Let’s talk about science fiction and fantasy novels about ecology and climate change
So it’s welcome, even thrilling, to see so many new novels that include a thoughtful, factual look at environmental devastation. Instead of treating the subject as shocking or as an occasion for Roland Emmerich-style disaster stories, these books accept the inevitability of climate change and challenge the reader to get used to the unthinkable. Above all, these books use a context of climate change to tell good stories in which you will want to get lost.
“The Mountain in the Sea”, by Ray Nayler (MCD) has been described as an eco-dystopian thriller, but it’s something slower and more meditative. When the book opens, marine biologist Ha Nguyen has been invited to a remote island called Con Dao to study a newly discovered octopus society that has developed what appears to be its own script, culture, and even religion. But the creatures are threatened with extinction at the hands of humans. Ha’s only companions are Evrim, the world’s first self-aware android and a cyborg soldier. Meanwhile, a man named Eiko is forced into slavery on a fishing boat that crisscrosses an almost lifeless ocean, and a hacker named Rustem is hired by a mysterious woman to complete an impossible task.
Nayler’s poignant and thought-provoking beginnings are full of artificial intelligences, with varying levels of mindfulness, alongside the mysterious community of octopuses. The juxtaposition of these non-human minds raises big questions about the nature of consciousness. At one point, Ha remarks that the statement that proves complex thought is not “I think therefore I am”, but “I think therefore I doubt that I am”.
4 witch books from the world of science fiction and fantasy
In “Saturnalia” (anonymous press) Stephanie Feldman uses ecological collapse as the backdrop for a chilling tale of alchemy and corruption. At the center of the story is Nina, who has left the elite Saturn Club and now must sneak in to steal a very special box at the club’s debauched Saturnalia party. Nina is forced to not only face off against her old friends, but also find out how far some alchemists are willing to go to survive the apocalypse.
The constant awareness of a world on fire adds an extra layer of dread as a deadly monster stalks Nina, who finds something equally monstrous inside the box she’s trying to steal. But even as Nina discovers the depths to which some of her old friends are willing to stoop, she also rekindles a friendship she realizes she threw away too lightly. (It was disturbing, however, that the book’s trans character was referred to by her old name and pronoun in pre-transition flashbacks.) “Saturnalia” is both dazzlingly inventive and full of heart-pounding menace.
If you want a post-climate novel that goes all the way, look no further than “Meet Us by The Roaring Sea” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Akil Kumarasamy. The story is a kind of layered dream sequence that asks big questions about civilization, memory, and survival. Ada mourns the death of her mother while training an artificial intelligence with disturbing curiosity. She also translates a strange novel, written in Tamil, about girls who study medicine and create new religions. Other subplots involve self-driving cars, weird art projects, and memory experiments.
The specter of climate change is ever-present in the densely populated world of Kumarasamy, from the “carbon score” that governs everyone’s use of resources to the vivid descriptions of girls chewing on a single peanut for 20 minutes during a famine. Kumarasamy’s beautifully written book captures the dread of experiencing disconcerting disruption.
The RB Lemberg Disaster “The Imbalance” (Tachyon) is of a more mystical kind: a fallen star sleeps under the ocean near the city-state of Gelle-Geu, linked to the dormant volcano on the nearby mountain – but now the star is getting restless and the waters may soon claim the city and everyone in it. An introverted poet named Erígra Lilún and an arrogant young “star guardian” named Ranra are the only ones who can figure out what’s going on.
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There’s so much to cherish in “The Unbalancing,” a standalone novel in Lemberg’s Birdverse series. Lilún and Ranra’s relationship beautifully captures the sizzle and tenderness of a new connection that could blossom into something beautiful. The world-building is full of deep lore and occasional quirks, and Lemberg’s magical system is deservedly wild and poetic. But above all, the novel offers survival lessons when complex, barely understood systems begin to break down.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of “Victories greater than death” and “Dreams bigger than sorrow», the first two books of a trilogy for young adults. His other books include “The city in the middle of the night” and “All the birds in the sky.”
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