t cured you of pandemic novels, The Dog Stars is a fun, survivalist read that offers a bird’s-eye-view of a world without humans.
The High House, Jessie Greengrass
When worldwide floods push humanity to the brink of apocalypse, three children and one elderly gameskeeper retreat to a house set high on a cliff in near-future Suffolk, England. The house has been prepared with a vegetable garden, windmill, generator, and stockpile of medicine, but nothing can prepare the children for learning to live together in a harsh new world.
Favored by Goodreads reviewers, The High House “is climate fiction at its realistic best, acutely painful, haunting, and deeply sobering.”
Psalm For the Wild-Built (Monk and Robot #1), Becky Chambers
The risk in reading climate fiction is that its apocalyptic nature can send you into a doom spiral. If you need a bright, hopeful antidote for that, this is the book series for you. Chambers excels as sci-fi that delivers a lot of found family and warm hugs.
The book is set on the small moon of Panga, 200 years after robots achieved sentience and walked off the job to live their lives in the wilderness. That was just as well, as Panga’s heavily industrialized society had brought its environment to the brink. With the robots gone, the humans performed an earnest (and successful) about-face, re-tooling civilization for a sustainable future.
Monk wanders the countryside providing tea and comfort for Panga’s citizens. And they’re good at it, but they’ve become restless and are unsure if they’re fulfilling their true purpose. They light off into the wilderness on a pilgrimage to see if they can find enlightenment. Along the way, they meet Moscap, a robot who has been sent out into the human lands to see how the they’re faring.
The book reads like a buddy road trip with a great deal of humor, caring and gentle philosophical musings. And the way in which the humans have chosen to care for the land is a very hopeful lesson for those of us living on earth.
If you like the idea of philosophical pilgrimages, we’ve got a whole list of pilgrimage books for you.
Glimmer, Marjorie B. Kellogg
In the year 2110, the majority of Manhattan has been submerged by melted glacial water. The upper class defends high elevation land from other survivors, who struggle to get by in the surrounding swamps. Just as Manhattan has been lost to the rising tides, the protagonist, Glimmer, has lost the memory of her early life to trauma. But if she and her band of artist and misfit friends are to live together in a changed world, Glimmer will need to unlock the memories of who she is.
Following a young protagonist, Glimmer reads like a YA novel with themes centered around found family, self-awareness, and climate change. The novel is perfect for young readers who are developing an interest in cli-fi.
The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
Though the titular Ministry for the Future is established in 2025, this story rockets into the distant future. Unlike most cli-fi novels set in the coming millennia, the world being governed by the Ministry for the Future is troubled but not apocalyptic. A network of mostly anonymous characters (including some unexpected reports narrated by computer codes, market robots, and macromolecules) track the challenges experienced in the fight to control climate change and hint at solutions to those challenges.
Overall, the story provides an alternative to the view that mass extinctions and the deterioration of civilization are inevitable. The story challenges us to believe that we can mitigate climate change. As one Goodreads reviewer commented, “This is a painfully earnest, occasionally graceful book that will hopefully inspire like-minded people to action. Maybe even useful action!”
The Fifth Season (Broken Earth Trilogy #1), N.K. Jemisin
That this series is called the Broken Earth Trilogy tells you a lot about what to expect. The book is set on an unnamed planet at an unspecified time (and if its Earth, we hope its the very distant future!). The protagonist, Essun, pursues her husband across an apocalyptic landscape after he murders their son and abducts their daughter. To win her daughter back, Essun must survive the elements–volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, acidic oceans, rampant fungal-induced famines–while also concealing her secret power: a gene that allows her to control natural disasters.
The Fifth Season paints a picture of some of the grimmest possible consequences of climate change–let’s just say that Mother Nature is very very angry. Reviews on Goodreads are overwhelmingly positive. One reviewer summarized the book by saying, “The writing of this book is glorious — there’s a sardonic and a crisp tone to it, without any wasted words. The worldbuilding is wonderful and involved. This book contains several plot twists that remain some of the wildest and most incredible in literature, including one that literally caused me to scream out loud…”
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
A classic that helped define the this genre, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in the year 1992, but it reads like a tale set in a distant post-apocalyptic future. The protagonist, Rick Decker, is one of the few humans who have remained on Earth after a world war ravished the landscape and those who had resources fled to Mars. Decker scrapes by with the money he makes working as a bounty hunter. His prey are highly anthropomorphic androids who have escaped from slavery on Mars. When Decker finds himself falling in love with one of the androids he has been assigned to kill, he is forced to re-evaluate what makes him human.
Beloved for its world building and provocative themes, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks readers how they will regulate their emotions in a world without nature and what it will mean to be human when all other animals go extinct.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the classic movie Blade Runner was based this book. Read it and then watch to the movie to see how they compare.
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
Another classic (this time generously set in 2025), The Parable of the Sower describes the life of an eighteen year old and her family in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. The world is plagued by drugs, disease, violence, pollution, and drought. All of these ailments are compounded in Lauren, our protagonist, who has a syndrome called “hyperempathy” which forces her to feel the pain of others. Survival becomes even harder when Lauren and a few others are forced to flee Los Angeles. But through their struggles, they learn more about the world and come up with an idea that just might save it.
Winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, Octavia Butler showcases her mastery of the sci-fi genre in The Parable of the Sower. The book explores themes of classism, climate change, and perhaps most interestingly, the power of religion to lift communities up…or bring them crashing down.
The Bear, Andrew Krivack
The Bear offers a rare post-apocalyptic story in which humans have found their way back into a harmonious relationship with nature. Two unnamed characters, a girl and her father, are the last surviving humans on earth. We follow them as they forage for berries, season wood to make bows and arrows, and venture away from their cabin on a mission to collect salt that soon turns deadly. Ultimately, their survival depends on their ability to reignite the connection that early humans had with nature.
A National Book Award finalist, The Bear reads like a fable– a little sweet, a little dark, a lot nostalgic, while at the same time affirming the prediction many scientists have made for our planet– man may destroy himself, but nature will live on.
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For More Spec-Fic and Sci-fi
Check out our list of books like Project Hail Mary for some space opera and BFFs in trouble. We’ve also got a Hail Mary book club guide along with discussion guides for Sea of Tranquility, Cloud Cuckoo Land and Babel.
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