Jeff VanderMeer's Climate Fiction Reading List

Posted by Cybil on March 16, 2021
 
Bestselling author Jeff VanderMeer is perhaps best known for his creepy sci-fi thriller Annihilation, which was made into a movie and kicked off the beloved Southern Reach trilogy. His latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, publishes in the U.S. on April 6 and promises readers a thriller of dark conspiracy, endangered species, and the possible end of all things. Here, he's picked some of his favorite examples of climate fiction, from the plausible to the out-of-this-world.  

If you’ve heard about my work, you probably know I love animals and often write novels about the environment. Sometimes that fiction manifests uncanny and surreal, as with the “back to nature” Area X from Annihilation and the Southern Reach trilogy. (We all know not to lick fungi on trees now, right?)

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Sometimes, as with my latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, it manifests as a psychological thriller set about “ten seconds” into the future, in which the narrator, “Jane” receives a mysterious note from a dead fugitive. Still, some things stay the same. Like the biologist in Annihilation, Jane charts her own path, makes her own decisions, in her unique way. Whether it’s leaning close to examine living words on a wall or not being able to resist investigating something weird found in a storage unit, my protagonists tend to be messy and unpredictable.

So, in putting together a list of favorite climate fiction, I thought it important that all ten books feature unique main characters—and that the approaches range from the ultra-realistic to the nearly mythical, to suit a lot of different tastes. (Keeping in mind that if you haven’t already read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, you need to correct that fast!)

You might even find a bit of dark humor from time to time—because we need that, too. I know Jane does as she goes down the rabbit hole of figuring out the links between an eco-terrorist, a hummingbird, a place called Unitopia—and the possible end of the world...

 
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A poignant and often startling exploration of the relationship between a researcher and a group of bonobos that goes in unexpected directions. It’s also a meditation on pain, on patience, on technology, and the speed at which the events of the world can overtake us. When I finished Theory of Bastards, I closed the book with satisfaction and thought, “This is a perfect novel.” Props for sweet bonobos, too.


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An elegiac meditation on human and nonhuman loss, Migrations follows Franny Stone, who used to dream of having “feathers on my lungs” as she attempts to find the last flock of arctic terns near Greenland. Stone’s past impinges on her quest, and so does the lovely rhythm of her journeys by ship to find the terns. Immersive and haunting and quietly arresting.


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This underrated and entertaining gem explores the possibilities and pitfalls of “sustainability” in a near-future Berlin. The characters congregate at an experimental house meant to be the future of green-tech, but, of course, things don’t quite go the way they’re supposed to. Wilk has a deadly eye for finding the dark humor, irony, and absurdity in our modern “solutions” while offering a glimpse of something better beyond.


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A realistic ground-level view of a journey west created by crop failures and weather changes in a future Ohio. Stine conveys first-rate evocations of rural landscapes and the people who live there. Her bi protagonist, Wylodine, has a complexity and resonance that is reflected back at the reader through encounters with various other survivors (some of them predatory). I can’t wait for the sequel out in October.


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On so many interlocking levels, American War has just become more relevant since publication. El Akkad’s intricate novel of future survival in the U.S., accompanied by sectarian violence and civil war, serves as both a warning and an enthralling geo-political thriller. The novel challenges us to challenge and dismantle our own dysfunctional systems in order to build a livable future.


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This raucous wild card in my climate fiction deck serves as both a marvelous, if bittersweet, snapshot of bohemian, queer San Francisco in the 1990s and a surreal, unique journey through the anxieties and realities of climate change. The novel seems to live in the future, the present, and the past simultaneously, and yet the hallucinogenic narrative is always so clear and precise. A joy of a book.


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A stunning work of imagination and intimate characterization, Who Fears Death is Africanfuturism and science fiction by way of science fantasy, set in a future Sudan full of sorcerers, where the climate apocalypse has already come and the survivors are living with the consequences. The main character’s epic quest to confront her father and stop a war is unforgettable.


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Big, bold, and brave, The Book of Joan manages to be both a rock opera in novel form and an intimate, personal depiction of a future in which a band of climate rebels fights against fascists who rain down destruction from orbit. Into this chaos comes the titular Joan to try and free Earth of its persecutors. Poetic and raw, The Book of Joan will live in your body and your mind.


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A beautiful mystery puzzle of a book that locks together at the end in a perfect, but not too perfect, way. Within the intricate structure, Arnott explores our relationship to animals and nature. Somehow he manages to give readers both the mythic and ethereal presence of the rain heron and also a gritty, often harrowing story of soldiers and civil unrest. A gift to the reader.


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Way off at the myths-and-legends end of the future lies the Bear, waiting for you. In a nameless era, humankind has fallen away and the nonhuman world has come back into focus. Against this backdrop, a girl and her father survive off the land and encounter, well, bears, among other creatures. The girl’s relationship with the bear and much else is gorgeously realized in this classic of love, loss, and renewal.


What books would you add to VanderMeer's list? Let us know in the comments.

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Comments Showing 1-34 of 34 (34 new)

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message 1: by Ursula (new)

Ursula Pflug Omar's is so good. Read it when we were on a jury together.


message 2: by Lorraine (new)

Lorraine Good to see a reading recommendations list that doesn't look like a best seller's list! The sad part is that almost none of these titles are at my local library.


message 3: by Isaac (new)

Isaac Mizrahi Ursula wrote: "Omar's is so good. Read it when we were on a jury together."

so he was found guilty of being good? of COURSE he was good, or you wouldn''t be mentioning it on ''good''reads...


message 4: by Bill (last edited Mar 16, 2021 06:46AM) (new)

Bill Angsten Notably absent is State of Fear. Where'd that one go?


message 5: by Robert (new)

Robert This list is missing both The Windup Girl and the classic The Sheep Look Up.


message 6: by Susanne (new)

Susanne Lorraine wrote: "Good to see a reading recommendations list that doesn't look like a best seller's list! The sad part is that almost none of these titles are at my local library."

Then it's time to start requesting a copies! Most libraries are responsive to reader demand, bless them.


message 7: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Kim Stanley Robinson's "Science In the Capital" trilogy ought to be on this list too! I have thought at least once a week for the past year that we are living out the events of the series right now.


Marc *Dark Reader of the Woods* Susanne wrote: "Lorraine wrote: "Good to see a reading recommendations list that doesn't look like a best seller's list! The sad part is that almost none of these titles are at my local library."

Then it's time t..."


Agree with Susanne. Your library acquisitions person(s) won't always know what patrons want if no one tells them.


message 9: by Renata (new)

Renata Lucia The New Wilderness by Diane Cook


message 10: by Anna (new)

Anna The setting of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities is the southeastern US, where the East and Gulf Coasts have been flooded, civil war prevails, and the dominant world power, China, has sent troops as peacekeepers. The title initials refer to a certain national capitol. It's a challenging, grim, scarily prescient YA novel, sequel to Ship Breaker.


message 11: by Ellen (last edited Mar 16, 2021 09:31AM) (new)

Ellen Robert wrote: "This list is missing both The Windup Girl and the classic The Sheep Look Up."
I have my Windup Girl book and The Water Knife proudly on my bookcase!


message 12: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Great list! I LOVED “The Bear.” One of my favorite reads of 2020!


message 13: by Jane (new)

Jane Thanks for a list that isn't the usual suspects, Jeff! And for reminding me it's time I read 'Bastards'.


message 14: by Robert (new)

Robert The Overstory, by Richard Powers, should have been listed with the "of course" titles, Station Eleven and Broken Earth.


message 15: by Robert (last edited Mar 16, 2021 02:31PM) (new)

Robert I'd recommend At Hawthorn Time. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2...


message 16: by Kimberly (new)

Kimberly Annihilation along with the Southern Reach trilogy was awful! I did not finish this series. Could not finish them. Was so hard to follow, was incredibly boring and did not enjoy any of the characters! I find it amusing that there is now a climate fiction genre. Authors and their incredible imaginations! Just remember these stories are fiction. We do not have a climate issue!


message 17: by Ralph Dave (new)

Ralph Dave Westfall Bill wrote: "Notably absent is State of Fear. Where'd that one go?"

Good catch! That book by Michael Crichton needs to be on everyone's list.


message 18: by James (new)

James Kimberly wrote: "Annihilation along with the Southern Reach trilogy was awful! I did not finish this series. Could not finish them. Was so hard to follow, was incredibly boring and did not enjoy any of the characte..."

Oh, wonderful, the numbnuts science deniers are on goodreads too.


message 19: by David (last edited Mar 16, 2021 05:37PM) (new)

David Although it isn't quite climate fiction in the sense of other books here, in other ways Waubgeshig Rice's gradually devastating "Moon of the Crusted Snow" is supremely a climate novel. The cause of the apocalypse that we learn is unfolding across the world remains vague, but the distant echos of that cataclysm as felt by a band of Indigenous people in the unforgiving arctic as their already tenuous connections to the power grid are cut off, are intent on how our relationship with the climate might evolve - or return to older ways - in the years ahead. A potent and unsetting story of our vulnerable role in the winds and weather.


message 20: by Debra (new)

Debra Moffatt The Overstory by Richard Powers is stunning.


message 21: by Gerhard (new)

Gerhard So glad for the shout-out for Theory of Bastards, an amazing book. This is a wonderfully eclectic list!


message 22: by Marta (new)

Marta The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson


message 23: by Corey (new)

Corey Great list. Anything Jeff Vandermeer suggests is an automatic must-read. I'd add:
Catherine Bush's Blaze Island. Less fantastical, but wonderful and gripping.
Scott Fotheringham's The Rest Is Silence. Concerns environmental destruction through man's meddling.
J.D. Ballard's The Drowned World. One of the first sci-fi/fantasy novels to deal with the topic on a serious, literary level.


message 24: by Anissa (new)

Anissa I see KSR's The Ministry for the Future has already been mentioned in the comments & I agree. I'd also add:

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower , Eric Barnes' Above the Ether (there's a prequel also but I have not yet read it), Laura Lams Goldilocks and Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (of Soylent Green fame).

I have American War, The Book of Joan & Theory of Bastards on my shelf so need to get to all sooner than later.


message 25: by BookOfCinz (new)

BookOfCinz A perfect one to add to this is DAYLIGHT COME by Diana McCaulay! Daylight Come


message 26: by Nadia (new)

Nadia Susanne wrote: "Lorraine wrote: "Good to see a reading recommendations list that doesn't look like a best seller's list! The sad part is that almost none of these titles are at my local library."

Then it's time t..."


I'm Canadian & I've always asked My Libraries to order books! They have a clear and concise online form that makes it effortless and I would say about 88-90% of the time they do order what I've asked for! And if they're not able to, they explain why and recommend Libraries outside of the area that I may be able to borrow from. I could not read as many books as I do every year without the Library!! I am incredibly Grateful for having this option<3


message 27: by TMR (new)

TMR Exciting list.


message 28: by Mimi Stevens (new)

Mimi Stevens Thanks to those who included Powers' The Overstory and Butler's Parable of the Sower. Also Station Eleven. Just wanted to strengthen the recommendations.


message 29: by Liza M. (new)

Liza M. Bouvet I love the fact that this list exists ! It's a very interesting topic in which I've been interested for a while. The first "climate fiction" I read was 'A Friend of the Earth' by T.C. Boyle that could probably fit nicely into this list


message 30: by Douglas (new)

Douglas Phillips Sad to see that much of sci-fi is still stuck in the dystopian rut - dark, haunting, apocalyptic, gritty, and often horrific. After a year of Covid? My psyche can't take such depressing fiction. I seek only the uplifting, humorous, or wondrous stories.


message 31: by Michael (new)

Michael Pitzen Douglas wrote: "Sad to see that much of sci-fi is still stuck in the dystopian rut - dark, haunting, apocalyptic, gritty, and often horrific. After a year of Covid? My psyche can't take such depressing fiction. I ..."

I'm with you on this, Douglas. If you haven't read Martha Wells Murderbot series you should. It's just good old fashioned well written sci-fi and it's fun. I see she has a sixth book in the series coming out in April.


message 32: by Ali (new)

Ali Nice list...I'd add Gold Fame Citrus


message 33: by Trisha (new)

Trisha Towanda Excited to give this list a try.

I would add, as others have also suggested, The Ministry for the Futureand The Overstory.

Overstory was stunningly written and Ministry for the Future stays with me, poking in the back of mind.


message 34: by Paul (new)

Paul Winston Nice list! I would add The Water Knife and various books already mentioned by Kim Stanley Robinson


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