Climate Fiction: Summer Reading 2020

The Expanse S1 — Calvin Chu | Design + Art directionTV (because let’s be real, this is how a lot of us are spending our time these days)

The Expanse (streaming on Amazon Prime) – An extraordinary series, based on a series of popular novels, that imagines a future in which humans have established colonies throughout the solar system. One of the push factors behind this expansion is the fact that Earth has been experiencing a lot of environmental problems, including climate change.

True Detective, Season 1 (HBO) – I’ve run into fans of the second season, but found it almost unwatchable, and the third season is just OK. This first season, however, is riveting, although the ending is disappointing. Unlike other shows, every episode was written by the same writer (Nic Pizzolatto) and directed by the same director (Fukunaga… see Sin Nombre below). Be warned, though: not for viewers who dislike horror. If you’re interested, I wrote about the first season and its relationship to climate change here.

Kim’s Convenience (Netflix) – This Canadian sitcom actually has nothing to do with climate change, or the environment, but is a lot of fun. It also makes Toronto look like a place where I’d want to live, in part because it shows a super diverse cast of characters living together in a way that seems to enrich everyone’s lives, even as their differences are acknowledged by each other. At a time of rising ethnonationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments in so many places, this show depicts a well-functioning multicultural/multiracial society that’s highly appealing.


Critics named "Mad Max: Fury Road" the best Australian film of the ...

Films (personal recommendations)

The Arrival – Aliens arrive on earth and wants something from humans. What makes this film unique is that the main character is a linguist tasked with figuring out how to communicate with the aliens.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner – A brilliant, engrossing film based on an Inuit epic. This one is easy to overlooked, but offers something unique and well made.

Children of Men – This movie seems to have predicted our present, in the ways in which it captures the rise of authoritarianism and anti-immigrant sentiments in the West (it’s set in England). One of the rare movies that are definitely better than the novel it’s based on (by PD James of the same name, which I found disappointing).

Mad Max: Fury Road – What can I say about this film? It has The Doof Warrior, a guy who plays an electric guitar with flames shooting out its end.

Okja – mentioned in class, directed by Bong Joon-ho. Also, see his other wonderful films, especially The Host (which is my favorite film by him) and Snowpiercer (found a little disappointing… and can’t believe it’s soon to be a television show, not directed by Bong)

Rabbit-Proof Fence – This seriously tragic drama focuses on aboriginal children separated from their mother in Australia, and their attempt to return to her. It’s very reminiscent of Indian boarding schools in the US and Canada, and a reminder of how poorly Indigenous populations everywhere have been treated.

Sin Nombre – In Spanish; directed by the brilliant Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose one of my favorite directors of all time… Also, be sure to see his adaptation of Jane Eyre. 

Sleep Dealer – A small independent film by the director and activist Alex Rivera, it imagines a future when Mexican workers are exploited for their labor in the US even as they physically remain in Mexico. If you can see it, you should!

Soylent Green – A totally over-the-tope film released in 1973, it’s primarily focused on overpopulation (based on a riveting novel by Harry Harrison, Make Room, Make Room). As far as I can tell, it’s the first film to mention the phrase “climate change.”


Films (Recommended by others which I have yet to see)

Atlantics (2019)

Code 46 (2003)

The Chambermaid (2018)

The Emerald Forest (1985)

Even the Rain (2010)

Ferngully (1992, animated)

Honeyland (2019)

Ixcanul (2015)

La Soledad (2016)

Leave No Trace (2018)

Local Hero (1983)

Pelo Malo (2013)

Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

Tank Girl (1995)

Whalerider (2002)

Who Is Dayani Crystal? (2013)


On Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower | Book MarksNovels (personal recommendations)

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Wind-Up Girl and The Water Knife – The writing can be clunky (imho), but these two novels offer vivid accounts of a world transformed by climate change that have influenced a lot of other writers.

Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sowers and The Parable of the Talents – I recommend reading anything by Butler, who was a master of science fiction (and the rare African American women writing in this genre). You may have heard of Kindred, a time travel narrative that deserves all the hype it gets, but these paired novels are a triumph of  early story-telling that thinks hard about climate change.

Ted Chiang, Exhalations: Stories – If you think you don’t like science fiction, you should read something by Chiang. He takes this genre seriously and in a way that will transform your ideas about what science fiction can be. Worth noting: he wrote the short story that the film The Arrival is based on.

Oma El-Akkad, American War – The US is embroiled in a second Civil War in the midst of a climate crisis, and a young mix-raced child (African American and Mexican American) is led to violence after growing up in a camp for internally displaced people in Georgia. Written by a journalist who clearly wants to think about what happens when current geopolitical relationships are put on their head–the Middle East has unified into a superpower while the US struggles.

Jenni Fagan, The Sunlight Pilgrims  – This story about two people who find a way to give each other comfort during a devastating winter in England caused, ironically, by global warming can be slow and a little too drawn out, but offers a genuinely sympathetic portrayal of a young transgendered person coming of age during a time of extreme weather.

Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide – Gun Island is actually an informal sequel to an earlier novel, which tells the story of Priya as a young scientist and her tragic encounter with Tipu’s father.

Kazuo Ishiguro, I’ll Never Let You Go – When the author won a Nobel Prize in Literature, I was pleased to find other professors of contemporary literature exclaim almost in unison how much they agreed with the choice. Ishiguro is a prolific, accomplished, original writer, and this novel might be one of his absolute best. I won’t say more about it, because it’s better to read knowing as little as possible about what it’s about.

N.J. Jemisin, The Fifth Season, Obelisk Gate, Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Trilogy) – Hailed by readers and critics, this inventive series mixes fantasy and science fiction to offer a vivid, original meditation on geology, otherness, and greed.

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem (first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, translated from the Chinese) – I’ve only read this book in the series, and have the other two books are even better. It’s one of the first of a wave of Chinese science fiction novels translated into English, and shows how innovative these works are.

Ling Ma, Severance – A funny dark satire about work and professionalism set in the midst of a pandemic (yes, it’s a pandemic novel, so beware!) that turns most people into mindless, but not especially fearsome, zombies.

Hamid Mohsin, Exit West – I teach this novel often because it focuses on the experiences of refugees in a fantastic way that allows it to offer a refreshingly hopeful vision in the end.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven – Another pandemic novel, it’s also surprisingly hopeful at the end (imho) and insists on the important of literature and the arts even in the darkest timeline. It’s a terrific, engrossing read despite its timeliness.

Julie Offill, Weather – I’m reluctant to recommend this novel, written almost as if it were a series of tweets, focused on a character mired in a rather mundane narrative but also anxious about climate change. It’s well done and I came to like the main character (or at least got used to her), and I do find myself thinking about it often.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being  – A glorious, inventive novel (if sometimes, for me, a little slow going) about a woman in the Pacific Northwest who finds, amidst the flotsam of things that have floated from Japan after the historic earthquake and tsunami, a diary of a young girl in Japan who is being severely bullied in school. I found the bullying hard to read about, but it’s a brilliant story about story-telling, environmental crisis, and relationships forged across national boundaries. This should appeal to those of you who especially like realism and is less keen on science fiction.

Richard Powers, The Overstory – You will never look at trees again in the same way after reading this novel. The plot can be disappointing, but overall this novel will engross you and expand your understanding of how you are entangled with the living things of the world. I’ll probably be teaching it in the fall in Environmental Humanities seminar.

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves – The author is a great writer, who really knows how to keep you reading and can write an action sequence in a way that makes hundreds of pages fly by. The premise is farfetched (the moon inexplicably explodes and the race is on to send some survivors to space before the Earth is destroyed by moon debris), but the novel knows how to sell it. It’s long but it won’t feel like it. Unfortunately, the ending is disappointing and, if I’m not mistaken, the villain seems to be modeled after Hilary Clinton.

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance (Southern Reach Trilogy) – You may have watched the film based on the first in this series (of the same name) but it has only a passing relationship to the original. These novels really capture the weirdness of a moment when our relationship to nature seems to be going screwy in all sorts of hard-to-pinpoint ways.

Helena Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus – A classic work of Mexican American literature, this novel provides a glimpse into the struggle of America’s agricultural workers and their vulnerability to the industry’s dependence on chemical pesticides.

Andrew Weir, The Martian and Artemis – The story I’ve read is the first of these novels were originally just given away on a blog, as a way for the author to figure out how a human might survive on the Red Planet and the science behind space travel to and from there. Its science is suppose to be super rigorous, but it also doesn’t forget to tell an engrossing story about a complex character who uses a lot of foul language (if you don’t like swearing, this is not the novel for you). His follow up is set on the Moon, and is I think equally riveting. The Martian, by the way, was also made into a pretty good movie with Matt Damon, which you may have watched already (and should watch if reading the novel, if you haven’t yet).

Chuck Wendig, The Wanderers – The author knows his way around a sentence, so this absolute tome of a novel will keep you engrossed. It’s yet another pandemic narrative and I’m not sure by the end that I especially like it’s politics (there’s also some gratuitous revenge violence I could have done without), but it gets at some important themes about the human relationship to their environment and paints a picture of the white militia movement that is chilling, to say to the least.


Novels (recommended by others which I haven’t yet read)

Chen Qiufeng, Waste Tide

David Chernushenko, Burning Souls

Alex Difrancesco, All City

Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God

Karl Taro Greenfield, The Subprimes

Rita Indiana, Tentacles

Kazuo Ishiguro, Buried Giant

Andrew Krivak, The Bear

John, Lanchester, The Wall

Cherrie Moraga, Heroes and Saints

Richard McGuire, Here (graphic narrative)

Cassandra Montag, After the Flood

Harryette Mullens, Urban Tumbleweed

Ali Smith, Autumn

Pitchiya Sudbanthad, Bangkok Wakes to Rain


Sweet Grass Plant - Hierochloe oderata - Sacred/Repels Mosquitoes ...Nonfiction (personal recommendations)

Robin Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass – I’m reading this now, and loving it. It’s a beautiful meditation on what it means to be an Indigenous scientist.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History – A remarkable mix of reporting and history of science, this book helped make the mass extinction of animals that’s currently occurring a topic a lot of people became concerned about.

Charles E. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus – Draws on recent findings in archeology to provide an expanse glimpse of the peoples who inhabited the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. Tl;dr: A lot more people used to live in the Americas than was believed by European settlers, and they were politically very organized and technologically very advanced. (There’s a sequel as well entitled 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, which I’m looking forward to reading this summer.)

Michael Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – Few books can been said to have had the impact this book has had on American eating habits. It helped to raise awareness of the omnipresence of corn in our food supply, the marketing mirage of organic food, the difference between corn-fed and grass-fed beef, and so much more. Well written, well researched, and passionate about the argument it makes, the book remains well worth reading if you haven’t already,

Nathaniel Riche, Losing Earth: A Recent History – Offers a maddening account of the ways in which debate about climate change started as a bipartisan concern in the 1980s and gradually morphed into the current state of partisan divide and acrimony.

Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore – We read an excerpt in class, but the whole book is amazing. Gives a broad sense of how coastal communities in the US have already started to respond to climate change.

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being – This book combines scholarly investigation into the representation of blackness and the afterlife of slavery with personal memoir and a searing intelligence that alters your sense of the world around you. It’s challenging, but well worth the effort of reading.

Julie Sze, Environmental Justice in a Time of Danger – From a respected scholar of environmental racism, this is a short polemic about the importance of thinking about the environment and social justice at the present moment.


Review: Soft Science (Poetry) by Franny Choi | Books and BaoPoetry (personal recommendations)

Franny Choi, Soft Science – Irreverent poems that considers the ways in which technology keeps pushing the boundaries of what we think of as human, always mindful of the ways in which race and gender informs our ideas of the human. We read a poem by her in class, so you should already have an idea of what her poetry is like.

Cathy Park Hong, Dance Dance Revolution – When I’ve taught in this book to undergraduates, students balked at its difficulty and formal complexity, but for those of you who are adventurous I highly recommend it. The poems are set in some future/alternative world, with a researcher interviewing someone who was a witness to a traumatic historical event. The witness is irreverent, and the poems experiment a lot with its own invented language, inviting readers to think about how languages themselves change over time.

Ilya Kaminisky, Deaf Republic – I just love, love the poems in this book. I taught it in my Studies in Narrative course in the fall (some of you read it in that course), and everyone seemed to love them as well.

Layli Long Soldier, Whereas  – Its formally inventive and difficult poems challenge readers to think about Native Americans in a new way, and suggests how the past continues on in the present in ways that we dismiss at our hazard.

Sally Wen Mao, Oculus – These poems reflect on the ways in which the weight of cultural representation burdens their Asian American woman speaker in a way that shows command of its craft and a distrust of craft’s limitations. A lot of these poems will linger in your mind for a long time after you read them.

Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day – For those of you were interested in our discussion of the everyday, this long poem trains its attention on this very topic by focusing on a single day, December 22, 1978 (the winter solstice), and trying to make sense of what can be learned by doing this.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Oceanic – These short poems remind me a little of Ada Limón in their lyricism and awareness of nature, even though these are also quite distinct. She’s prolific poet, and if you like these poems you might want to check out some of her other books.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric – If you haven’t read this book, you really owe it to yourself to try it. It explores the problem of racial microaggression and its effects on an African American speaker that will transform your sense of the everyday.

Solmaz Sharif, Look – These disturbing poems considers the high cost of antiterrorism, the militarization of everyday life, and the rise of a surveillance state.

Tracy Smith, Life on Mars – Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this collection really works for it. I am especially fond of “My God, It’s Full of Stars” with its meditation on popular culture and the Hubble Telescope, which the poet’s father worked on (according to the poem).

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds – The author has gained a lot of recognition for his recent semi-autobiographical novel On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous (which is indeed gorgeously written) but these poems are my favorite pieces by him.