Some books make use of the environment by focusing on nature’s most interesting facets, for instance, or celebrating iconic examples of beautiful landscapes, or turning familiar sights into the stuff of compelling narratives.
Speculative fiction, on the other hand, often underscores the extent to which we take our environment for granted by showcasing the horrific effects of environmental neglect.
These seven novels take very different approaches in telling very different stories, but they have one thing in common: ominous depictions of barren landscapes in the not-so-distant future. Whether it’s through the impact of catastrophic weather, or water shortages leading to economic collapse, these books project the consequences of environmental neglect and the unpredictability of the natural landscapes around us.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi has repeatedly extrapolated environmental worst-case-scenarios into dramatically compelling fiction. (His earlier novel The Windup Girl was set in a future where oil reserves had dried up, and kinetic energy largely replaced it.) His latest novel reads like one of James Ellroy’s crime epics, following disparate characters who are drawn together in a morally hazy, occasionally violent world where corruption and backroom deals are commonplace. The main difference is the near-future setting, in which travel between states has been dramatically reduced, and the Southwest is home to crumbling cities, brutal droughts, and legal battles over the rights to assorted water sources.
The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell
At the heart of Carola Dibbell’s first novel is a powerful and moving story of the relationship between a mother and her daughter. In the background is its mid-21st-century setting, largely in the northeastern United States, where familiar neighborhoods and sights have been transformed into something more chilling. In the world of The Only Ones, Dibbell accelerates current environmental crises, income inequality, and global epidemics; the result is a novel that not only tells an affecting story, but also feels like a dispatch from a terrifying future a few decades away.
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
The futures that Okorafor depicts in this novel, a precursor to her award-winning Who Fears Death, showcase a world in which the environmental hazards of today have worsened. In the framing story, a man goes to investigate a mysterious vision, avoiding threatening storms along the way; in the main plotline, higher water levels have submerged parts of New York City. The resulting story of genetic experimentation and political oppression spans two continents and includes haunting meditations on mortality and morality.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
There’s plenty to admire in Charlie Jane Anders’s new novel, especially in the way that it blends tropes of science fiction and fantasy narratives into a unified narrative. Much of the book’s action takes place in a near-future United States, where events like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy have become commonplace, to devastating effect. Anders hauntingly renders a world in which environmental tragedies play out repeatedly, illustrating the novel’s theme of an inherent brokenness to the modern world.
Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen
The subdued story told in Berit Ellingsen’s Not Dark Yet is about legacies of violence, relationships gone sour, and attempts to change the direction of one’s life. But there’s a speculative element to the setting as well, including changes to the climate in which the novel’s characters live, juxtaposed with an astronaut training program to which the protagonist hopes to apply. And in the end, the fact that Not Dark Yet’s landscape isn’t outwardly catastrophic — not yet, at least — doesn’t make it any less worrisome.
California by Edan Lepucki
The state that gives Edan Lepucki’s debut novel its title is no stranger to environmental catastrophe. Earthquakes, water shortages, and fires are only some of the crises that it has undergone in recent memory. In the near-future setting of California, all of those hazards feel very present, along with the devastating aftereffects of economic collapse and dehumanizing ideologies. It, too, provides a sobering look at where American society might be headed, and the conflicts that may emerge a few years from now.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
The first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach territory focuses on an expedition to study the changes that have arisen in a region now known as “Area X.” Those changes go far beyond human understanding — there’s a bit of cosmic horror in this novel’s DNA — but they also stand as a reminder of nature’s understated power, and of the dangers that power can hold.